After closing for renovations for a week after New Year’s and limping along without bar service for a couple more weeks, the Bistro at the Bijou is back in full swing and better than ever.
Martha Boggs, who has been general manager of the Bistro for 17 years, purchased the restaurant from absentee owners who have held it for the past 10 years. The new menus proudly now proclaim it “a chef-owned restaurant,” a reference to Boggs herself who designs the dishes served and is personally in charge of kitchen operations.
Yesterday she got the great news that her liquor license finally was approved and she served the first mixed drinks and wine in almost a month. (State law requires a business to get a new liquor license when it changes hands.)
“They made me bring in the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West,” Boggs joked, referring to the long and cumbersome process of acquiring the license.
The Bistro, one of my favorite restaurants for lunch, happy hour, dinner and music, is an institution. Housed in the fourth oldest building in Knoxville, the Bistro is quaint and charming, featuring exposed brick walls and a giant painting of a nude woman known as “Miss Lil.” The painting was purchased in Philadelphia in 1982 by the late Knoxville developer Kristopher Kendrick who opened the Bistro in that year for the World’s Fair. Boggs says the painter is James Patten, but nothing specific is known about him.
Boggs takes in stride the fact that the Bistro (as well as the Bijou Theatre) is haunted. For two days in a row during the renovations earlier this month, Boggs caught sight of a man walking up the steps in the back of the restaurant towards her office. She went to see who it was and no one was there. Also during this period she discovered her computer turned off when she had left it on and she could physically put her hand into a cool spot in the room. “I’m not afraid,” she said. “I wish whoever it is would talk to me.”
Another interesting discovery during the renovations was a painting on fragile fabric rolled up in the attic where heating and air conditioning work was being done. Boggs unrolled it to reveal a medieval scene of a drunken nobleman being poured a goblet of wine by a tavern girl. There is no signature on this painting, which Boggs intends to have cleaned, mounted and framed.
The Bistro is charming in other ways, too. The clientele is diverse and interesting. The regular lunch crowd — and it is always crowded at lunch — consists of nearby office and courthouse workers. Happy hour sees mostly lawyers and stockbrokers. The dinner customers are largely determined by the kind of musical guests performing at the Bijou and Tennessee Theatres. They range from the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra and Knoxville Opera to country, rock, jazz and Americana musicians. “The Bistro is expected to be all things to everybody who attends these diverse shows,” Boggs said. “And I think everybody is going to find something they like on the menu.” Her secret, she said, is fresh good ingredients and simple recipes. “I keep updating,” she said. “I don’t like getting in a rut.”
Although the Bistro has an extensive (by Knoxville standards) vegetarian menu, by far the most popular menu item is the Bistro Burger. The secret to that delicious sandwich, Boggs said: Worchestershire sauce. The Bistro features specials written on blackboards for every meal. “I try to keep it interesting for the regulars — and for myself,” Boggs said. The Bistro has long been open for brunch on Saturdays and recently started offering Sunday brunch. “There’s just so much going on downtown on Sunday, I had to open,” Boggs said. Now Sunday brunch business has overtaken Saturday.
Over the past three years, the Bistro has become a popular venue for local musicians seeking exposure. Live music is offered Wednesday throught Saturday nights. Wednesday is always jazz. Thursday is singer-songwriters. “It’s always accoustic and it’s always original music,” Boggs said. “I don’t like cover bands.”
Boggs, a native of Ducktown, Tenn., got into the restaurant business as a means of working her way through the University of Tennessee. She was manager of the Old College Inn prior to assuming the managerial reins of the Bistro in 1993. “I always liked working in restaurants,” she said. “I’m a country girl who started cooking in the fifth grade.”
Boggs now lives in Holston Hills with her husband and five dogs. They have a large garden which, in the summer, provides two-thirds of the Bistro’s produce and all its herbs. She is a generous neighbor and friendly rival. “I don’t look at other businesses as competitors,” she said. “I’ve always believed in the synergistic effect: that a good mix of restaurants will benefit everyone. When there’s a big event downtown, there’s more than enough for everybody.” Last summer when she harvested an overabundance of eggplants, she walked down the street and gave them to Dazzo’s, a nearby Italian restaurant. “I didn’t want them to go to waste and they were able to use them,” she said.
The future of the Bistro is promising because they have entered into a long-term lease with the non-profit organization that owns the building housing the Bijou and the restaurant. She has a five-year lease with two additional five-year options. This stability has allowed Boggs to make investments in the building itself, shoring up infrastructure, updating the kitchen, replacing the heating and air conditioning and buying all new chairs and a new cooler. The previous owners were operating without a lease causing them to be reluctant to put money in the building for fear of being kicked out without recouping their investment.
Boggs says future plans include remodeling the restrooms and updating the bar and service areas.
“I think I’ve got 15 more years left,” she said with a laugh.