As Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam stumps across the state on his campaign to be the next Tennessee governor, he says there are two things people say to him all the time:
- How good is the football team going to be?
- I remember Knoxville because I celebrated (pick one) an engagement, anniversary or graduation at Regas restaurant.
It’s easy to understand why he so often hears this about Regas. It is the oldest restaurant in the state – so a lot of people have been there. On Tuesday, July 7, Regas turned 90 years old. Mayor Haslam was one of scores of well-wishers on hand to have a free piece of red velvet cake in honor of the occasion.
Bill Regas, who in 1953 took over running the restaurant that was founded by his Greek immigrant father and uncle, told the assembled crowd that many restaurant people – and other notables – have learned their work ethic at Regas. The Grady’s chain was a spin-off of Regas, and the founders of P.F. Chang’s, Aubrey’s and the Connor Concepts restaurants (Chop House and Connor’s) all cut their teeth at either Regas or Grady’s.
Oh, and one other well-known restaurateur came through there. Regas recalls how he and Dave Thomas, who later went on to start the Wendy’s chain – each used to line up five full dinner plates along their arms and compete to see who was the better server at Regas. “I really was the better server,” Regas laughs today. “But Dave was smarter. He ended up with 6,000 restaurants.”
Also on hand Tuesday was Knoxville City Councilman and beloved local historian Robert Booker, who worked at Regas as a busboy 59 years ago when he was a sophomore at Austin High School. Booker brought along a copy of a newspaper ad from the Sept. 11, 1932 edition of the old Knoxville Journal. The ad listed lunch prices at Regas as 25 and 35 cents and dinner prices as 25, 40 and 50 cents.
As for Regas today, Bill Regas pointed out recent changes made to The Gathering Place lounge. With the installation of flat screen TVs, wi-fi service, an ever-changing art gallery and generous “sharing plates” created by Chef Jeff Roberts, Regas now offers a casual alternative to its traditional white tablecloth dining rooms. Also new: live music in The Gathering Place on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings. “We are trying not to change what originally brought you here,” Regas told his friends. “But these are more casual times and The Gathering Place will be a more casual restaurant.”
Sheila Gordon and the Downtowners performed Tuesday and they are among the regularly scheduled entertainers. She mentioned that she played the baby grand piano during happy hours in the lounge back in 1980. “The music is Regas’ legacy for me,” she noted. Then the band played “Swannee,” a song first released in 1919, the year Regas was founded.
Others on hand Tuesday: Brothers Mike and Bo Connor and Kevin Thompson of Connor Concepts, which took over operation of Regas in 2001; hostess Hazel Schmid, who will celebrate 55 years with Regas next month; Bill Regas’ sister, Frankie Gunnels, and Bill’s children Grady Regas, Carol Acker and Sharon Scott; County Commissioners Bud Armstrong, Tank Strickland, Michele Carringer, R. Larry Smith and Dave Wright; Property Assessor Phil Ballard and his wife, Cindy, who were celebrating their 32nd anniversary at Regas Tuesday night; John and Charlotte Mills; Gay and Bill Lyons; Bob Whetsel; Bob and Marie Alcorn; Janet Testerman; Bart Mitchell; Janet Testerman Crossley; Muffet Buckner; Ben Testerman; Jennifer Holder; Kim Henry; Kim and Mike Arms, who delivered a proclamation on behalf of Mayor Mike Ragsdale; Amanda Shell and many others. John Duncan III stopped by for some chicken fingers. He should be particularly grateful for Regas restaurant: his father, Congressman John J. Duncan, Jr., met his mother, Lynn, there when she was a waitress and he was a customer.
Do you have a favorite Regas memory?