The 90-year legacy of Regas touches on many fronts

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:

  1. How good is the football team going to be?
  2. I remember Knoxville because I celebrated (pick one) an engagement, anniversary or graduation at Regas restaurant.
Hazel Schmid dances with Bill Regas at restaurant's 90-year celebration

Hazel Schmid dances with Bill Regas at restaurant's 90-year celebration

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.

Former busboy Bob Booker and an ad from 1932

Former busboy Bob Booker and an ad from 1932

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?

Bill Regas, Sheila Gordon and Mike Connor at Regas party

Bill Regas, Sheila Gordon and Mike Connor at Regas party

Filed under: Downtown, Historic preservation, Knoxville, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The 90-year legacy of Regas touches on many fronts

  1. Jennifer Burke, on July 9th, 2009 at 9:54 am said:

    At the age of nine, I walked into Regas one Christmas season and had my first fancy meal. Shrimp cocktail followed by a child’s size portion of prime rib. And, a linen napkin to top it all off! I still smile when I think about getting dressed up in my patent leather shoes that winter long ago. Regas made me feel like I was dining in NYC at Tavern on the Green. I have since been to Tavern and can say that Regas is in the same league. It’s the epitome of fine dining.

  2. Dawn Ford, on July 9th, 2009 at 10:45 am said:

    What a nice article about a Knoxville landmark. I can’t even count the special times we’ve spent at Regas from our son’s high school graduation dinner to a retirement lunch for Georgiana Vines. Hope it’s still here when grandchildren are old enough for special celebrations.

  3. Evelyn Miller, on July 9th, 2009 at 1:45 pm said:

    I think that I have celebrated every possible celebration you can imagine at Regas Restaurant, from a quite romantic dinner with my husband for our anniversary to the graduation of our daughter from U.T. Yes I have celebrated many events there. Although, my most vivid memory is that I was having lunch there the day President John F. Kennedy was shot. It was if time stopped for a moment. A happier memory, however, is that my dear sweet husband built the beautiful oak bar many many years ago and the wood is just as pretty today as it was the day he finished it. Happy Birthday Regas!
    Evelyn Miller

  4. Bill Pryor, on July 9th, 2009 at 5:54 pm said:

    Regas’s reputation for a high quality menu and impeccable service has always been a great drawing card. But my memories of Regas Restaurant might be a little different from that of most Knoxville residents. I recall it as a place where my friends and I frequently gathered late on Saturday nights. We would drive to Gay Street about 10 p.m., find a news boy – usually in front of the Farragut Hotel – and buy the Sunday editions of both local papers, the News Sentinel and Knoxville Journal. With papers in hand, we would head for Regas.

    It’s hard for me to imagine now but, at that hour, we would order spaghetti and meatballs or some other filling item from the menu and eat heartily while digesting the sports page accounts of the UT football game which had taken place that afternoon. I feel sure we were sometimes there past closing time, but we were never given that impression by anyone there. I will always have fond memories of the camaraderie we experienced in those carefree days and how much the receptive atmosphere at Regas contributed to those happy times.

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