Restaurateur Allen Corey raised Chattanooga's cocktail consciousness two years ago when he opened a new eatery at the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel called Stir.
Its bar boasts more than 350 brands of liquor, and its cocktails — made with hand-cut, "artisanal" ice cubes — cost around $12.
Corey plans to open another restaurant in late 2018 at the Choo Choo Hotel — but he's not saying what kind.
"We are deep in the concept development stage, and we don't know, yet," said Corey, the former CEO of Craftworks Restaurants and Breweries, a multi-brand chain some 200 restaurants. "You can count on the fact that it'll be fun."
It'll be a different kind of fun than the Choo Choo Hotel used to offer, before an $8 million transformation began in 2014 at the roughly 24-acre former Terminal Station, which was Chattanooga's largest train station when it opened in 1909.
The Choo Choo keeps getting more sophisticated.
What's slated next for the Choo Choo Hotel complex:
› Hennen/Stickley Restaurant – More than 5,600 of interior square footage and up to 4,000 square feet of patio space facing Market Street, the CARTA Parking Garage and the Glenn Miller Gardens.
› Restaurant by Allen Corey of Square One – Up to 6,000 square feet of interior space to serve as the east anchor of Station Street.
› New Distillery – A new distillery that makes vodka, gin, rum and whiskey, led by industry veteran William Lee, will occupy 1,835 square feet off the historic dome lobby. An additional 370 square feet of patio space will face Glenn Miller Gardens and the iconic Chattanooga Choo Choo Locomotive.
› Land for Future Development – The Choo Choo will make available up to 2 acres of land, adjacent to the CARTA Parking Garage for prime redevelopment for future office, hotel or mixed-use.
› Retail – The addition of 4,600 square feet of retail space. This opportunity has options to adjoin the dome lobby or face the activity of the Glenn Miller Gardens.
› Refinery423 Mercantile – The Choo Choo’s first train car retail tenant, a men’s boutique called Refinery423 Mercantile, will relocate to 916 square feet of the new retail space and have storefronts facing both the lobby and Glenn Miller Gardens.
› American Draft – Located directly behind the iconic Chattanooga Choo Choo Locomotive, the American Car is being transformed in to American Draft.
Along with Corey's new restaurant, other new businesses slated to move in include a vodka, rum, whiskey and gin distillery, a yet-to-be-determined restaurant concept by Chattanooga restaurant veterans Tim Hennen and Rob Stickley, and American Draft, a high-tech, pour-your-own, 29-tap beer hall housed in an historic train car.
The new businesses come on the heels of other new ventures that opened over the past two years: Stir and another trendy restaurant, Frothy Monkey, as well as the Comedy Catch comedy club, Songbirds guitar museum, Hush Lounge and the Revelry Room music club.
Gone are such longtime attractions as the Choo Choo's model train exhibit, the pizza restaurant in a dining car and the Station House Restaurant, where waiters and waitresses sang.
"People's tastes change," said Adam Kinsey, president of the Choo Choo's parent company, Choo Choo Partners LP. "Singing waiters and waitresses 20 years ago went over well. Now, people are looking for a different experience."
Local and "authentic" are what's in now, he said.
"If you look at what's closed, a lot of it's chain restaurants," Kinsey said. "That's why we feel a good tenant mix was so important. People are looking for a more local, authentic experience."
Open alcohol OK on street
The demand for restaurants hasn't reached the saturation point in Chattanooga, said Hennen, who's got more than 40 years' restaurant experience in Chattanooga including at Bone's Smokehouse, Greyfriar's Coffee & Tea Co. and Hennen's, an upscale downtown eatery.
"Hennen's this year will have its best year ever," he said, adding that new restaurants can succeed, "if they're the right concept and have the right management."
The Choo Choo has evolved in other ways.
When it first opened as a hotel in the early 1970s, it was a self-contained venue that guests didn't need to leave. Back then, the Southside neighborhood was run-down and had the reputation for being dangerous.
Now, the Southside is booming with new development, housing and restaurants — so the Choo Choo has opened up its campus.
Five new venues at the Choo Choo opened along Station Street, where open containers of alcohol became legal Tuesday under a City Council vote.
That makes Station Street the third street in Tennessee where that's legal — along with Beale Street in Memphis and a stretch of street in downtown Nashville near the Country Music Hall of Fame.
New apartments have opened at the Choo Choo, and more are in the works.
The Passenger Flats, which were completed in 2015, took the Choo Choo from 363 hotel rooms across the campus in 2014 to 120 now.
"Three hundred and sixty hotel rooms on 24 acres didn't make sense," Adam Kinsey said.
Meanwhile, a new apartment complex is under construction. A Birmingham, Ala. company paid the investors who own the Choo Choo $5.25 million for seven acres — formerly where the now-demolished Track 29 concert venue stood — to make way for Bluebird Row, an upscale, four-story, 283-unit apartment building.
Banquet hall to close
And changes will keep coming at the Choo Choo.
The banquet hall will close at year's end (which means a number of weddings planned after Jan. 1 will have to find a new venue) because the Choo Choo wants to sell the 2 acres of land on which the banquet hall stands for future development, such as office, hotel or mixed-use.
Two acres downtown next to a parking garage is a desirable piece of property, said developer and former Chattanooga Mayor Jon Kinsey, who was one of the investors who purchased the Choo Choo in 1989, after the previous owner went bankrupt.
"This wouldn't have happened without Adam," Jon Kinsey said of his son, the Choo Choo's president. "It was his vision."
The Choo Choo opened its first historic rail car last year to an outside business, a men's boutique called Refinery423 Mercantile that sells a "curated" selection of such items as beard wax, cologne and T-shirts.
The hotel is open to the idea of moving other new businesses into the train cars. For example, a local art collective, Flaming Monkey Flying Circus, proposed creating an interactive art experience in one or two train cars.
While much has changed at the Choo Choo, and more changes are in the works, the hotel won't do away with guest rooms inside the historic train cars.
"We'll always have hotel rooms in the cars," Jon Kinsey said.
Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.facebook.com/MeetsForBusiness or on Twitter @meetforbusiness or 423-757-6651.