City Beat: Choo Choo makeover could be huge for city

City Beat: Choo Choo makeover could be huge for city

July 31st, 2014 by Barry Courter in Chattnow Outabout

A drawing of what the Chattanooga Choo Choo is proposing with its restoration project.

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

Wow. Didn't see that one coming, though in hindsight, there were some clues that something big was brewing.

Still, Jon Kinsey's announcement Monday that the Chattanooga Choo Choo would be undergoing major renovations, with the addition of two new restaurants, a made-over 14th Street entrance and the relocation of The Comedy Catch, was surprising and welcomed. It will transform that part of town.

I talked to Comedy Catch owner Michael Alfano minutes after the announcement, and he was as excited as I've ever seen. It will be sad to see the club leave my neighborhood, but it's understandable.

Alfano said the idea arose during a visit with Kinsey to discuss how the then-proposed sprinkler system ordinance might cripple Alfano. As they toured the Choo Choo grounds, Alfano commented on how cool it might be to better utilize the 14th Street area, creating a vibe like Nashville's Printers Alley.

Some months later, Kinsey called to make a proposal. It was the proverbial too-good-to-pass-up idea.

"I wasn't going to leave Brainerd," Alfano says. "I was going to stick it out till we either went out of business or I retired."

The sad news in this is that The Station House and The Gardens restaurants will go away. The Station House and its singing waiters have been a part of the Choo Choo and the Chattanooga music scene since B. Allen Casey opened the complex in 1973. Dozens of talented artists, including James Rogers and Landis Batts, sang there.

Apparently, Kinsey wants out of managing restaurants and wants others, like Alfano and the managers of the coming Sam's All American Sports Bar and Grill and the Blue Fish Oyster Bar, to do what they do.

Alfano owns the two buildings that house Giggles Grill and The Comedy Catch and wants to find something to put in them. He doesn't plan to abandon them.

For now, he's refocused on making The Comedy Catch something huge. It will share a common entrance, which will be a new Choo Choo entrance, with a 500-seat music venue that Adam and Monica Kinsey (Jon's son and daughter-in-law) will manage as they already do Track 29, the 1,800-seat venue already on the campus.

"I'm recharging myself and buckling down and getting down to work," Alfano says. "This is like starting over. I'd like it to be a legacy I can leave to [son] Evan.

"This is going to be the heart of one really cool hotel/entertainment complex."

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6354.