COWAN, Tenn. - Seventy minutes from downtown Chattanooga, just a short drive over Monteagle Mountain, lies Cowan, a town hoping to capitalize on its charm.
"We're a historic railroad and industrial community that has a feeling it belongs in another time," said Jarod Pearson, secretary of Cowan Commercial Club, a civic promotion organization. "That's what people tell us they want to experience: a small town that feels like it's been stuck in time. People are fascinated by Cowan."
Pearson said town leaders "have a good stronghold in the dining and hospitality area," and they continue to develop the retail base. The dining options offer a diversity that some might find surprising in a town of fewer than 2,000 residents.
"We are carving our niche as a small-town dining destination," Pearson said. "We have Greek, Italian, Mexican, an English tearoom and a hometown cafe all within walking distance of each other. And you get a good connection to the town when you eat here because Cowan has a character all its own."
Two long-standing restaurants are prime examples of the diversity of tastes. At Sernicola's, you'll step into the flavors of Old World Italy. The inside is modeled after a restaurant in Naples that is essentially a courtyard cafe between two historic apartment buildings, according to the owners. Nearby, Corner House Cafe, a favorite lunch spot, serves up Southern specialties inside an old, white, frame home.
Cowan's block-long row of restaurants also includes three places that have opened in the past year.
Owner Gonzalo Grez works from a foundation of freshness, evident in his description of his parents' home in Central Mexico.
"My father has avocado trees filling his yard," he said. "Everyone has guacamole on their tables every day."
Each of his two chefs has 15 years' experience. Everything is made from scratch.
"We cut our own meat, marinate and tenderize it," he said. "We're cooking all day."
This is Grez's first restaurant, though he's worked in the industry for more than 20 years. He and manager Jose Barzola opened the restaurant in July.
"We looked everywhere to find the right place for a restaurant, and Cowan was the perfect fit," Barzola said. "The people are very nice, and having the [University of the South at Sewanee] on the mountain - it's just a good location for us."
Fiesta Grill has the traditional offerings, such as chimichangas, burritos, tacos and fajitas. What sets it apart is the quality of the food and the decor of the restaurant, Barzola added.
The restaurant is housed in a historic building overlooking the old train depot and surrounding park, a focal point for Cowan visitors.
SECOND AVENUE CAFE
John Gegumis opened Second Avenue Cafe in June 2009, continuing a tradition of family restaurateurs from the Corinthian region of Greece, where he still maintains a home.
Gegumis owned a restaurant in Memphis, O'Kypos, but moved to Cowan to be closer to his daughter in Estill Springs, Tenn.
Many menu items are created from recipes that go back 300 years, he said. Bread is made fresh every day, baklava a couple of times a week.
The lamb and prime rib used for gyros are roasted in-house. Seafood is delivered fresh twice a week for dishes such as almond-crusted baked tilapia and seafood fettuccine.
"Everything is made from scratch," Gegumis said.
Tom Wagner found his way to Cowan via Sacramento, Calif., based in large part on Cowan's hospitality.
"I worked in the restaurant business for 50 years and had an idea of opening a breakfast-only restaurant after I retired," he said.
He had narrowed his list of destinations in the Volunteer State to five possibilities, then called five real-estate agents.
"The nicest, most friendly Realtor was from Cowan, so I packed everything up and moved here," he said.
He opened his new restaurant, then called Breakfast in Cowan, in February, serving home-baked breads, made-from-scratch pancakes, waffles, eggs, bacon and sausage. He roasts his own coffee.
Before long, customers began asking for sandwiches around the noon hour.
"So we started making them using what we had on hand - egg sandwiches, BLTs. Just what we already had," Wagner said.
With his burgeoning lunch crowd, it made sense to change the name back to its original, Cowan Cafe.
With that decision made, he added homemade soups and fully loaded chili to the menu.
"The first time we served our chicken noodle, we ran out instantly," Wagner said.
The restaurant also is home to the only authentic ice cream parlor in town, serving nine Blue Bell flavors in sundaes, banana splits, malts, shakes and cones.