30 years ago, Chattanooga had very few dining choices

30 years ago, Chattanooga had very few dining choices

April 24th, 2011 by Anne Braly in Local Regional News

Sara Keith scoots a chair under a table in the front section of Alleia, an upscale Italian restaurant at 25 E. Main St. (Staff File Photo by John Rawlston)

It's hard to picture the Scenic City with just a handful of restaurants, but any Chattanoogan over age 40 has witnessed a remarkable transformation of the dining-out scene.

Picture your part of town 30 years ago with nothing more than a Krystal, a McDonald's and maybe a pizzeria. The whole Hamilton Place universe of restaurants didn't even exist.

Now, fast-forward 30 years, and the picture is much different.

Jeff Messinger, owner of Mount Vernon Restaurant on South Broad Street and former president of the Tennessee Restaurant Association, said the dining-out trend has fueled an explosion in restaurants.

"Years ago, our mothers cooked more," he said.

From Chattanooga's Southside to its North Shore and beyond, there's now a taste for every palate.

Below are some of the restaurant industry trends that have taken root in the last three decades in the Chattanooga area.

Downtown dining

The resurrection of Main Street during the last decade has brought about a remarkable re-emergence of folks coming for new dining experiences. Blue Orleans Seafood Restaurant offers authentic flavors from the Crescent City, while folks dancing to the beat of the Bluegrass Grill delight in made-from-scratch breakfast served through the lunch hour. It's hard to imagine the Southside without its ever-

popular Southside Grill; but 30 years ago, folks thought twice about making their way to the then-troubled neighborhood.

The Southside now supports one of the most popular restaurant clusters in the city.

Northward, the Tennessee Aquarium opened up a dying riverfront area in the early 1990s, and with it has come a gold rush of restaurants. 212 Market was first on the scene, but the boom continues into the 21st century.

International flair

Thirty years ago, when Chattanoogans wanted a dining experience that went beyond the beloved down-home meat-and-three, they would pack the lines at Taco Bell. Taco and burrito were about the only Mexican words many of us knew.

Now, papusa and chimichurri are as common to us as enchilada and chimichanga. Among the restaurants offering a taste beyond traditional Mexican are Main Street's Taco Roc and the North Shore's Taco Mamacita.

Thirty years ago, there was once just one Chinese restaurant in Chattanooga. It was on 10th Street and was not much bigger than a closet. Now, Asian fare has become mainstream. Thai eateries, such as Rain and Sweet Basil, continue to offer dynamic tastes. Most offer sushi as well.

Get it to go

When Carrabba's Italian Grill opened at Hamilton Place in May 2003, it offered curbside takeout service. Now, almost every upscale chain eatery in the area - such as Olive Garden, Outback and Macaroni Grill - does the same. Call ahead, place your order, and a waiter will bring it to your car, take your money and return with your food and receipt.

Meanwhile, if you want dinner in a dash that appears to be homemade, just drive up to Casa-Rolls and place your order at the window. In seconds, a made-from-scratch poppy-seed chicken casserole or lasagna - only two of dozens of choices - will be delivered. Casa-Rolls started out with one location on Jenkins Road in East Brainerd five years ago. Since then, Katie and Greg Grant's casserole empire has expanded to include a Hixson location.

Recycled locations

What's old is new again. In the past couple of decades, many of Chattanooga's older buildings have reopened their doors as new restaurants. Urban Stack is one of the most exciting new restaurants in downtown's oldest standing building, the old Southern Railway Freight Depot Building. The dynamic is the same as it is in many of these historic structures: handsome, ancient brick; gleaming restored wood; antique fixtures.

Also of note:

* Alleia on Main Street. Check out the huge front door made of reclaimed wood found on the premises.

* Boccaccia in the old Southern Saddlery Building on Broad Street. Authentic Italian in the glow of Chattanooga history.

* Terminal Brewhouse on Market Street. Located in the old Terminal Hotel, this restaurant/brewery serves up burgers, beer and fun.

* All the restaurants in the Bluff View Art District: Rembrandt's, Tony's and Back Inn Café. They're all located in refurbished homes along Tennessee River's scenic bluff, just minutes away from downtown life. And all are new to any of us over age 30.