Posted by: wrmcnutt | November 25, 2009

Restaurant Review – The S&W Grand Cafe – Knoxville, TN


Back in the 20’s Frank Odell Sherill brought his experience as a mess sergeant in World War I to the civilian world.  Initially a cafeteria at Ivey’s Department Store, what eventually became the S&W Cafeteria had at least five locations across the South.  The one in Knoxville opened in 1936 in the heart of what was then a vibrant downtown shopping district, and enjoyed a fifty-year run as one of the most popular eateries in Knoxville.  There was much wailing and gnashing of the teeth when the S&W closed some time around ’86, but the downtown shopping district that supported it was dead. All the shopping had moved to perimeter malls, so there was no foot traffic, and, after a couple of years of losing money, the owners pulled the plug.  The S&W remained empty for years and years as the city council tried one thing and then another to revitalize the downtown area.  Then one day the city decided on a large movie theater as a revitalization project, and the old S&W building was threatened.

You never heard such an uproar over a shuttered restaurant.  You’d have thought they had proposed tearing down Neyland Stadium.

Well, nothing motivates a politician like a threat to his phony-baloney job, so plans to tear down the S&W building were shelved, and the Riviera Theater was built a few doors down.  A couple of years later, some folks decided to resurrect the S&W building in a new format.  The new owners, no relation to the Frank Sherill company, have mostly restored the S&W’s Art Deco interior, and re-opened it as the “S&W Grand Cafe.” While fans of the old S&W will find that much that they remember is still there, there have been quite a few changes. No longer a cafeteria, the new S&W Grand is a sit-down, cloth-napkin restaurant with a roaring-20’s look and a 21st century feel.  The new restaurant also makes up for the teetotal experience it offered back in it’s first incarnation.  Now, instead of having no bar, it has two. Not all of the old S&W’s patrons are going to be comfortable with this.  But it works for me.  Some reviewers have also been savage about the menu. In certain quarters, what was wanted and anticipated was a re-opening of the old S&W Cafeteria.  What we got was a new restaurant decorated as an homage to the original S&W. And that was fine by me.

So, to work then.  I went to the new S&W Grand with my usual dining companion and another couple a couple of weeks after they opened.  We were pleased with the initial atmosphere and service as we were greeted at the door by the host and immediately seated.  A problem almost immediately ensued.  Apparently the architect assumed that all of the patrons of the S&W were going to weigh under 200 pounds, because F and I had a hard time squeezing into the booths.  I will grant that we are both men of some measure, but neither of us is that huge, and having the table not only touch my stomach but actually press into it significantly hurt my dining experience.  If you are a person of any size at all, be sure to request a table, rather than a booth.  Service was excellent, if a little disorganized.  Our waiter knew the menu, and was prompt and helpful on all occasions.

The menu is an eclectic mix of traditional southern dishes, continental cuisine, and New York-style steakhouse.  Also included were a couple of classics from the old S&W Cafeteria menu, including their legendary Liver and Onions.  Of course, everyone here knows that liver is not what food is, so there will be no review of that here.   A cheese man from way back, I opted for the Crudite and Cheese, a raw platter that varies seasonally, and it was a mistake on my part.  “Fresh” vegetables this time of year are going to have been on a boat for two weeks or grown in a Canadian hothouse.  So the veggies were a little bland.  The cheese, on the other hand was a good mix of hard, soft, bland and sharp cheeses, presented creatively.  My companion had the Beef Carpaccio, and pronounced it very good.  One of the folks at our table ordered the Fish n’ Chips.  It came out in a classic presentation, a newspaper cone, with remoulade sauce.  Not a fish guy, I can only go by the reactions of my fellow diners.  It was “okay.”

For the entree stage, I had the filet mignon, ordered medium-rare.  It came out closer to medium than medium-rare, but it was an excellent cut of meet and the tenderness did not suffer.  It was flavorful and had an almost peppery tone.  One of my companions ordered the Baked Spaghetti pie, and pronounced it “good.”  Another had the Crab Imperial and reported that it was “fine.”  The last one of us ordered the Creole Stuffed Shrimp.  Having been a native of Creole country, he should have known that this was a mistake.  I don’t order “southern fried chicken” north of the Mason-Dixon line, and you shouldn’t order anything labeled “Creole” outside of Creole country.  He reported the shrimp was over-cooked, the stuffing was under done, and there was no sign of trinity anywhere in the dish.  I mean, how can you call anything “Creole” that doesn’t have trinity in it?

So, to sum up.  The cuisine was not what we had hoped, and the service wasn’t ideal.  But the staff was responsive, flexible, and open to suggestions for improvement.  Critically, they had barely been open three weeks.  I anticipate that once they staff get their feet under them, things will improve substantially. I will be returning soon to see if that’s the case.

For service, I give the S&W Grand Cafe three pints.

For atmosphere, I give the S&W Grand Cafe two and a half pints.

For Cuisine, I give the S&W Grand Cafe two pints.

That gives the S&W Grand Cafe a score of two and a half pints, providing an average dining experience on the scale we rate things around here.

Cost wise, I rate the menu at the S&W Grand at: $$$

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