Restaurant Impossible

Troubled Beale Street Landing loses its restaurant operator.

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Somebody call Robert Irvine, the no-nonsense star of the Food Network's Restaurant Impossible. Have we got a challenge for him.

Beale Street Landing needs help. Our $40-plus million riverfront gathering spot of the future lost its restaurant deal last week, days after the tables and chairs and bar were installed. Beale & Second Inc., with partners Bud Chittom, Kevin Kane, and Charlie Ryan — who have about 100 years experience in the Memphis restaurant and entertainment business between them — bailed out. These guys know something.

RDC director Benny Lendermon notified board members that Beale & Second Inc. "is no longer interested in pursuing the lease of the restaurant space at Beale Street Landing. Based on this discovery, Beale & Second Inc. should cease and desist all actives [sic] on the Beale Street Landing premises other than specific catering services that RDC may contract with you to perform."

Turn in your keys. Get your equipment out of there. Copy to the lawyers.

The Big Three were the only ones to respond to an RDC request for restaurant proposals.

Who says that if you build it, they will come? If you build it, they might not even open it.

I would resubscribe to my ripoff cable package to see Irvine's reaction to this. Usually, he takes on a struggling mom-and-pop restaurant in a hardscrabble location with operators mortgaged to the hilt and out of energy and fresh ideas. He did a show last year at Pollard's Bar BQ on Elvis Presley Boulevard in Whitehaven.

Beale Street Landing is located where a world-famous street meets a world-famous river. It has gorgeous views and a steady stream of tourists. It has millions of dollars of infrastructure in, over, and around it designed by an architectural firm that won a competition. When the RDC needs more money, it simply blames circumstances beyond its control and asks the city council to write another check.

But as Irvine would quickly see, that is not all. When the RDC has a bad idea, it compounds it with another bad idea, like that giant Rubik's cube on top of the hill. The muscular Irvine would probably instantly demolish it with a sledgehammer. The matching color scheme inside would give any decorator ulcers. Beale Street Landing shares Tom Lee Park and Riverside Drive for part of the year with Memphis In May. And then there is the parking, or the lack of it.

Ryan, who helped develop the entertainment district in Cooper-Young in Midtown, said there were many "challenges, the main one being parking." Chittom declined to comment. Kane, who is head of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, did not return calls.

"The deal is off," Ryan said, declining to go into specifics.

Jim Holt, executive director of Memphis In May, said the festival could have co-existed with a restaurant inside Beale Street Landing, which he noted was part of the original plan several years ago.

"We had worked out a plan," he said.

It isn't like there were no precedents for do's and don'ts of riverside restaurants in city parks. Mud Island River Park opened some 31 years ago with two full-service restaurants, one of them boasting linen tablecloths and the best views on the lower Mississippi. When they failed, "bad access" got the blame, even after the bridge from Front Street to Mud Island was opened and there was an acre of parking.

Isolation was more to the point. Tom Lee Park isn't an island, but it is separated from downtown by Riverside Drive and lacks sufficient parking in Ryan's view. And that was before a recent proposal from a consultant who recommended doing away with parking lots in the park and allowing parallel parking on Riverside Drive instead.

The most likely future for the indoor space at Beale Street Landing is joining the growing list of fancy places that can be rented for parties, weddings, and other special events. This is a far cry from the bring-Memphis-together gathering spot envisioned in the original plan. It also fails to meet the simple need for a place to escape the summer heat and get a sandwich, a cold drink, and a bathroom. Correction, there are a couple of bathrooms. We will see how long they stay open.

Sadly, food trucks and bottled-water vendors could have met this need for a fraction of the cost. Instead, we have a restaurant that never opened and a kitchen about to be stripped. Robert Irvine, where are you?

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