Food & Drink » Food & Wine

Blue Monkey Downtown Open: What Took So Long?

If you're wondering why it took so long to reopen the downtown Blue Monkey after it burned down in 2005, consider this: How would you recreate the charm and character of an historic building in a commercial strip mall first built as a garage for buses?

Factor in run-away construction costs and do-it-yourself remodeling, and you'll understand why Mike Johnson talks about his newest restaurant with gratitude and a touch of disbelief.

"My head's spinning a little," he says after the restaurant's first week. "It's taken us two-and-a-half years because we didn't want to slap something together. We think it was worth the wait."

Originally, Johnson and partners Butch Jordan, Glenn Delashmit, and George Bogy planned to build new two-story restaurant with a rooftop deck at the original site at the corner of South Front Street and G.E. Patterson. Instead, they decided to renovate the building next door when Alice's Urban Market and Blue Sky Couriers didn't renew their leases.

Under the direction of designer Joe Hornych, a key player since the first Blue Monkey opened in Midtown in 1999, the newest Monkey evolved into a comfortable but more refined version of the original. Still dominant are a trolley theme (the gold and red exterior paint, for instance, duplicates the city's trolley-car colors) and a creative use of recycled materials.

Glance up and notice the wall of Petron tequila bottles backlit by blue neon. Look around the ladies room at wall paper and wainscot made from wine labels and wine crates. And then, of course, there are the bottle corks, richly stained by Cabernets or Merlots and fashioned into murals, wall trim, and a back bar the size and shape of a Memphis trolley.

Johnson figures the bar includes at least 10,000 corks donated by friends, family, and area restaurants such as McEwen’s on Monroe, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, and Encore. "We like the feel of cork," he says, "and we don't like throwing anything away."

While the new Blue Monkey is larger, seating 120 people, the menu is almost unchanged and still caters to a busy, plate-lunch crowd: one meat, two veggies, and tea for $8.50.

Many of the original downtown Monkey's employees are back, as well, including the entire bar staff. "We are an example of what can happen when a lot of great people come together," Johnson says. "We've had customers return bricks from the burned building that they picked up as souvenirs. It’s been amazing."

What hasn't shown up yet is the restaurant's antique trolley bell, stolen after the fire along with a few cases of whiskey. "I know that bell is hanging in somebody’s loft," Hornych says, with a smile "I'm hoping that one day when they're in here drinking, they’ll feel guilty and bring it back."

The Blue Monkey, 529 S. Front, 527-6665

by Pamela Denney

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