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 a historic building in a commercial strip mall first built as a garage for buses?
Factor in runaway 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 a new two-story restaurant with a rooftop deck and basement wine cellar 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 Petrón tequila bottles backlit by blue neon. Look around the ladies' room at wallpaper 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.
Many of the original downtown Monkey 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)
At Calhoun's Sports Bar, owner Max Lawhon is turning a negative (trademark problems) into a positive (let's play the name game).
A few weeks ago, Lawhon learned that Calhoun's is also the name of a restaurant chain in East Tennessee and a legal challenge to his downtown neighborhood bar on G.E. Patterson, which opened on New Year's Eve.
"We're deciding on a course of action," Lawhon says, "but we're also trying to have a little fun and get our customers involved with finding a new name."
Already, several pages of suggestions scribbled in blue ink and purple Sharpie fill a clipboard left on Calhoun's bar.
"A lot of drunk people like to write stupid things," says bartender Lauren Williams, laughing. She points out "Shane's Bar," "Bob's Bar," and "Cal's Bar" (all regulars) and the lone literary standout, "Max's: Where the Wild Things Are."
"My favorite so far," Williams says, "is 'The Bar (formerly known as Calhoun's).'"
For his part, Lawhon still favors his original choice because Calhoun's is straightforward, friendly, and the original street name for G.E. Patterson.
"It took us forever to come up with a name," Lawhon recalls. "Finally, a marketing guy suggested Calhoun's, but he neglected to tell us it was trademarked."
Think you can do better than "Calhouna" or "Downtown Dugout"? Then stop by and give it a try. The bar is open seven days a week from 4:30 p.m. to 3 a.m., except on game days. "Then we open at 11 o'clock in the morning," Lawhon says.
Calhoun's (for now), 115 G.E. Patterson (528-8600)