Have you noticed the fuss outside the Hilton? The courtyard which for years has been more or less unattended is suddenly much more attractive, with interesting heavy-duty latticework looming above the space. Stadium-style seating built with cedar, a fire pit, pretty landscaping, a granite bar with out-door taps, a scored-surface and a fire-pit make the space pretty spectacular. I had to stop in to ask what was up. It turns out, it’s all about the Marble City Kitchen and The Firefly.
I met with Jessica Moreno, food and beverage director for the hotel and Katie Simmons, the assistant director. It seems that what we’d been told a bit over a year ago is coming to fruition. A year ago July the Buccini/Pollin group purchased the hotel for a bit over $25 million and they promised at that time to spend $2 million in improvements.
Some of the changes are obvious even to passersby. You may notice, for example, it is no longer orange – it was painted a more muted light gray. You may wonder, as I did, why they didn’t also paint the garage. It turns out they don’t own the garage. Strange. If you’ve passed through the lobby, you may have noticed the Starbucks has been upgraded significantly and is now about twice as large as it was previously.
Those of us who live downtown might never otherwise know, but they’ve spent a large amount of money internally on new carpet, sleeper sofas in the suites, new vinyl on the walls and more. They’ve improved the amenities and now have an executive level on the sixteenth floor, with refrigerator, microwave and more.
The changes go much deeper, however. The restaurant (formerly known as the Market Cafe) and the bar (formerly known as the Orange Martini) will merge to form the Marble City Kitchen. The small courtyard has been transformed into a beer garden and it is part of the restaurant referred to as The Firefly at the Marble City Kitchen. A new greeting station has been added just inside the entrance off Walnut and from there patrons may be seated at the inside bar or restaurant or the outdoor Firefly. The full menu will be available throughout all spaces.
The firefly will have a wider range of seating, with chairs and tables, stadium seating, seating around the fire pit and standing granite tables surrounding the large columns holding up the new outdoor trellis. The Firefly will showcase local and regional beers as well as Tennessee Whiskey. To mark the occasion, a new list of craft cocktails has been developed. I sampled (for journalistic purposes only – I love you guys) a Knoxvillian (Dickel Rye, Lemon Juice and Ginger Ale) and the Old Belle (Belle Meade, Luxardo, Cizano Sweet Vermouth, Peychaud’s Bitters, Muddled Orange and Bourbon Cherry Juice). Both were very smooth and pretty sweet (especially the Knxovillian) to my taste.
The menu, which you see reproduced here, has also been completely revamped. As has become the trend, they will source much of their food regionally and insist they will not use pre-packaged ingredients and will hand-make all the items. The list among their vendors Ashley Farms, Heritage Farm, Mitchel Family Farm, Sweetwater Valley Farms and Fresh Point Produce. Servers are trained to be aware of various food issues and several items are noted as “gluten free.”
Urban Woman and I sampled the Fried Chicken, the Seared Trout (with charred corn relish and smokey tomato jam) and the Fried Green Tomatoes (with herbed goat cheese and basil-scallion oil). All of it was good, but the trout and tomatoes, particularly, were excellent. I’ll add that the green beans served with the trout tasted very fresh and crisp, just like I like them.
They’re hoping the restaurant and the Firefly will be considered a dining/cocktail/hangout option as much by residents as by their hotel guests. It will be upscale casual with a rustic touch. Cocktails will be served in Mason jars, utensils will be in galvanized silver-ware caddys. They describe the menu as upscale southern comfort. We didn’t try the desserts, but at some point I’ll probably have to see what the Sweet Tea Pie is all about.
More changes are on the way. The restaurant and bar are due a facelift which hasn’t started as of yet. An awning will be added to the beer garden (and the Starbucks awning will be removed). A personally selected barrel of George Dickel will be installed in the Firefly. Beertaps made of slats from barrels have been installed. The area will be lighted at night with lights strung from the trusses. The “firefly” name was selected as a nod to the snychronous firefly phenomenon in Elkmont. So, clearly, a lot of thought was put into the space and Jessica insisted the decisions were made locally.
The large gray wall behind the bar is intended for use as a projection screen in the future and live acoustic music is planned. Trivia nights are also being considered with Knoxville history and Tennessee Whiskey as likely categories. The menu will rotate with “chef specials” added and becoming permanent if they prove to be popular. More landscaping is on the way and it will include a light feature. The Firefly has forty-four seats at tables, with room for about thirty on the stadium seats and another ten or so at the bar.
Food service hours for the outdoor area will be dinner only during the week – about 5:00 PM to 10:00 PM, for now. The weekend hours will be extended from about noon to 11:00 PM. These hours may change depending on demand. I asked and was told the outdoor area will be accessible during weekdays, but not for food service. So you can grab a Starbucks and sit outside in a cool space, if that’s your thing.
Check them out. It’s a different kind of option for downtown and a different kind of space. You can follow them on Facebook and give them a “like” while you’re at it.