The Bistro at the Bijou Celebrates a Remarkable 40 Years

Bistro at the Bijou, 807 South Gay Street, Knoxville, October 2020

For a business to last a dozen years is remarkable. Twenty or thirty years, impressive, indeed. Forty years is very unusual. In the year Ronald Reagan was elected president, the Bistro at the Bijou began service. Even more remarkable, a bar or restaurant, almost without interruption, is a part of the building’s history from the beginning. The first major event hosted after its opening also involved a President โ€” Andrew Jackson. It’s pretty remarkable to imagine President Jackson bellying up to the bar with friends in the location.

In 1980, Kristopher Kendrick opened the restaurant’s current incarnation as the Bistro at the Bijou. The building had been closed for several years and had re-opened on shaky ground financially and physically – it badly needed major renovation. Kristopher reconfigured the space to roughly its current configuration. It was, according to current owner, Martha Boggs, Knoxville’s first bistro, offering a seasonal and local menu.

Bistro at the Bijou, 807 South Gay Street, Knoxville, October 2020

Bistro at the Bijou, 807 South Gay Street, Knoxville, October 2020

He operated the restaurant until 1988 and it went through several hands until Pete Clauson bought it in the early 1990s. Martha had been the general manager at Old College Inn and came to the Bistro at the Bijou in the same role in 1993. At that point she says, it was mainly bar business. “The best part of this business is being able to adapt to what people want. I tried to keep it original and to present thoughtful cuisine.”

She said that Kristopher had a cabaret and a prix fixe menu. By the time she arrived, the order of the day was 10ยข chicken wings and beer. She joked that she thinks they lost money on every sale. From the beginning, she had absentee owners and ran the place as her own. In 2009, she made it official and purchased the business. “Everyone said there was no demand. I always knew that things would get better.” She said AC entertainment was upstairs and she could see changes were coming.

Bistro at the Bijou, 807 South Gay Street, Knoxville, October 2020

Bistro at the Bijou, 807 South Gay Street, Knoxville, October 2020

With Bill Haslam’s election, she sensed the momentum for downtown. She proudly says she has “served five mayors. A lot of people were behind me and helped make this successful into the next century. She began making incremental changes to the menu. She brings in everything she grows in her own garden. “Tomatoes started it. We put up hot sauce. I love vegetables.”

The customer base was steady, with swings for shows. Downtown business lunch business has been important throughout but has now been nearly stopped due the virus. “Patience is the hardest โ€” waiting out harder times. If you want instant gratification,” she says you might want to find another business, saying you have to be in it for the long run. “Customers are the best part. I have the privilege of seeing community celebrations and funerals, to be a part of their rites of passage.”

Kukuly and the Gypsy Fuego, Bistro at the Bijou, October 2014

Donald Brown, Bistro at the Bijou, Knoxville, January 2015

Greg Tardy Trio, Bistro at the Bijou, Knoxville, August 2015

Will Boyd, Bistro at the Bijou, Knoxville, November 2018

She remembers when things were extremely slow downtown. “Annie’s and Lucille’s did jazz and they closed.” Sometime around 2003 or 2004, she started booking jazz artists one to four times a week. “It felt right.” Saying she started it “on a whim,” Kukuly was her first artist and she also happened to be an employee at the time. UT jazz students began playing, then their professors wanted to play and so, jazz became an institution several nights a week at the restaurant and drew good crowds pre-covid.

When the pandemic hit earlier this year, the restaurant closed for over three months, from mid-March to July 1. She lost some staff and had to replace them but says that time of year is generally slower for her, so that mitigated some of the impact. She also owns Dazzos, which she reopened, but business was slow. She says the PPP money allowed her to reopen, and without it she might not have made it.

Martha Boggs, Owner, Bistro at the Bijou, 807 South Gay Street, Knoxville, October 2020

She says earnings are still at 25%, but she’s doing the things she’s supposed to do, like limiting seating capacity. She says probably 30% of her revenue was tied to shows there, of which there are none now, of course. Office workers work one or two days a week now and, so, don’t come in as much. “I want to protect my customers and staff.” She’s thankful for the mask mandate. “Without the mandate it would fall to us to enforce mask wearing.”

Of the future she says simply, “I’ll keep doing what I’m doing. The Bistro will continue. It’s an important amenity to the Bijou Theatre.”

Comments

  1. Betty Bean says

    Hooray for Martha Boggs, Queen of Downtown Knoxville!

  2. YAY for Martha and the Bistro and all the wonderful musicians who give so much listening pleasure to their fans! The Bistro is one of the only two places I’ve gone to since the pandemic began. I love it!

  3. Kevin & Melinda says

    Congrats to Martha and Team. Fortunate to call you neighbor, friend and favorite restaurant. Wishing you many more successful years.

  4. John Speed says

    Congratulations to Martha and her hard work. I was part of the team along with Dora Cooper who re-opened the Bistro when Pete Claussen purchased it so many years ago. I know it was tough back then and Martha’s tenacity and creativeness have shown with the success it has enjoyed over the years. It was tough for us back in the late 80’s early 90’s and I am so glad to see her take the torch and carry it to such high levels!

  5. Gregory Austin says

    Happy 40th! Judy and I love the healthy local produce selections as well as the attentive non-invasive service mentality. Martha and her team are jewels in our opinion.

  6. Terry Turner says

    Awesome! Great place, great people!

  7. We love the Bistro and appreciate the support Martha gives back to Knoxville.

  8. Martha’s a gem ๐Ÿ™‚

  9. Bonny Pendleton says

    The Bistro’s food is exceptional, and Martha is a supporter of all things Knoxville. Happy Anniversary, Bistro at the Bijou.

  10. Always has had the best brunch downtown in my mind!

  11. Why go anywhere else.

  12. Brent Snyder says

    Happy 40th and congrats Martha.

  13. You can always depend on great fresh food and prices from the Bistro.
    I send a lot of tourist to Martha’s and have received thank you letters telling me what great food, drink, entertainment, & for recommending the BISTRO to them..
    Keep up the Good Work Martha.

  14. Martha is a Rockstar and has earned everything she has downtown. Congrats Martha !!!!

  15. The true gem of Knoxville is Alan Sims. Thank you for your intrepid reports and helping Knoxville be aware of all the great things we have to offer our citizens and visitors.

  16. All the birthdays, new years eve with Martha serving champagne and black eyed peas, the infamous wig party after the closing of J’s Mega Mart- the fantastic jazz- the Lord Lindsay’s reunion๐Ÿ˜Ž Martha ROCKS!!!!!๐Ÿ’•

  17. Stephanie Hall says

    AlwAys always a great place with a great woman. Thank you Martha.

  18. Iโ€™m a day late but just want to say I look forward to eating here every time I am in town. My mother and I ducked in here in between Big Ears performances many times. And we love the Miss Lil painting. Best wishes for a big return. Bye the way, take out during Covid was excellent.

  19. I’ve always loved the Bistro for many reasons, the food, the atmosphere and its prime downtown location. But what I have loved most is how generous Martha has been whenever I’ve come in seeking a gift certificate for a worthy cause. She never hesitates to support local non-profits in that manner. Here’s to another 40 years!

  20. Linda Fitzpatrick says

    Thank you Alan Sims for this great coverage, it’s reminding me to go downtown for takeout one dinnertime at the Bistro. There are so many businesses and individuals to support, so glad you lifted up this jewel in my awareness!

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