Babalu, 412 South Gay Street, Knoxville, February 2021
Fun times are once more awaiting at Babalu on Gay Street. The restaurant, originally opened in November 2015, announced its permanent closure in the early days of the pandemic last year. After a very brief interlude, Kevin Rice and Greg Cox, who own Maple Hall, announced they would purchase the brand for the location and reopen under the same name.
The tapa-style, family friendly restaurant returns to action on Thursday, with a very different interior design and an updated menu that includes some old favorites, but plenty of new additions, as well, with more emphasis on comfortable, cozy seating and fresh foods prepared with a Latin flair.
C.O.O. Ryan Sheley said you’ll find the burger you loved still waiting, as well as the fresh, house made guacamole, though for reason attributable to the pandemic, it will not be prepared at table side. He said they want the restaurant to be accessible to everyone, with a fun menu, offered in an inviting upscale environment with affordable prices.
You’ll find fewer tacos, but more emphasis on a range of Spanish dishes. Spanish and Portuguese wines will be emphasized, including some from vintners you may not recognize and which may not be readily available locally. Madison Bruer has been part of the team, along with beverage director Zachariah Cowen, curating the wine selection and she will be on hand to walk you through your choices. These affordable gems are designed to be a great complement to papaya steaks, cobia, pork chops and other Spanish influenced items you’ll enjoy exploring.
You’ll find lots of shareable dishes and affordable lunch options. The new owners also feel they are taking Babalu back to its roots, emphasizing fresh, house-made dishes. They plan to purchase food locally or regionally when possible and to provide a fresh and wonderful dining experience.
Executive Chef Jack Townsend said the preparation for opening has been a fun process. He said you can expect elevated plating of dishes, “closer to the Latin roots of the project. We will pay respect to the abuelita style of cooking: tasty, simple in a great atmosphere.” He said it will be a new experience, but very approachable in a welcoming space.
A section in the rear of the restaurant can be reserved for small to mid-sized gatherings, with “pods” available in a separated section at the rear of the restaurant. It’s a perfect spot for entertaining clients or celebrating a birthday. It’s an extension of the private events already being catered by Maple Hall. The pods require reservations at $25 per hour and they also offer different food options for family style dining.
Makenna Smith with R2R was head designer for the space and you’ll find high back, cozy seating throughout. It’s one of the major interior changes which makes the space feel much cozier and less exposed. A halo lighting system will allow for a different ambience in the bar area, the dining area and the more private areas in the rear. You’ll also find easy passage directly to the Maple Room if you want to extend your evening there.
Co-owner Kevin Rice said they are proud of what they have accomplished at Maple Hall, noting their consistent 100s on health inspections. He said the same management team will ensure the safety of staff and customers. For the near future, you’ll find staff wearing masks and all CDC guidelines will be followed. The space will be professionally cleaned (not by staff) each night.