Those of you who lived, worked, or went to school in Knoxville at any time during the latter-half of the 20th Century (that's the 1900's for any of you who are chronologically challenged), will doubtless remember the greatest haunt on the strip of dilapidated buildings known to the Tennessee faithful simply as "Cumberland." While I know there will undoubtedly be some of you who swear by Old College Inn, The Last Lap, The Library, Spicy's, The Varsity, or (for some ungodly reason) the Torch, and say that I am crazy, this is my ship and I decide where it goes (even if that is straight on to the rocks). Yes, in my opinion, the greatest loss suffered by the Tennessee community in the last … well, pretty much since the Civil War, was the closure of the venerable eatery known as Sam & Andy's.
Sam & Andy's (circa 1998)
Due to the pressures of time, the almighty dollar, and the rise of crappy, half-assed, uppity chain restaurants, Sam & Andy's was replaced by McAlister's Deli (one of the aforementioned chains, this one owned by some dentist from Oxford, Mississippi) in 1998.Sam & Andy's was my kind of place.
Sam & Andy's was as much a part of the university as Neyland Stadium and Ayres Hall. It was a tradition for over sixty years on Cumberland. It had been the job of Sam & Andy—both of whom retired or died many years before I first walked through the door—to oversee the nutritional well-being of generations of college students. They served classic college food at reasonable prices in a surly and smug atmosphere. Sam & Andy's was actually three different restaurants housed under one roof: Sam & Andy's Tennessean, Sam & Andy's Roman Room, and Sam & Andy's Deli. Each of three restaurants were connected (to hell with the fire code!) and served, more or less, the exact same thing for the same price. Each of these restaurants, however, had completely different personalities and customers. In fact many frequent patrons, such as me, rarely if ever ventured into any of the other areas; that is unless they needed to use the restroom or buy condoms from one of fourteen different machines on the wall in the single set of restrooms which served all three. That building was a living tradition.
The Men's Bathroom Wall
I always frequented the deli which was in the rear of the building. It was a simple open room with a chest-high white wood and formica counter running the length of the back and right-hand wall. Near the door, the counter dropped down to waist level, and a small collection of little baskets containing salt and other condiments sat next to a neat stack of napkins, all of which sat in front of an old cash register which appeared to have come over on the Ark with Noah. The left-hand wall was completely obscured by a floor to ceiling beer cooler like the ones found in convenience stores. The front wall was home to a much smaller Coca-Cola cooler, several racks of potato chips and snacks, and a TV suspended on the wall which was always on but rarely seemed to be watched. In the middle of the room were nine or ten plain white Formica tables with simple yellow vinyl covered chairs. The walls, or at least the parts that could be seen, were light brown wooden paneling, and were covered with old newspaper clippings, pictures, awards, and beer posters.
The Deli Entrance
Over the grill, in the back, hung the menu boards. From these boards a student or anybody who was hungry could order anything from a Hoagie, a Vol or Pizza Burger, to a Sub, or anything else in between. It would always be served up in the same manner- on wax paper in a small red plastic basket with a pickle on the side. In all of the hundreds of visits I made to Sam & Andy's, I don't think I ever ordered anything other than a Kielbasa Sandwich on dark bread (and it was really dark) with provolone, spicy mustard, and mayonnaise; well, except for a brief "angry" period in my college years when I ordered a few Ribeyesteak sandwiches. While my coronary arteries are probably still reeling from these meals, my heart sure loved them.
The place smelled of meat and cheese. It was always hot in there because they steamed the sandwiches, which meant the room was pretty much constantly in a fog. God, how I loved those steamed sandwiches. Over here in ACC country where I live now, if you ask the guy at the sandwich place to steam your sandwich he looks at you like you just introduced the topic of nipple-piercing while having a conversation with the Pope.
Sam & Andy's was the kind of place that understood customer service and where they knew how to treat people right. They tended to treat out-of-towners and uppity types like they had a contagious case of desiccated rectal cancer, the regulars—like myself—they simply ignored. That said, once during my sophomore year I went there with my roommate, and realized I didn't have any money to my name. My buddy ordered his sandwich, and I just sat. Then the heavyset guy behind the counter (I never learned his name, but he wore glasses and had blondish-brown hair parted in the middle if anyone knows who he was) asked what I was having."I've got no money, man." says I. "Ahh, you're in here all the time. Just write us an IOU." came the response from behind the counter.
Thus, that night I ate purely upon the value of my name written on the back of some old business card. Now in the 1950's that might have been common in a small college community, but this was 1995. I made sure to stop by the next day and settle my debt.
Best I could ever tell, George Captain owned the place during my years in Knoxville. He was always behind the bar in the Tennessean part of the building. I think he was Sam or Andy's nephew. I also know that a few other establishments around campus (Vic & Bill's Deli behind the law school and Gus' Goodtimes Deli on Melrose), were owned by other cousins. I guess their philosophy was keep the competition in the family.
George Captain Anyway, in 1997, McAlister's Deli bought the land and Sam & Andy's closed. I grabbed one of the last take-out menus before I left on the last day of business.
Sam & Andy's Menu (circa. 1998)
Sam & Andy's re-opened in the old Swensen's building across the street a few years later, but it wasn't the same. The atmosphere was all wrong, and it was more like a "normal" restaurant. They seemed to do a good business, but a year or two ago they lost their lease and Moe's moved in. I hear that they still have places in Fountain City and out in West Knoxville, but I haven't been.
On the day that McAlister's opened in 1998, I chanted a hex on the restaurant that I learned from some voo-doo panhandler down in New Orleans in return for $5.00 for a bottle of Ripple. I think either I said it wrong or got ripped off, because McAlister's hasn't burned down, I haven't seen un-dead zombies trashing the place, and there haven't been any swarms of locusts around the joint. Still, I hope it gets hit by a bus, burned to the ground, and Mr. McAlister—whoever the hell he is—gets a chronic case of piles.So next time you're on Cumberland, lift a glass to Sam & Andy's … and empty your bladder on the front door at McAlister's.
— Go Figure … lawvol
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