I found it by chance as I circled the block it shares with the Read House, host hotel for the Tennessee Press Association’s convention a few days ago. When I first passed it, I thought its sign said “Inside Restaurant.” Second time, I realized it said “Innside Restaurant.” I thought it was clever, maybe, but where was the “inn”? To one side were more storefronts. To the other, the back of the Read House.
After checking into the tower building of the Read House, which, after a $25 million, two-year renovation and restoration, is an outstanding homage to the glitz and glamour of the Roaring Twenties, I walked back out and around the corner to get a closer look at the Innside. It had all the markings of the type of place I like to find: seems to have been around a long time, looks like a regular watering hole for the locals, a breakfast menu with homemade sausage gravy, a lunch menu featuring burgers, sandwiches, and daily meat-and-threes — and very reasonable prices. I had missed breakfast and was about to be served lunch in the Read House’s Silver Ballroom. I told myself I’d have breakfast there the next morning.
Back inside the Read House, I overheard talk on the elevator about the famous ghost of room 311. The gossipers said the room isn’t rented any longer and the ghost was said to be that of a young woman killed in the room decades ago — perhaps in the 1920s. They went on to talk about her usual prey and method of spooking: men sleeping alone would feel her touch and/or presence in the dark. I started to do walk-by of room 311, but then I thought it ridiculous. My room was on the 7th floor — why chance getting her interested?
Instead, with what free time I had, I wandered the luxurious public spaces of the Read House and admired the amazing attention to detail wherever I looked. The lobby features its original Russian walnut paneling. The Silver Ballroom, at one time the largest ballroom in the South, dazzles with original silver leaf details on the walls and ceiling and Waterford crystal chandeliers that date to 1926. My room was amazing, with a small foyer, an expansive bathroom with black and white tile work, Art Deco fixtures, and a large main bedroom.
As I checked out Friday, I asked if there was a book about the hotel and was given a pamphlet about its history. It has had several lives in its 172 years. Built in 1847 as the Griffin House, it was conceived as a surefire moneymaker due to the Western and Atlantic Railroad passing through town. The train station was across the street. In 1850, the hotel became the Crutchfield House. It was used as a Union hospital during the Civil War. It burned to the ground in 1867.
In 1871, Dr. John T. Read and his wife, Caroline, arrived in Chattanooga. Read opened a hotel in what had been a partially finished, three-story structure on the site of the old Cructchfield House. Their son, Samuel, took over in 1879 when he was 19. Sam Read, at the helm for more than 63 years, demolished most of the original building in 1926 to build the current 10-story structure, designed to look like an English manor in the Georgian style. Estimated cost: $2.5 million. It boasted 400 rooms.
There is no mention of a ghost in the pamphlet. But there is mention of “her” room. “1931 — Al Capone stays in room 311 of the Read House.” And, oh, there’s no gift shop, but the front desk sells “Read House Room 311” keyholders ($10, and yes, I bought one).
Finally, near the end of the pamphlet, I found my best guess for how the Innside Restaurant got its name.
“In the 1960s, a motor inn was added onto the back of the hotel. ...” So, it was “innside” until that section of the hotel was remodeled into the current “Manor House” portion of the Read House.
I missed breakfast again on my second day as the Innside Restaurant’s temporary neighbor. But I made it for lunch. As I expected, counter seats and booths were in high demand, and most everyone seemed to be a regular, at least along the counter where I slid onto a good old swivel seat mounted to the floor. My waitress had to ask what I wanted to drink. But not so when three seats next to me got new occupants. They were greeted with their usual drinks, right down to whether lemon was desired for the iced teas. I ordered a cheeseburger, tater tots (large) and, eventually, a 32 oz. Sprite. As soon as she stepped toward the grill area with my order, I saw the chalkboard with the daily special: chicken fried steak with two sides. Daily sides included broccoli casserole, carrots and white beans. A moment later she came back over to take a newcomer’s order.
I asked, “Am I going to regret not getting that chicken fried steak? I love chicken fried steak.”
Her answer: “Our cheeseburgers are my favorite thing.”
The newcomer two seats over chimed in. “I always get a cheeseburger. They’re the best. Everything else is good. But nothing beats the cheeseburger.”
I stuck with my original order. And it was pure bliss. The patty has that just-patted quality that can make or break a burger, in my opinion. The tots were perfect, but too plentiful for a boy eating alone. A petite, grey-haired lady who’d taken the seat to my right ordered a loaded grilled cheese with a regular order of tots. It looked perfect too. My bill, before tip, was $12.50.
Innside Restaurant is located at 800 Chestnut St.
J.H. Osborne covers Sullivan County government for the Times News. Email him at [email protected]