BRISTOL — If you haven’t visited downtown Bristol in a while, you’re missing a vibrant, revitalized-and-still-growing hub of dining, entertainment and shopping destinations.
Individually, each business is its own gem. Together, they present visitors with collective local flair, blend new and old and build on history to bring together tradition and hot trends.
The Times News sent two reporters to explore “the two sides of Bristol,” strolling up and down historic State Street, itself unique as it straddles the Tennessee/Virginia state line, and meandering around the side and next-over streets of each side.
Here’s a sampling of what we found.
New kids in town
Michael Waltrip isn’t new to Bristol. After all, his career in NASCAR includes more than 30 years of racing at Bristol Motor Speedway. But Michael Waltrip Brewing Co. is new to Bristol and it has given the NASCAR driver a whole new perspective on what Bristol is all about.
“It’s expanded my view of Bristol,” Waltrip told the Times News the day the brewery and restaurant bearing his name had its official grand opening. “Now that we’ve opened the brewery here in Bristol, Virginia, I see State Street and all the music and all the fun that’s being able to be had on that street. Used to I just thought, ‘Bristol: NASCAR.’ Now I think, ‘Bristol: Fun.’ ”
Waltrip said he’s glad and appreciative to be a part of the community and wants Michael Waltrip Brewing Co. to be a place people come and “just chill,” whether it’s having a beer, enjoying a burger (or his own favorite from the menu, a grilled cheese with bacon), or sitting on the large, covered “front porch.”
Waltrip has two business partners in the brewery, one with extensive restaurant experience. For now, the menu is simple and Waltrip said he knows “some would call it bar food.”
“I’m OK with that. We’re a brewery,” Waltrip said. “I’m proud of what we’re serving.”
“I love a cheeseburger and I love a chicken sandwich. It’s incredible,” Waltrip said. “Today I had the grilled cheese with bacon and it’s my new favorite. The thing is we want it to be the best burger or chicken sandwich or grilled cheese. I want a warm, friendly comfortable atmosphere. We want to make beers and sell them all over the United States. That’s the goal.
“This is our home. This is where we’re going to make our beer. And we’re going to make a lot of it.”
A few blocks from Waltrip, Lauren Griffin and Emily Linder have opened the Blended Pedaler, which features a menu of smoothies and non-gluten and vegan baked goods — as well as bike rentals.
It’s a first and only for Bristol on e-bike rentals.
Griffin came up with the overall concept and wanted to include e-bike rentals after seeing them offered in New York City.
Griffin asked Linder, who previously had worked for Blackbird Bakery, to join her in the new venture.
Linder credits Griffin with the design of the Blended Pedaler’s sleek and colorful interior.
The business officially opened a couple of weeks ago, just before the Rhythm & Roots festival.
“That was a big deal,” Linder said. “We were able to get a lot of business coming in and get our name out. It’s really going well.”
For now, the Blended Pedaler’s e-bike fleet totals six — two mountain-type and four city-type bikes.
To rent a bike, customers must watch an instructional video, sign a waiver and wear a helmet at all times while riding. Rentals are available for one hour ($15.99), two hours ($28.99) or six hours ($63.99). A full charge of the bike’s battery equals 50 miles travel. The top travel speed is 35 miles per hour.
Linder said both cities’ governments signed off on allowing the e-bikes to be driven on downtown streets.
“You just follow the rules of traffic, so that can ride as you would a moped,” Linder said. “It’s really fun. They’re just a neat attraction for Bristol that it didn’t have.”
So far the bikes are proving popular with couples on dates, Linder said. One church brought its youth group, rented multiple bikes, and members took turns riding.
The best-selling smoothie at the Blended Pedaler is its Mango Tango, but treats of all sorts abound on the menu and on the store’s shelves. Linder said the goal is to offer tasty but healthy and alternative choices for customers by including gluten-free and vegan items.
“We try to be as health-conscious as possible and add in all-natural products to our smoothies and our bowls,” Linder said. “We want to complement our neighboring businesses. We’re not trying to compete.”
That last quote from Linder shows she, Griffin and the Blended Peddler will fit right in with the spirit of downtown Bristol.
Karen Hester has owned downtown anchor Cranberry Lane for 21 years. Seven years ago she opened the Southern Churn, the region’s only fudge maker. Among movers and shakers of Bristol, Hester is referred to as downtown’s ambassador.
“It takes us all to make it happen,” Hester said. “I don’t look at any of my neighbors or any other stores downtown as competitors. We’re all complementary businesses. The exciting thing is you can come to downtown Bristol and you have so many options.”
Hester named a few: live music performances and other shows; two comedy clubs and a third coming; street artists; “a plethora of restaurants;” and shopping galore, from great gift shops to home decor to antiques and fashion.
“You name it,” Hester said. “It’s a great place to walk and stroll downtown. There are parks nearby and activities for children. And of course, the museum.”
That would be the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, a Smithsonian affiliate that celebrates Bristol’s place in American music history as home to “the Big Bang,” AKA, the Bristol Sessions. Johnny Cash described the Bristol Sessions as “the most important event in the history of country music.”
The museum features permanent exhibits, some of which are interactive, and temporary exhibits in its gallery. It’s also home to Radio Bristol, a nonprofit community station providing listeners with a platform celebrating the roots of American music through a variety of original programming.
Among that programming is the popular “Farm and Fun Time,” a revival of the classic WCYB Radio program of the 1940s and 1950s that helped build the careers of the Stanley Brothers, Jim & Jesse McReynolds and many more.
The museum attracts visitors from around the globe.
“You cannot only come and spend a couple of hours and get something to eat,” Hester said. “You can come and spend a day and still not see it all.”
Hester remembers when downtown Bristol had more vacant buildings than occupied ones back around 2000 when she first opened Cranberry Lane.
She said the vibrant scene experienced by visitors to downtown Bristol today wasn’t accomplished by one person, event, or magic turning point. But one early step, in which she was directly involved, was the early days of converting upper floors of storefronts into loft apartments.
That typically included restoration and preservation to the exteriors of those historic buildings. Hester estimates there are 70 to 80 lofts downtown now.
“It’s totally transformed the look of downtown and there are very few empty stores now,” Hester said. “It’s very vibrant ... day and night, thanks to all the live music at multiple venues. It certainly didn’t happen overnight. What you see began as grassroots efforts by early investors who put a lot of time, work, heart and passion into it. It wasn’t any single person who did it.”
Hester lives in a 4,000-square-foot loft over her store, fulfilling a longtime dream.
“State Street is my front yard,” Hester said. “My backyard is the alley off Piedmont Street near Blackbird Bakery. It’s 21 steps to work every morning.”
A lot of locals and tourists are drawn to downtown Bristol because of the uniqueness of State Street being the state line, Hester said, and because of the historic sign that spans State Street near the train station.
“That beautiful sign,” Hester said. “It says Bristol is a good place to live. We want it to be a great place to live. We adopted the mantra ‘Work, play, live.’ If you live downtown, you’re going to eat downtown. We’ve worked really hard to bring that together. I think it’s great now, but I think it’s going to get better and better and better.”
Hester practices what she preaches when it comes to a supportive attitude toward neighboring businesses. To help bring another business to downtown, Hester reduced Cranberry Lane’s footprint last year to rent a storefront to what is now The Trading Shoppees. The gift shop features many locally made handcrafted items and offers goods from multiple vendors.
Another fairly recent addition to downtown is the Sessions Hotel, which like the Bristol Hotel renovated and restored existing historic structures. Both hotels feature rooftop bars and on-site restaurants (Southern Craft at Sessions and Vivian’s Table at the Bristol). Hester said both have helped draw more and more travelers to downtown, and the Sessions being a member of the Marriott family of hotels is seen as a big plus because many business travelers are loyal to particular brands.
“For people who haven’t discovered it yet, I’d encourage them to come and spend a day, or evening, have a meal and see a show, and see really what Bristol has to offer,” Hester said.
Even if you’re a local looking for a Tri-Cities adventure, the Sessions Hotel offers a blend of Bristol’s history and modern style down to every last detail.
The hotel includes the Bristol Grocery Building (built in 1915), the Jobbers Candy Factory (built in 1920) and the Simply Grand Granary Mill (built in 1922). The three buildings combine to create an industrial-style hotel with touches of Bristol’s music and industrial past.
“All three of these buildings are over 100 years old,” Sessions Hotel general manager Catrina Mullins said. “We really wanted to take what the building offers to come up with that rustic, modern look.”
The mill building offers rooms where grain silos once stood with softened wooden walls worn from years of sifted grain. The mill building is also home to the barbecue restaurant Southern Craft. Old grain shoots peer just above the bar as framed grain bags from the days of the mill operation hang on the walls of the restaurant.
Meanwhile, unpainted, exposed brick is abundant throughout the grocery building with a list of subtle nods to its history. A hidden staircase remains untouched in the grocery building along with large, sliding fire emergency doors. On those same doors are signs of the mill and grocery history complete with oil smudges, drawings and inscriptions still on the doors.
“We try to repurpose as much as we can,” Mullins said, “to keep the historic nature of the buildings.”
In each room, specially designed microphone lights hang along with 1927 Bristol Sessions-themed art above the beds from local artist Moon Bound Girl (Leigh Ann Agee). The TV stands are covered with denim from longtime Bristol clothing manufacturer LC King. Framed sheets of music from the famed country music sessions that inspired the hotel’s name also adorn the walls. Mullins said she felt the character and details of the hotel make staying at the Sessions an experience unlike any other.
“People love to stay at unique hotel properties,” Mullins said. “Rarely do you walk out of a hotel and say, ‘Wow, that linen was great,’ but people will say, ‘The lights were so cool,’ and they remember the stories. We love that historical nature of it. It all tells a story. It’s all part of the character of the building.”
The hotel also offers a stage between the buildings and a rooftop space overlooking the west end of State Street and the upcoming Holiday Inn hotel at the intersection. There are also the Visions Day Spa and Salon in the south end of the grocery building along with the Star Barber Shop, named after the shop that once called State Street home.
The hotel isn’t the only spot taking folks back to simpler times in Bristol.
If State Street had a crown jewel, it would likely be the Paramount Theatre with its central location and illuminated vertical sign reminiscent of its 1930s past. But according to Paramount Board of Directors Vice President David Grace, it’s the theatre’s synced history with the Virginia and Tennessee street that marries the two.
“The state of the paramount is really reflected in the state of Bristol,” Grace said. “Through good times and bad, the Paramount has stood as an anchor for downtown Bristol.”
The theatre has served as a place for vaudeville shows and performances from Grand Ole Opry stars like Tex Ritter, Johnny Mack Brown and Ernest Tubb. It also offered movies and films such as the opening show “It Pays To Advertise” in 1931 that flooded the streets with eager folks ready to enjoy the theatre. It later fell into disrepair and has since seen renovations, serious planning and fundraising efforts from the Paramount Foundation and the Blue Stocking Club and a recent “refresher” that’s about to wrap up. Now the theatre hosts theatre productions and concerts as it continues its history on State Street.
“As Downtown Bristol came back over the years, you started seeing more and more productions. We went from theatre occasionally to a lot more music. In 2019 we had 98 shows. Part of that was local theatre, part of that was music.”
Artists like Marty Stuart and Cody Jinks have taken to the Paramount stage while acts like Trace Adkins, Jefferson Starship, Amy Grant, and Ronnie Millsap make up the upcoming schedule. Grace said the theatre aims to keep prices reasonable and big-name artists coming to the Tri-Cities.
“We have a huge range of entertainment,” Grace said. “Within a month we go from Cody Jinks to classical music. Part of our mission is to serve the community and bring in acts that normally wouldn’t be here. You usually have to go to Knoxville, Roanoke or Charlotte to see some of these acts. And because we have some support, we can keep ticket prices reasonable. We don’t want to lose anyone because of ticket prices.”
There’s plenty of new lunch spots and attractions on State Street, but a bit of history is still alive in places like the old State Street staple, Uncle Sam’s Loan Office.
The building dons a red, white and blue awning with another vertical old-timey sign on State Street. The pawn shop portion of the building offers an array of items from power tools to a plethora of musical instruments. But it’s the lunch counter where Broad Street on State restaurant resides that really seals in the nostalgic feel of the old building.
“We call it new old retro,” co-owner Colyn Thomas said. “We like old-school food.
”We have old-school countertops and old-school food. People can come in, remember a simpler time — an easier time — when food was real and you could get real customer service. We pride ourselves on that.”
A row of black, round bar seats facing the counter makes it clear the building was once one of the old Woolworth’s grocery stores. Broad Street’s retro centric menu also lends itself to the nostalgic diner feel.
The Broad Street Burger is a favorite among patrons. The eatery also offers old-timey milkshakes and a Bristol TN dog (which includes volunteer orange cheddar cheese) and a Bristol Virginia hot dog (with coleslaw) for those wanting to represent the Old Dominion or the Volunteer State. The menu ranges from gravy and biscuits and fried bologna sandwiches to Shirley Temples and milkshakes.
Broad Street has been in the Uncle Sam’s building for six years after moving from a location near Cootie Browns and from the Bristol Mall that will become the new Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. For Thomas and co-owner Joyce Brown, bringing their retro diner to State Street was the right move for the look and foot traffic.
“We love it here,” Thomas said. “We’re part of downtown. That was so neat to us. We get so many tourists. Things are happening here.”
The Southern soul food restaurant, Eatz, is finally ready to make the move to State Street as well.
Mark Canty and Lisa Canty have owned and operated Eatz on Moore Street serving home-style food like meatloaf, fried chicken and cornbread for 15 years. Now, Mark Canty plans to bring Eatz to State Street.
“We’re excited about the new opportunity and being on the main street here in Bristol,” Mark Canty said. “We’ve been waiting for 15 years for the right opportunity.”
Eatz offers downhome favorites like fried catfish and slow-smoked ribs and sides like collard greens and baked macaroni and cheese with a slightly sweet taste. Even on a rainy Wednesday afternoon, a slew of hungry locals looking to talk with Mark Canty and tourists with backpacks filter through the door of the small eatery that is currently located on Moore Street.
“We’re blessed to have the following we do have,” Mark Canty said. “It’s no mysterious recipe here. It’s just great quality food and a great price.”
Lisa Canty will operate a restaurant and catering eatery at the Moore location when Mark Canty moves to State Street to offer some of the same menu items while also adding hot dogs and other foods to the menu. But whether it’s on State Street or Moore Street, the two business owners, like so many others in the Twin City, look to keep serving real food in the place they feel is a Tri-Cities destination.
“It’s moving and it’s alive,” Mark Canty said. “Bristol is alive.”
BRISTOL, Va. — I usually have no trouble spending money. But as I walked around the Virginia side of downtown Bristol with an imaginary $200 and orders to report on how I “spent” it, I put more thought into shopping.
For one thing, I was afraid I’d later find something that I’d want more than what I was about to “purchase” as I entered and exited shops, galleries, and eateries.
I’ve always been drawn to the gift shop at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum and its wide variety of recorded music, books, and locally crafted artwork. I decided not to blow nearly all my play money in one whack on a $180 CD box set of the complete Bristol Sessions.
But I did pretend-spend my biggest chunk of dough at the museum. I opted to spend a full quarter of my allocation for future experiences, not stuff to take home. An individual membership to the museum, with unlimited entry for the year, a 10% discount on gift shop purchases, and two bring-a-friend tickets is $50.
To that I added a four-CD box set featuring highlights of the Bristol Sessions, which came to roughly $30 including tax.
I dropped in at Michael Waltrip Brewing Co. and dropped $25 on a branded trucker’s cap.
At Cranberry Lane, I picked up: a pint of “Bear jam” (“It’ll make you growl!” claims the label, which spells out blackberry, elderberry, apples, and raspberries) for $7.99; a pint of moonshine pickles for $7.99; a lapel pin modeled after the “Tennessee/Virginia” markers down the middle of State Street for $4.99; and a pack of Beeman’s gum for 99 cents.
I was getting hungry so I walked down to Southern Craft in the Sessions Hotel and got lunch started with an $8 cocktail named for June Carter: Buffalo Trace bourbon, peach schnapps, peach syrup, orange bitters, and a champagne float. (I could only imagine June drinking this from behind a “Jay-pan fan” when she went to Jackson.) With a tip I’d just “spent” $10. I’d need to watch my food order.
This was my first visit to Southern Craft and I’ll definitely be going back. I wanted just about everything on the menu. My waitress suggested brisket, which comes with two sides for $22. I opted for the Killer B, from the smoked sandwiches portion of the menu. The Killer B is brisket on a toasted bun, with peppered bacon, blackberry jam, Stoney Creek BBQ sauce and a bullet of cole slaw on the side. It comes with one side for $13. I picked BBQ beans. I also ordered two extra sides at $2.95 each: fried green tomatoes and sweet potato souffle. Everything was excellent and I had enough leftover to eat for dinner. My food bill, with tax and tip, totaled $26.22.
I walked around a bit more then headed for the car. My last stop, as always, was Blackbird Bakery, where I spent $28.98 on: two slices of caramel cake; three pumpkin pie cookie bars; and one mint brownie. That’s enough to last Mom and me about four days.
And that’s how I recommend a single guy spend $200 on a day trip to downtown Bristol.
BRISTOL, Tenn. — It’s not every day your editor walks into the newsroom and says, “Marina, I’m going to give you $200.”
Now, before you try to snap up the first open reporter position you can find, thinking you’ll get random loads of cash from your editor, let me explain.
“But it’s imaginary,” he continued.
It seems I suddenly heard the pitter patter of feet running away from the idea of being a reporter when you read that last sentence.
My editor offered me an imaginary $200 to spend on the Tennessee side of State Street in Bristol. My coworker, John Osborne, was assigned the Virginia side. (I’ll note that I received an imaginary wad of cash while John had to settle for a Visa gift card of imaginary dollars.)
I was all too excited to have earned the Volunteer State portion of the street when I remembered what place I’d get to venture back into: Uncle Sam’s.
Now, I’m not saying spend all your money at Uncle Sam’s (or do — especially if it’s imaginary and there’s more where that came from). But this is where I was really tempted to spend every last invisible dollar I had.
You know the building. It’s the patriotic, red-clad loan office and pawn shop building on the east end of State Street. It has guitars, chainsaws, necklaces, guns, and cassettes — all in this sprawling, old building that is just asking to be adventured through. It’s never hard for me to find the instruments in a place like Uncle Sam’s. And that’s the first place I gravitated to on a rainy Tuesday afternoon.
I found a row of electric guitars and acoustic guitars, but as always the hallowed wooden six strings caught my eye over its electric counterparts. So my first imaginary purchase would be a Yamaha Compass Series acoustic guitar with a cutout (for easy picking on the high end of the neck of the guitar) for $90. As tempted as I was to buy the 1963 pocket knife that just looked like it belonged in Uncle Sam’s, or a shiny harmonica in a nearby jewelry case, I suggest you move on from the wonder that is Uncle Sam’s to try to spend your dollars in a couple of other places.
If you venture back down the west end of State Street toward Kingsport, there’s a nifty old building tucked onto 7th Street. LC King started manufacturing hardy denim jackets, pants, overalls and more in 1913, and the company is still at it right there in Bristol. I’m a sucker for well-made items that are made in the good ol’ USA, so this was an obvious place to spend some dough. Now, like at Uncle Sam’s, I could have spent all of my fake money at LC King’s, but I do have some restraint. So I tried to forget the rugged farm jackets (which I will gladly add to my birthday and Christmas list) and opted for a denim baseball cap for a cool $30.
So far I’ve been only to two places and have spent over half of my money. But it’s a snazzy hat that will fit the look I’m going for with that beauty of a guitar — or maybe I’m just a sucker for a good baseball cap and an acoustic guitar.
From there it’s high time to dive into the Tennessee side of State Street’s dining options.
My coworker and I noticed some differences in our State Street counterparts. The Virginia side seems to have plenty of antique stores. Walk down the street and take your pick! Meantime, Tennessee offers more dining options and entertainment.
The Virginia side may have the mother of music sites with the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, but the Tennessee side of State Street has loads of restaurants and bars with music spaces along with the Paramount Theatre. During the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion in September, music is heard every few yards coming from places like Delta Blues and Borderline Billiards. For a daytime option, though, the Angry Italian is the perfect place for a chance to renew and count the rest of my invisible money.
A crispy, cheesy pepperoni and Italian sausage 12-inch pizza with an ice cold Coca-Cola, along with a tip, will land you at about $20. It’s well worth it and I’m gonna bet you’ll have leftovers.
If you head back down State Street toward the giant Bristol sign, the Paramount is an eye-catcher. And that list of upcoming events is a tasty one.
Country singers like Sara Evans and Trace Adkins and Diamond Rio are planning to play in the next few months, and I’m intrigued. I really just want to hear “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” and “Ladies Love Country Boys” and pretend it’s the early 2000s, so I opt for a ticket here. But if you’re following along, that would put me over my $200 limit.
But I’ve got a plan.
At this point, I go back to Uncle Sam’s (yes, the place I told you to leave before you spent more money), and buy that Fender amp for $50 to plug into my fancy new acoustic guitar and a harmonica for my remaining amount and busk on the street until I earn my $75 for a ticket to the Paramount. I do know how to play the guitar. I don’t, however, play the harmonica. Maybe my editor will pitch in a little more for harmonica lessons. Or maybe in this imaginary scenario with imaginary dollars I’ll miraculously know how to play it.
So if you see a girl in a denim hat with an acoustic guitar picking tunes on State Street, drop a few dollars in my empty Angry Italian drink cup and know on the Tennessee side of State Street, you’ve got all sorts of dining, music and entertainment options to keep you roaming the sidewalk — and looking for more imaginary money to spend.
Address: 101 Country Music Way, Bristol, VA, 24201
Telephone: (423) 573-1927
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Closed on Mondays and major holidays.
Tickets: $13.65 for adults; $11.55 for seniors, college students, military, and children ages 6-17, and groups of 20+. Children ages 5 and younger are free.
Address: 221 Moore St., Bristol, VA 24201
Telephone: (276) 821-3020
Hours: Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight
Address: 115 Country Music Way, Bristol, VA 24201
Telephone: (276) 696-3535
The The Sessions Hotel (Southern Craft restaurant, Lauderdale Stage, Rooftop bar)Address: 833 State St., Bristol, VA 24201
Telephone: (276) 285-5040
The ParamountAddress: 518 State St., Bristol, TN, 37620
Telephone: (423) 274-8920
Hours: Tuesday-Friday, noon to 6 p.m.
Address: 614 State St., Bristol, TN 37620
Telephone: (423) 764-3331
The Blended PedalerAddress: 170 Piedmont Ave., Bristol, VA 24201
Telephone: (276) 644-1750
Hours: Monday-Friday, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Blackbird BakeryAddress: 188 Piedmont Ave., Bristol, VA 24201
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 6 a.m. to midnight
Cranberry LaneAddress: 623 State St., Bristol, VA 24201
Telephone: (276) 669-9899
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The Southern ChurnAddress: 627 State St., Bristol, VA 24201