19 Jul Babalu helps elevate downtown’s coolness factor
By Matt Ward, Go Knoxville – March 2016
Market Square Garage was supposed to have bathrooms built in it. It was announced in October. My patience for this welcome addition was wearing thin as I pulled into my parking spot needing facilities. Fortunately for me, it was the day after St. Patrick’s Day and there were still portable potties in Market Square from the Cutthroat Shamrock show the night before.
I walked past Market House Cafe and a girl was stopping in the alley to snap photos of artwork. A guy she was with, clearly irritated at her, said, “You can see stuff like this in Brooklyn on every block.” I don’t know what came over me, but I became slightly indignant. I stopped, looked at him and said, “You might find it everywhere in Brooklyn, but it isn’t everywhere in the South.”
That was my weak attempt to make a complex point. Knoxville is cool to me. The art in the alleys, the street performers, the domestically challenged, none are unique or originally Knoxville. Nonetheless, we have culture in this town you don’t find everywhere in the Bible Belt. Sure, Brooklyn has it on every corner, but that comes at a very high price.
Jumping off my mini-high horse, I continued across Gay Street toward Babalu Tacos & Tapas.
I walked in the large orange door and was greeted by equally orange seats, booths on the wall to the far left and the word “Babalu” painted on the wall. Not a Tennessee Orange. More like a retro-1970s bean-bag chair orange.
The greeter station had a projection screen displaying just behind and above it. The bar was in the center front of the room. The room is much brighter than most bars in the downtown area. Well, probably because it is a restaurant more so than a bar. I mean, they close at 11 p.m. on the weekends. That’s totally restaurant hours.
The dining room is the majority of Babalu. On the back wall of the room is a J.C. Penney sign. This gives it a very brief historic feel, but the entire room is very updated and modern. It is a great repurposing of the space. Stone all over the restrooms, smoothed concrete floors and lots and lots of space for dining.
Babalu serves tacos and tapas, which range from $10-$15. The tapas plates feature awesome items like braised beef short rib and Gulf shrimp in a chipotle sauce with cilantro. The restaurant also offers a healthy dose of specialty margaritas and cocktails, house-made sangria and specialty wine and tequila menus.
Babalu is great. I have nothing bad to say about the place. Its prices and offerings differentiate it from the neighboring restaurants and bars, plus Babalu stylishly takes an old empty space and fills it with an atmosphere where people can work, eat and socialize.
So thank you, Babalu.