Alongside Old North is a historic mini-downtown along North Central at Anderson, a distinct pocket of fun fondly known since about 1900 as Happy Holler. It started about 1885 when an Irish immigrant named Kavanaugh noticed that many farmers’ wagons seemed to have trouble negotiating a steep dip in the road into Knoxville. As wagons got stuck in the mud, or broke axels, he figured they could use a drink, and opened a saloon here. It was a hit, aided by the fact that the nearby Brookside Mill was opening about the same time.
For years, despite the presence of the gorgeous Holy Ghost Catholic Church, Happy Holler had a rough reputation, with multiple beer joints and a boxing ring (world heavyweight champ Big John Tate trained here in the ’70s). It’s much revived today, with restaurants and bars, a big food co-op, an unusual performance venue, a rare-record store, a walk-up ice-cream and hot-dog stand, the almost indescribable Time Warp Tea Room, and a rejuvenated ca. 1930 movie theater, the Central Cinema.
North Central has been in a state of rapid renovation in recent years, with bakeries, sandwich shops, and other new uses for old buildings. One that needs no renovation is Rankin’s, in a plain cinderblock building at 2200 N. Central but arguably Knoxville’s oldest continuously open restaurant, an old-school diner there since about 1950 and popular at breakfast and lunch today.
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