Sexy Sophistication on Market Square

Nathan Sparks

The Oliver Royale blends debonair décor with flavorful dishes in Knoxville’s downtown

When you walk into The Oliver Royale on Market Square, you’re really entering the Jersey Lily Saloon. That’s what it was in 1876, when the Kern’s Bakery and Confectionery Building was built. Now also home to the Oliver Hotel, Tupelo Honey, and the Peter Kern Library speakeasy, the edifice was designed by architecture icon Joseph Francis Baumann with flourishes of Italianate round-arched windows, decorative hood molds, and elaborate bracketed cornices. The bar was named for Lily Langtry, the red-haired, green-eyed actress from the Isle of Jersey who was also the mistress of the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII.

The Oliver Royale channels Jersey Lily’s sexy sophistication in a way that resonates with its urbane diners. General Manager Sondra Richardson—who got her upscale-dining chops at a tony Palm Beach, Florida, steakhouse—gets it: “We’re a little slice of New York elegance,” she says. 

When the Royale was renovated in 2015, the owners hired Brooklyn-based Home Studios, a firm founded by a former fiction editor to “tell the stories of inspired outsiders through the artforms of architecture and interior design.” So, the feeling that you’re walking into a novel is no accident. 

The renovators pulled up five layers of flooring from the storefront’s decades as an Endicott-Johnson shoe store and a White Stores grocery to reveal dark wood that was re-laid on either side of basket weave-patterned tile that runs up the center area and—in concert with a line of globe light fixtures paired on either ends of smooth steel arms—leads to the Gatsby-worthy bar in the back. The white brick walls are adorned with large abstract art, plus one striking Lauren Lazarus painting of flowers. A hollow cathedral ceiling, rubbed with an industrial gray, works with wood center-ceiling sound-panels to deaden the decibels of chatty downtowners. 

Executive Chef Darin Hoagland learned to tantalize the tastes of culinary highbrows at Café Maxx in Pompano, Florida, at Fort Lauderdale’s Riverside Hotel and Bistro Mezzaluna. He moved to Knoxville in 2017 with family and started at The Oliver Royale as a line cook under John Gatlin. He became executive chef a year ago. “I keep my southern roots and add fresh seafood and tropical fruits,” he says. “I keep it fresh and different.”

In the “To Begin” section, the Smoked Salmon Arancini mixes house-smoked salmon in tasty Italian rice balls with asparagus tips and cream, micro frisée, dill, and scrumptious Benton’s ham crisps. Though a misnomer, the Blackened Tuna “Fish N’ Chips” is among the best items on the menu, with slices of tuna with barrel-aged soy, citrus, spicy mayo, mixed root vegetable chips, and red-veined sorrel.

The Seafood Ravioli entrée features shrimp, scallops, crab, San Marzano tomatoes, cured lemon, Kalamata olives, capers, roasted red peppers, white wine, butter, and herbs.  

Confit Duck Leg is hearty and refined at the same time. It comes atop a mixed bean cassoulet that includes cranberry beans, Peruvian lima beans, gremolata, crispy pork belly, chipotle mayonnaise, okra crisps, and a demi-glace that takes Hoagland three days to make.

Many diners return to the Royale just for the Oliver Burger, topped with whole grain mustard-infused Welsh cheddar, tomato and apple chutney, Benton’s ham crisps, and boardwalk fries. 

If there is a short ribs contest among downtown restaurants, don’t count this Confit Short Rib out. It comes with scallion-whipped potatoes, confit baby carrots, English peas, celeriac, and that heavenly demi-glace.  

Pan-Seared Monkfish is savory and flavorful atop cauliflower purée, roasted Romanesco, Mediterranean salsa, heirloom tomato, cured olives, and crispy leeks. 

Desserts include Truffles and Macarons, a tasting of assorted seasonally inspired chocolate truffles and local macarons. But don’t miss the Banana Spring Rolls of pineapple and rum caramel, vanilla ice cream, and brûléed bananas.   

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