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New Eatery Aims to Raise Scenic City's Cocktail Consciousness

This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press.


Chattanooga is about to have its cocktail consciousness raised.

Hand-cut, "artisanal" ice cubes and more than 350 brands of liquor stacked high behind a 30-foot-long bar will greet customers at STIR, a restaurant due to open in early November at the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel.

"We'll have what we call an 'ice chef,'" said Allen Corey, founder and president of Chattanooga's Square One Holding Co., which owns the restaurant.

The ice chef will use a Clinebell brand ice machine to turn purified water into crystal-clear, 300-pound blocks of ice — like those that ice sculptors use. A hoist in the kitchen will lift the hefty slabs, which will be sawed, chipped and shaved into a variety of cocktail-cooling shapes and sizes, from 2-inch cubes for squat rocks glasses to 1-by-4-inch lengths for taller Collins glasses.

No other restaurant in Tennessee carves cubes out of 300-pound ice slabs, said Robert Werk, Square One's chief operating officer.

"No bubbles, no clouds," Werk said. "When you look at typical ice, it's cloudy."

The crystal-clear ice is favored by trendy, modern-day mixologists because they say it melts slowly, keeps cocktails cold and slows dilution.

The ice is one of the main attractions that STIR's creators hope will set the restaurant apart and make it a destination.

An oyster bar, outdoor patio, and a "Kabooze" room for private gatherings are some other features planned for STIR, which is under construction in a 5,300-square-foot space at the corner of Market and E. 14th streets inside the old, brick train station.

The restaurant's food will be sourced, whenever possible, from within 100 miles. To develop the most "craveable" dishes, the restaurant's founders ran all the menu items past tasting panels of both men and women.

The taste testing continued Tuesday, when Corey and Werk headed to Chapel Hill, N.C., to sample 15 potential house cocktails prepared by renowned classic cocktail mixologist Gary Crunkleton, who's acting as an advisor to the restaurant.

While sophisticated, STIR will be "approachable," Corey said, and it should appeal to everybody.

"Someone could get a tallboy Pabst for $3," said Corey. A lunch guest, he said, can get "in and out for $10."

The roughly 30 entrees on the dinner menu will range in price from $10 to $25, Werk said.

"The vast majority would be under $20," he said.

Corey and Werk previously helped lead Craftworks Restaurants and Breweries, a Chattanooga- and Broomfield, Colo.-based multi-brand chain of almost 200 restaurants. In Chattanooga, the company operates Bluewater Grille and two Big River Grille and Brewing Works.

Corey stepped down in 2013 as CEO of Craftworks. Werk was Craftworks' senior vice president of operations until July 2014.

"They absolutely know what they're doing," said Jon Kinsey, Chattanooga's former mayor who's one of the owners of the Chattanooga Choo Choo. "We're really excited about them. Their team is as qualified as any restaurant organization in the country."

This is the first new restaurant to open in the renovated Choo Choo Hotel. There's room for one more restaurant, Kinsey said, which hasn't yet been selected.

STIR joins a list of new downtown restaurants, such as Puckett's Grocery and Restaurant and The Feed Co. Table and Tavern, which also opened in buildings that Kinsey co-owns.

The former mayor doesn't think Chattanooga has too many restaurants.

"Nashville has probably seen 10 times the number of restaurants Chattanooga has," he said. "What happens is, those that do a good job continue."

Kinsey agreed that STIR may popularize cocktails in the same way that brew pubs such as the Big River Grill got diners interested in microbrews.

"[Cocktail drinking] is a big thing throughout the country," Kinsey said. "There have been some efforts here, but not to the degree to what STIR does."