The former Bennigan’s Restaurant has not served any hungry or thirsty customers for seven or eight years now, and the walls that have only held occasional tenants since that time are finally coming down.
The first establishment in Johnson City to offer liquor by the drink opened in the fall of 1983, making it the first in the Tri-Cities to do so.
The 6,200-square-foot building and parking makes up a 1.8-acre lot at 2280 N. Roan St. It is being demolished to make way for a Longhorn SteakHouse.
But the memories remain.
“I know for a long time it was a great place to go,” said Gary Mabrey, Johnson City-Jonesborough-Washington County Chamber of Commerce president and CEO. “It was known as a watering hole.”
Johnson City Vice Mayor Phil Carriger said the restaurant’s ability to serve liquor by the drink made it very popular and started the ball rolling for other restaurants to locate in the city, including O’Charley’s, Applebee’s, Red Lobster and The Olive Garden.
“I can tell you this, you used to have to stand in line forever to get a seat,” Carriger said. “It was the first place to sell liquor by the drink, and it gave the city a jump on Bristol and Kingsport. It really opened Johnson City up.”
Herb Seaton, owner of Johnson City’s Colonial Center, said Monday he has signed a lease agreement with Longhorn SteakHouse to build a restaurant on the site.
Seaton said the Bennigan’s Corp. “got in trouble” and sold the Johnson City restaurant as well as other restaurants in Memphis. He also said Steak and Ale moved in near the site, but they were later bought out by Hooter’s.
“O lord — you can imagine — it was a popular place,” he said about Bennigan’s. “Lots of people that sat in the bar seats eventually had their names engraved in the seats. But I went there, and my mother liked to go there. We’re looking forward to getting the Longhorn SteakHouse.”
Planning Director Jim Donnelly said the site had always had vehicle access problems, including the fact that people traveling on the mall side of the road were forced to drive past the old restaurant quite a ways, then turn around and drive back to it. He said the building had been used after it was closed during the holidays for the selling of Halloween costumes and Christmas trees.
“Longhorn has submitted plans with us, and that process is moving forward,” he said.