The Super Bowl champ and University of Tennessee alum gives us all the details on opening his first restaurant right in the shadow of the stadium where he became a football legend.

By Rebecca Angel Baer
August 13, 2020
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Before the rainbow of colors of confetti showered down on the super star quarterback hoisting the Lombardi trophy above his head for his first Super Bowl win ( or the second), and before the Nationwide commercials that had him singing alongside Brad Paisley, Peyton Manning earned household name status as a Tennessee Volunteer. Manning’s football career truly took root on the field at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, each Saturday of the season during his four years as a University of Tennessee student.

Now retired from professional football, the proud Vols alum is coming back to the east Tennessee college town he once called home. No, he’s not relocating but he is opening a restaurant just steps away from that hallowed sports ground where he led his Vols to victory time and time again. Saloon 16 gets its name thanks to a clever pairing from Manning’s wife Ashley of his nickname, “The Sheriff” and his number while he played at UT, 16. The bar/restaurant concept will offer elevated bar fare and special experience for any Vols fan on a night out, as a pre-game meal, or even for the locals to hit up at lunchtime.

Graduate Hotels

 It will be a part of the Graduate Knoxville, the latest installment from Graduate Hotels, the collection of upscale hotels geared towards college towns and the loyal fans they draw. Each Graduate outpost is uniquely designed to be a walk down memory lane for the alums and fans of each university located in that particular town. The Graduate Knoxville, opening its doors this week, boasts a color scheme that champions that famous Tennessee Orange with accents of white and blue and a décor rich with one of a kind touches that UT alums will recognize and appreciate. When checking in, for example, guests will find that the front desk is a Vol-Navy inspired tailgate boat, just like the ones that take to the Tennessee River on game day.

The partnership between Manning and Graduate Hotels was a natural fit for his first restaurant not only because the Super Bowl champ is a proud Vols alum, but so too is his friend and the CEO and founder of Graduate Hotels, as Manning shared with Southern Living in a recent phone call.

“It is my alma mater, The University of Tennessee. And on top of that to partner with Ben Weprin and the Graduate, I know this has been an extremely meaningful project for him. He’s also a UT Alum and obviously they have I think over 25 Graduates around the country now but obviously there’s only one where Ben went to college.”

This was a sentiment Weprin echoed when we spoke to him as well. “We take it as a real honor to celebrate each one of these markets and communities and when you get to do your own alma mater, it’s like an elevated experience really. Telling that story through the eyes of such a living legend, an icon, as Peyton who cares so much the school… He’s such a Volunteer. He just embodies the spirit. He’s so committed and has been ever since he’s been a student. Makes you feel even more appreciative for your school and have that sort of school pride and nostalgia for sure.”

While Manning has prior experience investing in restaurants, Saloon 16 will be his first restaurant where he is owner and has ownership on the entire concept from day one. Weprin shared that Manning had a part in every detail that went into creating the entire experience.

“Peyton is one of the most detail-oriented people I’ve ever worked with. He’s so meticulous. He picked every single item he named on the menu, every single song on the juke box, {and} every picture on the wall … we got from his personal collection… I really think this space is, if Peyton were to build a saloon in his basement this is exactly what it would look like.” Weprin said. And don’t worry football purists, Manning assured us that “Rocky Top” is at the ready in that jukebox.

Graduate Hotels

Much as the name suggests, Saloon 16 is fashioned to look like you walked back in time to a western saloon, with dark wood and leather features and authentic touches fit for cowboys like the mahogany top bar that dates back to the 1800s, complete with a beer mug sliding track. But, as Weprin said, the décor is strongly defined by the memorabilia that came directly from Manning, or rather from his mother.

“Ben basically dug into these old storage bins that my mother sent up to Knoxville. I think partially because she thought it would be good to have up there somewhere, but I think mainly to get it out of her house. She and my father were doing some spring cleaning and getting rid of some stuff from their three boys who don’t live there anymore. So, she sent a bunch of stuff, recruiting letters and pictures, and posters. You name it,” Manning said. But he was quick to add that he did not want Saloon 16 to be a shrine to him, but rather a place he can honor the people who meant so much to him during his time in Knoxville.

Graduate Hotels

“There’s a lot of pictures in there of me but the way I see it, every time I go in there, is all the pictures or the memorabilia, it’s all connected with somebody that was important to me in my Tennessee journey. You know it’s a picture with me with the equipment managers. It’s me with Phillip Fulmer. It’s me with some of my teammates. It’s me and some of my professors. I see this Saloon as a kind of give back to the people who’ve had a big impact on me and I look forward to those people coming in and seeing it, and maybe seeing … how important they were to me. And if all Tennessee fans and students and graduate students get a thrill out of going in there, that’s even better.”

Along with menu items paying tribute to everyone from his professors to another University of Tennessee legend, Pat Summitt, Manning honors several other UT football players with special sheriff badge stars on the bar. “It’s 20 names that either I played with or just had an impact on me as a player. Some guys that I’m really close friends with and not necessarily the greatest players of all time at Tennessee, you can find 100 of those. These are just people who had a big impact on me… Maybe they didn’t even know they had a big impact on me,” he said.

Both the hotel and Saloon 16 opened their doors August 13, but are doing so responsibly, following state guidelines regarding safety amid the coronavirus pandemic. Social distancing efforts are in place. For more information on what the Graduate is doing in light of Covid-19, you can read more here.

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We know that for any Tennessee Volunteer, this is a must-add to any Knoxville vacation and will quickly become a favorite spot.