My friend Jessica remembers a night at Old College Inn, a bar on the University of Tennessee strip in Knoxville, when a Georgia fan visiting for the football game offered to buy her a beer.
“I already have a beer,” she told him. “But I could use some cheese bings.”
If you went to the University of Tennessee, particularly between the eighties and early aughts, you probably have a cheese bings story, too—or at least an Old College Inn story, a place so legendary we called it by initials, “OCI.” Inside the shotgun space as dark as a wood-paneled basement, diners would order steaks or metts and beans by day until students rolled in late-night for pitchers of beer and cheese bings—cubes of cheddar and pepper-jack cheese the size of dice, coated in breading, fried crisp, and served with mustard and marinara dipping sauces. After a few changes of hands and several decades (the Polo-green awning claimed an established date of 1939), OCI closed. Jersey retired. Cheese bings, though? Still playing.
Gus’s Good Times Deli, around the corner, added them to the sandwich shop menu a few years ago. But when I heard that cheese bings would be served at Saloon 16, Peyton Manning’s bar inside the newly opened Graduate Hotel, it felt like the comeback was complete. I went to UT during the Peyton Manning years, and I remember seeing him at OCI on more than one occasion.
“If you were at UT Knoxville in the nineties, OCI and cheese bings were a part of your weekly routine, right?” Manning says. “Going to class and practice for me, OCI is gonna fit somewhere along the way, or maybe a little later in the evening, and cheese bings is a natural calling.”
The menu at Saloon 16, a play on Manning’s nickname “the Sheriff” and the number on his UT jersey, provides a map to his college years—a time-travel portal down memory lanes. Along with cheese bings, the bar offers Rooster sliders, a nod to the fried chicken sandwiches blanketed in American cheese sold at the deli at the nearby Shell gas station. Manning name-checks favorite establishments, from steakhouses to dive bars to sandwich shops like Gus’s, as well as professors and athletes. “We could be here all day and go down the menu,” he says, telling stories about its inspirations. “We’re just trying to bring up college memories and experiences. It was a great way to pay tribute to a lot of people who have had a big impact on me in my Tennessee journey.”
And sure enough, it’s not even so much about the food but the feelings they conjure, connecting us to our experiences—no matter the alma mater—to a time of freedom and fun with friends or the salve of comfort food for young heartbreaks and homesickness.
Chef Tandy Wilson, the James Beard Award–winning owner of City House in Nashville, also went to UT during the Manning era and got his start at restaurants in Knoxville. “I love cheese bings,” he texts. And then later he told me: “You know they come frozen from a bag, right? I can probably find them for you.” Yet another friend confirmed. On a night before cell phones, someone tracked her down by calling her at OCI. When she went back to the kitchen to take the call, there sat a bag of bings.
Knoxville restaurateur Martha Boggs worked at OCI from 1983 to 1993. She remembers cheese bings going on the menu in the mid-eighties after a food salesman suggested they add them due to the popularity of their mozzarella sticks. Around that time, stadium goalposts that had been torn down by fans after big UT wins began finding their way into the restaurant. For example, Boggs worked the night a group of students marched down the strip in the eighties with a goalpost hoisted on their shoulders after a big win. The manager greeted them out front. “Boys, I’ll give you all the beer and Jägermeister you can drink if you bring that in here,” she recalls him saying. By the time she left the job, she says three different goalposts lived in OCI.
And so maybe that’s the key to cheese bings—making new memories while surrounded by old ones. Location matters. Like the way a Fenway Frank hotdog tastes better at Red Sox stadium, maybe cheese bings need to happen in the presence of UT memorabilia. Manning’s Saloon 16, also with dark-paneled walls, has it in droves with deep cuts from his personal collection lining the space.
“When I got drafted by the Colts, my mom basically took all of my Tennessee stuff…about three trunks of recruiting letters, any kind of pictures from college with students, buddies, teammates…and said, ‘Hey Peyton, I’m doing a cleaning here, right? I’m getting this stuff out of my house. Where do you want it?’” he recalls. “I’m like, ‘I’m moving to Indianapolis, I’m trying to find an apartment to stay in. I’ve got to go play quarterback for the Colts, I don’t have room for it.’” He suggested she send it to the UT equipment room. “It has been sitting there doing nothing. Probably collecting cobwebs.”
Graduate Hotels CEO and founder Ben Weprin, also a UT alum, told Manning the collection felt like striking gold. They might also add photos of playbooks, notes, and scouting reports that turned up recently (after a long search) in former UT (now current Duke) coach David Cutcliffe’s attic.
To be sure, all of the details at Saloon 16 come straight from the Sheriff, including every song on the jukebox. You’ll find the Band and Tom Petty, but since it’s a saloon, Manning keeps it predominantly country—Johnny Cash to George Strait to Kenny Chesney. He suggests putting on one of those songs while eating a plate of cheese bings and drinking a Big Chevy’s Moonshine, a corn-from-a-jar cocktail in an orange Tennessee hue that he named for offensive lineman and teammate Jeff Smith.
“Big Chevy’s Moonshine, with OCI cheese bings and a little Eric Church,” he says. “That’s hard to beat.”