Last week, I wrote about Nashville – a city that I still love but that’s changed immeasurably in the last decade. And while Nashville is Tennessee’s official capital, Knoxville is the state’s eastern metropolis – albeit with a much smaller population. I’d been to Knoxville a couple of times before (Mr Foodie’s parents moved to East Tennessee in 2019 so it’s been our home base in the US for a few years now) but this spring was the first time I felt like I actually got the city. It has a compact Downtown neighbourhood, with an atmospheric Old City that’s tiny but distinctive, and some interesting suburbs that I need to spend a lot more time exploring. It’s also home to the iconic golden globe, built when Knoxville hosted the World’s Fair in 1982 – scale the tower for a bird’s eye view of the city. But more to the point, it feels a lot more local and a lot less busy than Nashville.
We only discovered this gem on our last night in Tennessee, but it quickly became apparent we’d saved the best till last. Chef Joseph Lenn is a James Beard Award winner for his wood-fired Appalachian dining. And I can see why. The slow-smoked chicken wings with Alabama white sauce were a perfect combination of sticky, smoky and tangy – I’m sure I will try, and fail, to recreate them at home. But I also loved the smoked trout dip with BBQ chips and the pickled vegetable salad with buttermilk dressing to start, plus the pork osso buco with grits, braised red cabbage and gremolata as my main course. The panna cotta and Pinot Noir were spectacular too, as was the service and overall vibe of the location. J.C. Holdway comes highly recommended.
Myrtle’s Chicken & Beer
If you read my article about restaurants in Nashville, you’ll be familiar with the concept of Nashville hot chicken. Well, let me introduce you to Knoxville hot chicken – equally spicy but slightly saucier (at least, that was my experience!). The first time I tried it was at Myrtle’s on Market Square in Downtown Knoxville, and I couldn’t get enough of it. The bone-in chicken was crispy and properly spicy, but not to the detriment of the flavour. It came with two sides – I opted for baked beans and coleslaw – both of which were outstanding. However, this was a couple of years ago and I see from Myrtle’s website that it’s now under new ownership; so if standards have slipped, I can only apologise!
Perhaps a safer bet for Knoxville hot chicken is Jackie’s Dream – a soul food café that’s been going strong since Jackie opened her doors in 2015. A short drive from the centre, in North Knoxville, Jackie’s Dream serves up not only her famous chicken (which is finger-lickin’ hot) but also southern classics like fried green tomatoes, catfish and cornbread. It’s a no-nonsense location, but a must-visit eatery while you’re in Knoxville.
Back in Downtown Knoxville, you’re perhaps in need of a cooling cocktail… Look no further than Chivo Taqueria, where the “Chupacabra” is a heady mix of jalapeno-infused tequila, fresh lime juice and agave syrup. The tacos here are not your classic Tex-Mex assortment. Instead, they’re a fusion of flavours that are as wild as their names. My favourites included the “Taters Gonna Tate”, featuring tater tots and chorizo (much better than it sounds) and the “Big Shrimpin” with a buffalo/blue cheese/battered shrimp combo that was absolutely banging. We worked our way through most of the taco menu and were impressed by almost all of them. A fun night out!
Stock & Barrel
Owned by the same restaurant group as Chivo, Stock & Barrel specialises in gourmet burgers, craft beer and bourbon. And they do a pretty good job at all three. Because I am addicted to all things chilli, I tried “The Buffalo”: a beef patty with buffalo sauce, buttermilk-blue cheese dressing and celery. A well-balanced combination of heating and cooling flavours, plus crunchy and smooth textures. We also enjoyed the fried pickles dipped in buttermilk-ranch. I’d like to tell you more about their famous Old Fashioneds, but I can’t because we’d just done a distillery tasting and memories are, well, hazy…
Which brings us onto PostModern Spirits, which isn’t technically a bar but is a very good way to try lots of the local liquor. In fact, it describes itself as a craft distillery and tasting room that also offers tours. We went as part of a 40th birthday extravaganza (a few of us had missed birthdays because of covid) so we got the full works: a tour of the distillery, followed by a tasting of pretty much every spirit on offer. And a cocktail to top it all off. My favourite spirit was the Amaro Arancia – a bitter orange, Italian-style liqueur – of which I brought a bottle home and have been experimenting with it in various cocktail recipes. But at PostModern’s tasting room itself, I loved their New Fashioned: a malt whiskey-based sipper of a cocktail with chamomile liqueur (both spirits coming from the distillery itself, of course).
Speaking of tasting, right next door to PostModern Spirits you’ll find Pour Taproom: a self-serve bar at which you can tap no less than 68 beers, wines, ciders, seltzers and more. You pay by the ounce, which means you can pour as much or as little as you like – and that makes it a great way to sample something before you commit. Ideal for the indecisive drinker!
Mahalo Coffee Roasters
After all that food and booze, a little pick-me-up might be in order. For a fix of the caffeinated kind, head to Mahalo Coffee Roasters on Union Avenue, where a cortado or flat white will set you straight. You can also buy Mahalo’s bean blends if you prefer to brew your own cup of joe at home.
5 Great Places to Eat in East Tennessee
The Bus Stop Cafe, Lenoir City
Connie’s iconic turquoise bus is impossible to find on Google, so you’ll just have to trust me and drive up Lee Highway from Lenoir City until you find it. Once you do, and if the weather’s good, you can sit outside the Bus Stop Cafe at an assortment of donated tables and chairs, having placed your order at the tiny bus window. Connie reels off her list of daily specials – including various sandwiches, soups, pasta dishes and sweet treats – all of which are made from scratch on the bus. I particularly enjoyed the tortellini soup, which was a meal in itself but made more substantial by dipping garlic bread into the broth. Pure comfort food.
The Walnut Kitchen, Maryville
South of Knoxville, not too far from the airport, you’ll reach Maryville – home to The Walnut Kitchen, a rustic restaurant with a wood-fired grill, excellent meat and an enticing cocktail list. I tried their Manhattan, their Butcher’s Board laden with local charcuterie, and their flank steak with creamy mash and jus. The Walnut Kitchen’s meat comes from Simpson’s – a Tennessee farmer-owned butcher – which explains its superior quality. But the way the chefs treat and prepare the food is clearly just as carefully done.
Sons of Smoke, Loudon
Speaking of meat, you can’t come to Tennessee without trying the state’s style of BBQ, which is distinctly different from its Texas, Carolina and Kansas City counterparts. Located in the historic centre of Loudon, Sons of Smoke hits the spot with its sticky BBQ pork ribs plus classic American sides like mac & cheese and baked beans. They also have a food truck, which means that if you go to any events in the area, you’re likely to spot them selling their BBQ wares from the side of the trailer. (We went to the LoCo Drive-in and hey presto, there were Sons of Smoke!)
Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams, Madisonville
While Benton’s may be a butcher rather than a restaurant, this old-school meat mecca does supply many of the restaurants in the area – so you’ll see his wares on menus throughout East Tennessee. If you happen to have a kitchen, however, pick up a pound of Benton’s bacon or hot dogs and find out what all the fuss is about. You’ll spot the store along Highway 411 between Vonore and Madisonville. Porky perfection.
Ole Red, Gatlinburg
I wasn’t sure whether to include this last recommendation because it’s pure cheesiness. Then again, the whole of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg are pure cheesiness – but if you’re visiting Dollywood, you’re gonna need to eat. Ole Red, on Gatlinburg’s main drag, serves up buckets of fried chicken, pulled pork sandwiches and pints of amber ale. But it’s also inspired by country music legend Blake Shelton’s song of the same name. Which means it not only boasts live country music every night – you can even get your photo taken next to a giant cut-out of the big man himself. (He’s almost 2 metres tall, so I looked tiny!)
Planning a trip to Tennessee? Check out my Foodie’s Guide to Nashville! And if you like these Foodie Travel Guides, follow A Foodie Abroad on Instagram for all my latest coverage of destinations outside of Amsterdam.
On your travels and looking for inspiration? Take a self-guided walking tour with GPSmyCity to experience the food scene in Knoxville!