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A Foodie’s Guide to Restaurants in Knoxville and East Tennessee

Some time ago, 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 while now) but this year 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.

Directly south of Downtown Knoxville is the Tennessee River, which winds southwest towards Maryville, Loudon and Vonore – the area where my in-laws live, and where many of the restaurant recommendations in the second part of this post are to be found. Go southeast from Knoxville instead, and you reach Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg – home to Dollywood and all the trappings of tourism in its gaudy glory. Alternatively, head north towards Norris Lake – a beautiful area for camping in nature (but unfortunately I didn’t visit any restaurants while I was there!). So if you find yourself in Knoxville, don’t head straight to Nashville or Memphis. Take your time: explore Knoxville itself before driving out into the rolling, blue-green, tree-covered Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee. Here’s where to eat along the way…

10 of the Best Restaurants and Bars in Knoxville

J.C. Holdway

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.

Pork osso buco at J.C. Holdway

Kefi

Not far behind is Kefi – a modern Greek restaurant that specialises in cocktails and small sharing plates. I’m fairly particular about the way my cocktails are mixed (many bars make them far too sweet) but Kefi’s were absolutely spectacular. My mother-in-law declared her Old Fashioned to be the best she’d ever had, while I loved the refreshing pineapple and habanero hit of the Midas Touch and the cool, minty Tears of Chios. The food was pretty good too: we enjoyed the rich pastitsio, the moreish meatballs and the golden roasted cauliflower, while the flaming saganaki cheese added a theatrical touch. Less impressive were the stuffed vine leaves, which were cold and tasted store bought, but they were the only dish we didn’t finish to the point of plate-licking. The Greek wines were delicious and affordably priced, too.

Stellar cocktails at Greek restaurant Kefi

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!

Knoxville hot chicken at Myrtle’s

Jackie’s Dream

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.

The original soul food at Jackie’s Dream

Chivo Taqueria

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!

Taco’s and cocktails at Chivo Taqueria

Sweet P’s Barbecue and Downtown Dive

Wherever you go in the Deep South, every city has its own version of BBQ. And in Downtown Knoxville, one of the best places to try Tennessee BBQ is Sweet P’s Barbecue and Downtown Dive. Service is canteen-style, which means you order from a counter, get your food on disposable plates, pay at the register and take your tray to a table. Every day, Sweet P’s serves a different special plus two sides of your choice – which works out as a good value lunch. We tried the smoked andouille sausage with mac ‘n cheese and coleslaw, all of which were flavoursome and fresh. For those with a heartier appetite, try the sampler plate featuring brisket, pork ribs, pulled chicken or pork plus three sides. The meat was classic southern barbecue (a little on the dry side but generally good) while the baked beans and greens were standout for me.

Smoked sausage and sides at Sweet P’s

Stock & Barrel

Owned by the same restaurant group as Chivo (see above), 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…

The Buffalo burger at Stock & Barrel

PostModern Spirits

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).

PostModern Spirits: New Fashioned (foreground); spirit tasting (background)

Pour Taproom

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 Bus Stop Cafe

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!)

BBQ pork ribs at 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!

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