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Knoxville’s acclaimed culinary scene has been ignited by award-winning chefs and epicurean entrepreneurs whose menus boast creative flavor combos and locally sourced ingredients. Whatever your tastes — Southern traditions to international fare, white tablecloth service to beer garden eats — dining in Knoxville is to be savored.
Knoxville is located within the Tennessee River Valley in East Tennessee, about 180 miles east of Nashville and 250 miles south of Cincinnati. The city is served by McGhee Tyson Airport 12 miles south in Alcoa, Tennessee.
My visit was hosted by the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development and Visit Knoxville, but all opinions and recommendations expressed here are my own. Here are my outstanding gustatory experiences, which are listed in no particular order, to guide your next itinerary:
When your hankering is for barbecue, you’ll want to head to Sweet P’s Barbecue and Downtown Dive. The popular eatery, which is definitely not a dive, specializes in the art of slow-cook and smoked barbecue meat and poultry.
The ambiance is relaxed urban chic decked out in concrete floors and raw exposed ceilings. The brick walls are hung with poster art and memorabilia from the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville. The menu, hand-written on a large chalkboard high above the order counter, is inspired by Southern classics made fresh daily. For outdoor dining, there’s an expansive, secluded beer garden behind the building.
My recommendation is to order the sampler plate, which includes a pork or chicken sandwich, a quarter-rack of ribs, and sliced brisket. You also get to choose three sides, which include the yummiest mac and cheese ever, pinto beans, tater salad, and something called Sauteed Greens n’ Things — a collard green mashup with bacon, black-eyed peas, and other veggies. Craft beer and wine are also available. Then you have another decision to make — do you douse your meat with thick sauce, thin sauce, hot sauce, or all three? For dessert, it’s hands down — you want the bacon chocolate chip cookie.
A fine dining restaurant on Market Square, Oliver Royale exudes an ambiance that teams Southern hospitality with European charm. The three-story brick building with arched windows, originally built as a bakery in 1876, is one of the oldest in Knoxville. Painstaking renovation transformed it into The Oliver Hotel, a 28-room boutique hotel, as well as two restaurants and an upscale speakeasy.
Oliver Royale, open for dinner and weekend brunch, is decorated with marble-top tables, bistro chairs, leather banquettes, and vintage mirrors. The wood floors are original to the building. An awning-clad patio at the front of the restaurant looks onto the park.
The menu evolves to capture the latest seasonal ingredients from local purveyors and farmers. Every dish is plated with panache — an edible flower here, a truffle dusting there. Pastas are made in-house daily. My selections were the beet and burrata salad and the shrimp and scallop risotto, both of which delivered layered flavor profiles. Other entrees that day were pan-seared monkfish and confit short rib. The multi-page beverage menu includes contemporary renditions of classic cocktails, and rare wines and spirits.
Step back into yesteryear at The Phoenix Pharmacy And Fountain, where an old-fashioned ice cream parlor scoops up sweet delights. Sundaes, shakes, malts, floats, and sodas feature housemade ice cream, whipped cream, and marshmallow fluff. Order your favorite concoction from a half-dozen or so rotating ice cream flavors and oodles of toppings, or pick a specialty creation from the menu. My choice was Nana’s Pudding, a delicious sundae composed of banana pudding, vanilla bean ice cream, sliced bananas, butterscotch syrup, whipped cream, and oatmeal cookie crisps. Mocha lovers are sure to engage with the Jersey Cow float, which dunks coffee ice cream in Coca-Cola and drizzles it with chocolate.
The store is a vision of nostalgia, decked out as it might have appeared in the 1930s. Antique cabinets and cupboards are lined with bottles of syrups, tonics, and sundries from the era. Tucked in the back is a totally modern, full-service pharmacy, along with an over-the-counter retail section.
Pro Tip: Visit the Phoenix when you are hungry — the servings are huge!
Imagine drinking a craft beer poured into an oddly shaped glass that resembles a hurricane globe or a tilted snifter. That’s what you’ll get at Pretentious Beer Company. Brewmeister Matthew Cummings is also a glass-blowing artist whose studio and retail store, Pretentious Glass Co., is next door to the bar. He and his team not only make (and sell) the glassware, but they also created the colorful, swirly tap handles on the beer kegs.
About 16 beers are available at any given time. Among them are sours, IPAs, pilsners, ales, and stouts. Depending on the day, you might find Barrel Reserve 5am., which is brewed with Jim Beam Bourbon. Or try something seemingly outrageous, like Fairy Floss, a cotton candy sour concocted with blackberry, tangerine, vanilla, and marshmallow. It tastes better than it sounds. Then watch the glass-blowers at work while you sip your brew.
A cheerful fast-casual eatery, Yassin’s Falafel House is renowned for authentic Mediterranean food in a friendly atmosphere. A compact classic menu lists freshly prepared sandwiches, salads, combo plates, a few sides — and baklava, of course. Vegan and gluten-free options are available. The chicken, gyro, and falafel dishes can be ordered with spicy or regular heat.
I don’t often deal in superlatives, but I can report, after sampling several dishes, Yassin’s is the best Mediterranean food I’ve ever eaten. The falafel is crisp on the outside and tender on the inside, the chicken shawarma is loaded with flavor, and the pita bread is soft with just the right amount of chewy. The hummus — generously garnished with olives and chickpeas — is super creamy. Months after my visit, I’m still thinking fondly of Yassin’s Falafel House.
The dining venue of The Tennessean Hotel, The Drawing Room is an intimate venue with paneled walls and Asian-style carpets. Cushy sofas and club chairs circle low tables, where breakfast, cocktails, and dinner are served. Afternoon tea service is also available.
My group assembled in The Drawing Room for pre-dinner cocktails and appetizers of blackened tenderloin tips with horseradish and bearnaise sauce, and an extraordinary cheese and charcuterie board. Quite memorable — and a house specialty — is the Smoked Old Fashioned, which is served in Baccarat crystal and with a single oversized ball of ice to slow the dilution process.
Breakfast selections include an assortment of egg stylings, pancakes, and shrimp and grits. Avocado toast can be ordered with or without lox and a poached egg, and I went for it all. I did not have dinner in the Drawing Room, but the maple pecan–crusted salmon, black angus filet, and fried lobster tail were definitely enticing.
A craft microbrewery with a scratch kitchen, Balter Beerworks was upcycled from a once-abandoned gas station. The venue today sports a rustic urban aesthetic with a bank of garage doors still in place and exposed ductwork tracing the ceiling. Make yourself comfy with seating options of your choice: The main dining room with booths and community tables, the enclosed outdoor beer garden, the patio with umbrella tables, or the full-service bar.
Beers are brewed onsite to pair with the food offerings, which artfully incorporate fresh, local, and seasonal ingredients. On the menu are creative takes on Southern-inspired pub favorites like burgers and wraps, along with pork belly street tacos, chicken bacon mac and cheese, and fried green tomatoes. The guacamole is made to order, and the hot chicken salad is decked with deep-fried chicken nuggets tossed in Hux’s Hot Sauce. Sides include hand-cut fries, house chips, cheese grits, and sweet potato fries. My shrimp avocado bowl, a summer special, tasted like sunshine on my palate. Perky staffers will be happy to recommend a house brew to accompany your meal.
Wanna try a bit of everything Knoxville’s creative chefs have to offer? Sign up for a guided “Flavors of Downtown” tour with Knoxville Food Tours. It’s a fun outing through the trendy neighborhoods of Market Square, Gay Street, and the Old City, with stops for food tastings at several of Knoxville’s most notable eateries. The tours are led by historian Paula Johnson, author of Lost Restaurants of Knoxville, who shares her insights on local culture, history, and architecture. For a schedule and tickets, visit the website.
The restaurants and menu selections change periodically. On our tour, we dined on barbecue, chips and salsa, Mediterranean salads, ice cream sundaes, and more. The portions were hearty, the chefs and owners were welcoming, and the food was delectable!
“Flavors of Downtown” tours run year-round. Tickets include a historical guided tour, food tastings, and gratuities for servers at restaurants. Alcoholic beverages must be purchased separately.
Pro Tip: You’ll be walking about a mile total, so wear comfortable shoes. An umbrella or hooded rain jacket will come in handy in case of rain.
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Pamela McKuen is a baby boomer who travels with style. She’s a Chicago-based freelance journalist who specializes in travel, home and fashion. Favorite experiences include swimming with whale sharks in Cancun, fishing for piranha in the Amazon River, and viewing the annual sandhill crane migration in Nebraska. Read more from Pamela on her blog, All The Write Places.