Along with all the outdoor fun and music experiences I had in Knoxville, Tennessee, I was also treated to some outstanding meals and drinks in delightfully historic places. I covered a lot of gastronomic (and geographic) ground during my short stay, and the following are my recommendations for where to eat and drink in Knoxville, Tennessee, served with a side of history.
Market Square in downtown Knoxville was first established in 1854 as a marketplace for regional farmers. Today, it’s a 1-acre pedestrian mall lined with restaurants, boutiques, bars, and other businesses. The square also serves as an outdoor venue for musical acts, a farmer’s market, and even movie screenings. Its optimal location in the middle of downtown makes it easily accessible for locals and visitors alike. On my first day in Knoxville, I had lunch at The Tomato Head. Originally founded in 1990 as The Flying Tomato, it was kind of a hole-in-the-wall where food was served on paper plates with plastic cutlery. Due to popular demand, the restaurant expanded and today the focus is as much on the freshly-prepared foods as on sustainability and supporting local artists and Knoxville’s neighborhoods and residents. Oh, and the food… the hummus with fresh baked pita melted in my mouth. I also went with the blue cheese & roasted onion sandwich, which comes with a choice of roast beef or tofu. I chose the carnivore’s option and it hit the spot!
Across the square is Not Watson’s Kitchen & Bar. Seems like an unusual name, right? The story behind is actually rather cute. The owner grew up in Knoxville and, back in the day, the building that now houses the restaurant was a department store called Watson’s. According to the story, the owner’s mom would load up the family in the car every Saturday to head to the store and when asked when they were headed, the kids would plead, “Not Watson’s!” The department store is long gone and when the space became available, the owner had no difficulty deciding on a name for the restaurant. I had dinner and drinks at Not Watson’s and loved the vibe. The décor is modern and stylish, and they were playing some awesome music. There were a number of families dining there and the outdoor patio right on Market Square was packed. Because I was in the south (to this northerner, anything beyond the Ohio River is “the south”), I ordered the Not Yo Mama’s Chicken & Waffles: pieces of fried, boneless chicken, served on a ridiculously delicious cheddar cheese waffle with bourbon maple syrup, and a side of chilled spiced watermelon. The sweet and savory, and the spicy and cool flavors, made my taste buds and me incredibly happy. To wash it all down, I had one(a few) of the signature drinks called The Watson: Jim Beam Bourbon, fresh watermelon, mint, basil, maple syrup, lemon, and soda. It complemented my meal quite nicely.
Off the beaten path a bit, you’ll find some of the best southern comfort food at Chandler’s Deli, where the BBQ is said to be “bonesucking”. I can’t speak to that as I opted for some of their award-winning fried chicken, but this place has character. Owned by Gwen & Charles Chandler and opened in 2000, the restaurant is housed in an old Taco Bell building. Once inside, though, there’s nothing Taco Bell-y about it. You walk up to the counter, tell the ladies what you’d like, they plate it up and put it on a tray for you, and you walk it over to your table. Seating is a bit limited and it can get cramped in there, but you make do. I wanted to order, like, everything, but controlled myself and decided on the aforementioned fried chicken (thigh, please); jalapeño corn bread; sweet potatoes; and broccoli & cheese casserole. Adding to the character of the place is the vat o’ Kool-Aid at the drink station, alongside iced tea and soft drinks. Chandler’s is a Knoxville institution.
In the northeast corner of downtown Knoxville is a section known as Old City. I fell in love with the area at first sight, primarily attracted to the architecture of the well-preserved buildings, some dating back to the late 1800s. Then I started taking notice of the neighborhood’s establishments (a Scottish pub!) and residents (many toting musical instruments) and I knew Old City was the place for me. Later, I came to find out that Old City once contained the region’s highest density of saloons. That sealed it: Old City and I are meant to be together. While I didn’t get to frequent all of Old City’s establishments, I emphatically recommend these three –
- Oli Bea. I will swear under oath that my meal at Oli Bea is the best breakfast I’ve ever had. Described as “approachable gourmet food”, the menu is seasonal and the ingredients are sourced from local partners. I had difficulty deciding on what to order but ultimately went with the Tennessee Benedict: homemade biscuits with local ham, the prettiest poached eggs I’ve ever seen, smashed potatoes, and hollandaise. The biscuits are the real star here. I’ve never had any that were so light but hearty and seriously melted like butter. The breakfast special that day was cheesy jalapeño grits that I couldn’t turn down. I’m so glad I forced myself to eat them (despite being stuffed from the Tennessee Benedict) because they were ever as delightful as you can imagine. The space itself is soothing and appealing with its light wood accents and abundance of natural light.
- The Crown & Goose. I said when I visited The Crown & Goose that if I lived in Knoxville, I’d hang out there all the time. I mean it. The design of the gastropub is inspired by the London Underground, so London-esque décor and artifacts abound. I haven’t yet been to London but I’m mildly obsessed with the UK, so I enjoyed the atmosphere. What I enjoyed most, though, is the beer garden. Not only is it spacious, but it’s comfortable and welcoming, with plenty of table umbrellas to protect patrons from the elements, namely the early autumn sun (hello, pasty white skin). I stopped in just for drinks but I’d go back to try out some of the typical London fare, as long as I could sit in the beer garden.
- Boyd’s Jig & Reel. If I lived in Knoxville and you didn’t find me at The Crown & Goose, you’d definitely find me at Boyd’s Jig & Reel. As a Scottish pub, it plays right into my UK obsession. Its mission to celebrate and preserve East Tennessee’s musical heritage, with its roots in Irish and Scottish music, pleases me immensely. I timed my visit to coincide with a Tuesday night Hillbilly Jam, when musicians of all abilities are invited to sit together on the stage to strum, pick, and play. Folks who may not have their own instruments are encouraged to take one off the wall (yes, there are musical instruments just hanging on the walls!) and join in. Not only do the musicians really get into it, but so do the patrons. There were a number of older folks in the crowd and they got up to buck dance, waltz – you name it – along with the music. I could have sat there all night.
A delicious mix of incredible food, inventive drinks, live music, as well as history and heritage, makes these Knoxville spots winners in my book.
I was a guest of Visit Knoxville and its partners. Even if I wasn’t, I’d still say the same about these establishments, and I’d visit them over and over again. As always, all thoughts and opinions are strictly my own.