Is Knoxville Cuisine Improving? Which are the Best Downtown Restaurants?

Yassin's Falafel House, 706 Walnut Street, Knoxville, June 2014

Yassin’s Falafel House, 706 Walnut Street, Knoxville, June 2014

We’ve had numerous debates about food in Knoxville over the years I’ve written about downtown. I generally write about restaurants that open, and while I’m spreading the word more than I’m reviewing them, I generally find some good things to say. Are we world class? No. Do we have the variety of restaurants found in downtown Asheville? No. Our own style of food like New Orleans? No. Still, that doesn’t mean good things aren’t happening on our culinary scene.

I think the last year-and-a-half have brought some of our best restaurants, which is not to say there weren’t already some good ones. Stock and Barrel opened in August of 2013 and consistently gets rated one of our best, with excellent burgers made from scratch. Yassin’s Falafel House opened last June, giving us an excellent infusion of an ethnic food heretofore missing.  5 Bar opened last September and, while a bit more expensive than some restaurants, their ambiance as well as their fresh food made them instantly popular. I know they have locations in other cities, but they’ve worked to integrate themselves very nicely into our community.

OliBea, 119 S. Central, Knoxville, December 2014

OliBea, 119 S. Central, Knoxville, December 2014

I really enjoy the food at Crown and Goose, but last December when Crown and Goose chef Jeffrey Dealejandro opened Oli Bea, it seems he shifted creative gears and redefined what Knoxville can expect for breakfast. Another recent change brought what I feel is another step. I loved Shuck, but with its closure we got to keep some of the menu items next door at Cru Bistro while adding another culinary jewel when Holly’s 135 opened in February. Add it all up and I think it’s hard not to acknowledge that the competition for downtown food dollars is getting better.

That may be some of what is behind a couple of recent lists about Knoxville dining. Movoto recently published “15 Knoxville Restaurants That Will Blow the Tastebuds Out of Your Mouth.” The restaurants were not all downtown, but many were. The top of their list was B.J.’s BBQ on University, which is sort of downtown, though not exactly. Of the remainder of the list, nine are downtown, one is in Happy Holler (which we claim) and one will soon be downtown.It’s hard to argue with their choices:

#2 Tomato Head “While they serve up plenty of the classics, they also have one-of-a-kind choices like the Kepner melt, a sandwich stuffed with walnuts, spinach, tofu, cheese, tomatoes, pesto, and pineapple.”

Tomato Head, Market Square, Knoxville, January 2014

Tomato Head, Market Square, Knoxville, January 2014

#3 Stock and Barrel “Home to some of the best burgers in Knoxville. . . they’ve also got a ton of bourbon, with knowledgeable staff that’s always willing to help you pick the perfect libation for your meal.”

#5 Suttree’s “Known for serving up beers with a higher alcohol content . . . Suttree’s High Gravity Tavern has a menu with a huge range, featuring items like hot dogs, gyros, and ramen.”

#7 Central Flats and Taps “. . .  one of the coolest spots to eat in the Marble City.With favorites like the blue cheese and spicy chicken driven “Crazy Cajun” and the “Chupacabra,” centered around the house-made black bean hummus, this place can’t be missed.”

#8 Sweet Pea’s BBQ: Coming Soon to downtown! “the soul food classics served up here are the best around.”

#9 Oli Bea “There’s no better way to kick off your day than by making a trip to OliBea. Specializing in breakfast and brunch foods, you’ll be recommending this place to all of your friends in no time.”

#11 Public House “The true definition of a neighborhood bar, the vibrant atmosphere at the Public House can be attributed to the lively crowd that frequents this establishment. A long list of specialty cocktails is complimented by a huge variety of hot dogs and dip-ables.”

#12 Yassin’s Falafel House “. . . few things are tastier than a meal at Yassin’s Falafel House. With a great staff and a comfortable atmosphere, this joint seems to be doing everything right. Not sure if you like Falafel yet? This is probably the best place to try it.”

#13 Bistro at the Bijou “Often filled with live music, the great setting here is complimented by delicious food. With a focus on creating new culinary innovations, it’s easy to tell that the kitchen staff knows what they’re doing.”

Donald Brown, Bistro at the Bijou, Knoxville

Donald Brown, Bistro at the Bijou, Knoxville


#14 French Market “If you’re wanting to mix it up a little from the typical lunch sandwich, The French Market is the place for you. Their crepes come in many shapes and colors, perfect for breakfast, dessert, or even the main course.”

#15 Knox Mason “Inspired by food from the South, Knox Mason’s savory dishes will have your stomach smiling. Their menu is full of classics like deviled eggs, sweet potatoes, and pork belly, making this Knoxville Stop worth the visit.”

The Travel Channel recently posted “11 Knoxville Restaurants You Can’t Miss.” Again, it is dominated by downtown restaurants:

#1 Oli Bea, #2 Tomato Head, #4 Five Bar, #5 Knox Mason (#6 is Holly’s Homberg – with the same chef as Holly’s 135), #7 Cru Bistro, #9 Sweet Pea’s (coming soon to downtown), #10 Just Ripe, #11 Stock and Barrel.

The Stock and Barrel, 35 Market Square, Knoxville, August 2013

The Stock and Barrel, 35 Market Square, Knoxville, August 2013

So several choices overlap between the two recent lists but together they list 15 downtown restaurants and bars. What do you think? Are we getting better? Did they miss a restaurant which should have been on the list? What’s the best restaurant not included? Which do you think are the best in the city?




  1. Chris Eaker says

    I’m surprised Cafe 4 didn’t make the lists. I am always happy with my meal there.

    • knoxploration says

      I’m surprised anybody even knows what Cafe 4 serves.

      I’ve been there precisely once, the restaurant was half empty, they were more than an hour from closing, and yet it took a couple of minutes waiting to get seated (and there was another couple ahead of us who had been waiting even longer), then once seated, nobody checked on us even to ask for drinks for 10 minutes.

      We stood up and left; the wait staff saw us leaving and not a word was spoken to us, let alone the vaguest hint of apology for the delay. Absolutely the worst service I have ever seen, anywhere in Knoxville.

  2. Not downtown, but Plaid Apron is exceptional. And of course we have the coming-soon anticipation of Joseph Lenn’s new place and one other one downtown (I’m not sure it’s public knowledge just yet).

  3. Interesting, but the focus in many of these listings seems to be more atmosphere or drinks than food. As residents downtown, and a couple who love to eat out, probably more than we should, we have a lot of experience in downtown restaurants. We have also lived in cities with much better food scenes, so we are tough food critics. For us, it’s about food first, then atmosphere, then service. With these criteria in mind, there are only a few really good restaurants downtown: Crown and Goose (and Olie Bea by association), Bistro at the Bijou, and Cru. Knoxville is a burger town, and you can get a really good burger at a number of places besides Stock and Barrel, including Crown and Goose and Not Watsons. I think CandG fails to show up on some of these lists simply because it is a bit more expensive than some options downtown. Just our two cents worth on this very subjective judgment. By the way, we’ve heard that new 4-star restaurants are coming soon to Knoxville, Perhaps, Urban Guy can fill us in!

    • You heard right! Pretty exciting to hear they have searched long and hard for quality chefs for the new restaurant! Knoxville is about to get real! Also, I agree with you on your mentions! Burgers are everywhere, but want something special, go to Holly’s, Bistro at the Bijou, etc.

  4. Correction:
    BJ’s isn’t on the Strip. It’s on University, just east of Western Avenue.

  5. Holly’s 135 and Knox Mason on the 100 block are the new focal point for excellent food downtown. Head and shoulders above everything else. More creative. Better execution.

    What about Pete’s? Exemplary service (super-fast and personable). The food is diner food, but it’s good diner food and there’s nothing wrong with that. Good prices too.

  6. I would say that Bistro By the Tracks is clearly missing. Yes, it’s a bit expensive for Knoxville, but it’s absolutely fantastic. I’ve never been disappointed when I’ve went there and I think it’s a step above many of those that made it on the list. I wont disparage any of those that made it on the list, but there’s at least one that I find wholly disappointing every time I go.

  7. It’s an unpopular opinion. But I have often lamented that Pete’s is not a particularly good diner. Lunches are passable. But I’ve always felt Pete’s was somewhere south of mediocre where breakfast is concerned.

  8. Motovo recently did one highlighting Tennessee bars that included a few from Knoxville:

    As for restaurants, my favorite restaurant that reminds me of the random, but delicious types of restaurant you’d find hidden in Manhattan or Brooklyn is Chez Guevera.

    Downtown has many great choices, but what Gallagher attempts at Knox Mason is most admirable to me. The cocktails could be elevated though. All big city gastronomy like his is connected to a stellar cocktail program now.

    I ate at Holly’s last Thursday and it was very pleasant. Hopefully, the high price tag for small portions will weed out the “Cheesecake Factory” customer.

  9. Here’s one more with a few Knoxville bars:
    Missing one or two spots though.

  10. To the answer to your first question. I’d say that Knoxville is stuck in neutral, not moving forward, but not going backwards.

    If you look at the 3 other major metro areas in the state, Knoxville would be at the bottom of the list. Each city has at least 1 James Beard nominee (the Academy Awards of the food world), Knoxville has never had any. Asheville, by the way has 3 on the same street within blocks of each other!

    Some restaurants seem to think if you claim to use locally sourced ingredients that makes you a great restaurant. Some of the worst food I’ve had in the area were farm to table restaurants. Sorry, just throwing some Benton’s bacon in the dish doesn’t make your restaurant hip or world class.

    Best restaurant downtown, I’d have to say (even though they are presently open just for breakfast) is OliBea. Creative, tasteful food that could hold its own anywhere. Other than that, the rest are either “casual dining” spots, pubs with food (none really any good except Crown & Goose) and a few hip wanna be Southern Cuisine/American restaurants that leave me disappointed.

    With some new chefs coming into town the next few months, hopefully, Knoxville and downtown’s restaurant scene will take off!

  11. What dowtown Knoxville is short on, restaurant-wise, is “bang for the buck.” Soccer Taco indisputably holds that crown.

    I’d love to pop in a storefront and walk out two minutes later and three dollars poorer with a slice of mediocre pizza. If I want to pay more and wait longer for better pizza, which I sometimes do, I already have that option.

    I miss the Golden Dragon on Market Square. It was a so-so Chinese buffet, and priced accordingly. Definitely not a place you want to eat all the time, but sometimes that’s exactly what I feel like having for lunch.

    I’m a little weary of thinking, “This would be an stellar seven-dollar meal. It’d be a pretty good twelve-dollar meal. Unfortunately, it was fifteen bucks.” I don’t mind paying fifteen dollars as long as it comes with fifteen dollars’ worth of yum. I’m fine with settling for a seven-dollar meal as long as it actually costs seven dollars.

    I’m a little reluctant to mention Bistro at the Bijou since I’m mostly talking about low-end food here, but they’re definitely a “bang for the buck” restaurant. Great, fresh, creative food, reasonably priced.

    So, yeah, yay Knox Mason and OliBea and other awesome places I can only afford to eat at occasionally, but I’d like a few more spots I can eat at regularly.

    • I completely agree with you. A lot of the restaurants here are overly expensive for what you get, in my opinion. And I’m tired of finding the same nouveau Southern cuisine. A few restaurants doing that would be fine, but it seems like the vast majority cook the same basic style. My favorite downtown restaurants are French Market and Soccer Taco. I feel like the food is good and the price is great at both places. And neither place is trying to be “fancy”. I also like the pizza at Preservation Pub, but getting it to go is a hassle.

    • Good call. I think of cheap, to-go food and sidewalk vendors as being one of the defining features of an urban environment. Yet Knoxville is sorely lacking in that regard. There’s a few pizza spots in and around downtown (Dazzo’s, DaVinci’s, Stefano’s) but they mostly just look at you funny if you ask for a slice to go –even when it’s on the menu. There’s food carts at the farmer’s market, but if you’re hungry downtown at, say, 8PM on a Thursday, your only real option is a sitdown, table service meal. It might seem like a minor point, but cheap to-go options allow people to stay out longer, encourage pedestrian traffic, and generally add to the dynamism of an urban setting.

  12. W in North Knox says

    I like Sunspot. Not really high end, but good at what they do.

    • Despite Sunspot’s new digs, the menu has lost its creative vibe and the servers are noticeably less competent and interesting. It once was a real favorite and a real option for good vegetarian food. Now it just feels and acts like a chain.

  13. Carol Myers says

    While I appreciate those of you living and eating downtown, and I definitely love to see exciting restaurants raise the bar, I’m excited to come to Knoxville to dine. I live in the land of chain restaurants (Sevier County) and it’s a treat for me to have new options. I don’t even mind paying for those options, because I don’t find them that expensive in comparison to other places I’ve been. In fact, I’m hosting a girls’ weekend this coming Saturday/Sunday, and I’m excited to show these women downtown Knoxville. I’ve been coming to Knoxville since I was a little girl in the ’60s and I’ve seen downtown through all its incarnations. So if any of the harsher critics among you would like to recommend your faves, I would be open to hear those recommendations.

  14. Lynn Sacco says

    The food in Knoxville is mediocre, overpriced, and dully planned and executed. Why? Because it is concept-corporate driven rather than food driven. Farm to table is useless if restaurants serve unimaginative food prepared unevenly. And rarely change their menus. I see prices rise and quality diminish everywhere. Yes, there are lots of good people with good intentions. But as diners, we get what we deserve. Too many of us who are so eager to label Knoxville ‘hip’ because (gasp!) food trucks have arrived! or kale (or fried eggs, or …) is on every menu! or another brew pub has opened! I mean, this is a town that ‘developed’ a biscuit festival, even though we are hardly a home made southern food destination. Stop thinking hip and start thinking real.

  15. I don’t know if the Landing counts as downtown, but I think Calhoun’s is a solid Knoxville staple.

  16. Also, I like the Blackhorse in Sequoyah a lot.

  17. Speaking of restaurants, does anyone know what’s going on with the construction or reconstruction at the former Regas Restaurant building? There’s temporary construction fencing, scaffolding, equipment, etc.that seems to indicate that something is finally in the works for that property.

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