Is Knoxville Becoming a Food Destination?

Païdákia roasted lamb chops, grilled apricots, cherry demi glace, Kefi, 120 East Jackson Avenue, Knoxville, October 2018
J.C. Holdway, 501 Union Avenue, Knoxville, September 2016

Which cities in the U.S. do you associate with great food? I grew up taking occasional trips with my parents to Brennan’s in New Orlean’s for one of the first brunches in the country. It remains an exquisite culinary delight. We eventually explored other New Orleans restaurants like Commander’s Palace, Antoine’s and K-Paul’s. New Orleans became synonymous with great food in my mind and it still is – for those well known restaurants, as well as for the little spots serving great gumbo, crawfish etouffee and more.

Maybe for you it was another city. Many of the cities known for great cuisine are coastal: San Francisco, New York, Charleston, Savannah. Other cities are known for a specific food: Memphis or St. Louis for barbecue, for example. Nashville has made a culinary reputation for itself in recent years.

But what about Knoxville? We have some historic connections to well-known food, like Dave Thomas working at Regas. We’ve also always had good food. When we arrived in 1982, we fell into favorites, particularly when my parents would visit and pick up the tab. We ate at Copper Cellar out west and drove downtown to eat ribs at Calhouns, Regas for big occasions and at Chesapeake’s when we needed a seafood fix.

Pollo A Mattone, Emilia, 16 Market Square, Knoxville, May 2016

As the years went by, we ate at the Spaghetti Warehouse (Now Barley’s – the kids loved it!) and Bistro at the Bijou came onto our radar as a place we enjoyed. We eventually found Tomato Head, which was always our go-to when downtown for Sundown in the City. We found the first edition of La Costa and it became our favorite restaurant for a time. Downtown Grill and Brewery became a go-to for a big group and something to please everyone.

Other restaurants filtered into downtown as the most recent renaissance began. Still, for a long time, people who had traveled to or lived in larger cities grumbled that we had a lot of average food, but not a lot that compared to what they’d had elsewhere. I kind of thought they were underselling us. Still, when we traveled to other cities, it wasn’t hard to find food that simply couldn’t be had in our town.

It wasn’t that many years ago that when guests came to town, particularly if they really valued great food, we’d struggle with options. If they stayed long enough to go out several times, it got really tough. What was there to be that proud of in the Knoxville restaurant world. Sure there were gems here and there, but in the harsh light of trying to impress someone from a larger city, we struggled.

roasted lamb chops, grilled apricots, cherry demi glace, Kefi, 120 East Jackson Avenue, Knoxville, October 2018

What a difference a few years makes. I’m often asked to name my favorite downtown restaurant and now I struggle. I’m more inclined to break the restaurants into categories and suggest three or four, depending on if you want a quick lunch or a slow, amazing meal, more traditional fare or something experimental, simple but amazing or complex and interesting, expensive or lower budget and on it goes. It’s become an embarrassment of riches. And out-of-town guests? Several nights out and we haven’t finished the list of great places we love.

From a regional or national perspective, probably no restaurant has done more to draw attention to Knoxville than J.C. Holdway. To have a James Beard Award winner in a city our size is going to turn heads. And Joseph Lenn won that award for a reason. Esquire magazine named it one the best new restaurants in the country in 2017, calling it a “wood-fired Super Bowl party of the gods.” Eater named it one of the twelve best new restaurants in the country that same year, saying of Lenn, “his creativity feels unchained and fully owned, a virtuoso in the fullest command of his voice.”

If J.C. Holdway drew most of the attention to the city, it was other restaurants that were able to make their own culinary statements and demonstrate that we were no one-horse town. Chef Matt Gallaher at Knox Mason and, later, Emilia, set out his own culinary vision, as did Jeffrey DiAlejandro at Oli Bea. The list gets quickly too long with excellent restaurants, many of which have chefs as well known as the restaurant.

Mussels and Clams, Oliver Royale, 5 Market Square, Knoxville, November 2015

There was a time downtown had very little to offer other than traditional American food. Yassen Terou had a hand in changing that with his amazing falafels and his amazing story. The French Market was already offering a great taste of Paris. Now we have a range of tacos from the traditional to the exotic at Chivo, Tako Taco, to go along with Soccer Taco and Babalu. Downtown Asian-inspired food used to mean Shono (now closed) or Nama. Now we have Viet Tea and Bread, Anaba, Kaizen and, soon, Fin-Two.

Great sandwiches? Frussie and Cafe Viccolo are about as good as you’ll want. Pizza? I had good pizza in New York last fall, but was it better than A Dopo? (Hint: No). Then there are the bagels at Paysen, the best croissants I’ve had this side of Paris at Wild Love Bakehouse and the burgers at Stock and Barrel. All this and I haven’t mentioned some of our favorite restaurants: Kefi, Rebel Kitchen, Oliver Royale.

And people outside of Knoxville are starting to notice. Last week Food and Wine magazine pretty much said we should be on the culinary map, asking if everyone could stop pretending we don’t exist. With the tagline of, “It’s the big city in Tennessee almost no one is talking about, and we’re trying to figure out why.” Also last week, Money magazine ranked Knoxville as the third best city in America to eat out affordably, saying,

While Knoxville excels in affordable eats — like the $6.55 9-inch cheese pizza at The Tomato Head or the $6.95 s’mores crepe at French Market Creperie — don’t sleep on its fine dining. Start your day with a Tennessee Benedict at OliBea, named one of the best breakfasts in the state by Food & Wine, or stop for a date night at J.C. Holdway, the latest venture by Knoxville native Joseph Lenn, Tennessee’s first James Beard Award-winning chef.

Carnita Tostada, OliBea, 119 S. Central, Knoxville, December 2014

To flip the idea around a bit, we love to travel. One of our biggest pleasures on the road is to eat at restaurants we’ve enjoyed before or to discover great new restaurants in other cities. Now, as often as not, we return to Knoxville and realize that the food we eat out here is as good as anything we’ve eaten while traveling.

So, am I saying our food top-to-bottom stands up to much larger cities? No. Am I saying we have the breadth of a more mature culinary culture like even Asheville? No. We’re not New Orleans or San Francisco and never will be. That said, we have a growing number of restaurants that I feel would meet with approval from people accustomed to dining in these cities.

I’m saying I’m fine coming home to our food from bigger cities and I’m proud to take out-of-town guests to a growing number of spots. I’m saying that for certain foods, I don’t expect to find better anywhere. It’s not that we’ve arrived, but that we’re on the journey and we’re miles down the road from where we were just a very few years ago. And I can’t wait to see what happens next.

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