Is Knoxville Becoming a Food Destination?

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.

Païdákia
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.

Comments

  1. Pizzeria Nora on Central bakes pizza that is as good as anything you can get in Florence. Their pizza has the same simple Florentine elegance, with one or two excellent toppings in judicious amounts—no carpet bombing of cheese and sauce—and a crisp crust that is not too thin. It’s our favorite. We like the owner Dave and his assistant Sara very much for their welcoming and friendly manner.

    • KnoxvilleUrbanGuy says
      • I’m glad you profiled them. National journalists who parachute into town and do a “Knoxville’s fancy food places” piece are wont to visit the same old — or the same new — places. Names that are already on the circuit. A Dopo, Oli Bea and J C Holdway are sure-shot mentions, as they should be, but other equally good places always get left out. Nora is one of them. Another is Asia Kitchen on Kingston Pike — excellent Chinese food and extremely popular as is evident from the long wait time before one gets a table. And the chicken wings at Harby’s Pizza on Broadway can fly with the best.

  2. Aaron. I enjoy reading what you offer. I gets me thinking…

  3. La Costa was one of my first favorite pre-concert restaurants when downtown started coming alive. I still miss that lavender sweet potato burrito.

    • Aaron Thompson says

      Man, I loved La Costa! We used to go to Sunday Brunch every week (in fact, I believe that’s the first place I ever had brunch!). I miss their Prickly Pear Margarita and artichoke dip.

  4. Knox Villager says

    K

  5. Where is Paysen? I have never heard of it, but I do appreciate great bagels.

  6. MetroKnoxSupporter says

    Does Knox have a restaurant week(s), where non-foodies can sample these places?

    • Aaron Thompson says

      There have been various attempts at that throughout the years. It’s always the more populist restaurants (think mid to large regional chain) that sign up for it and rarely these chef driven spots. I’d say once we get to 10+ chef driven restaurants I’d love to see someone put together a thoughtful event. We’re close to that number right now.

  7. I’m very proud of Knoxville’s food scene. It isn’t world class Michelin star worthy, but it’s better than some larger cities. Particularly one where their most famous food landmark is a pancake restaurant, where people wait in line for hours for food they could make at home 😉

    • Aaron Thompson says

      The food in Knoxville is good in a lot of places. Other standouts are our ethnic restaurants like Bida Saigon, Sticky Rice, Gosh and many others.

      What is lacking compared to Michelin level restaurants is our level of service. My theory is the disposable philosophy for staff. With thousands of places for people to work in restaurants, there is very little incentive for both employers to train better or for staff to try harder. There are exceptions. What place do you think has the best service?

      • I’m not usually one to care that much about service. I’m extremely easy to please and always tip at least 20% because waiters are paid starvation wages. However, there was one time that how good the service was stood out, and that was at the Nama on Cedar Bluff. I actually still remember the waiter’s name. He had some kind of psychic sense and found the perfect balance for coming to the table exactly when we needed him, and not coming to check on us in the middle of a conversation.

  8. Why did the original chef that opened Rebel Kitchen leave?

  9. Aaron Thompson says

    It’s Foodie Culture that has changed the landscape for Knoxville. That started, in large part, with those brave chefs getting necessary training and mind expanding experience at Blackberry Farm. Would we have Emilia, JC, or A Dopo without BBF? You’ll have to ask those chefs. I’m very grateful for the chefs that came down bringing a gourmet sensibility. Some people call it “farm to table,” made famous by Alice Waters at Chez Panisse.

    Foodie culture also raises drinking culture, eventually. You can see this has already happened with Beer culture. Think Asheville and you’ll see the direction we’re going. Cocktail culture is the next step. Every food town has an elevated cocktail culture. You can’t have one without the other. I think this is because guests standards improve and their thirst for interesting drinks increases. Sapphire and Public House have held that torch since 2005 and 2008, respectfully. Peter Kern Library since 2011, but otherwise we have only seen a few notable cocktail bars open, such as Drink at Papermill, since Sapphire in 2005. We aim to change that and hope others will be brave enough to make their own investments in Knoxville’s cocktail culture. Go visit NYC and go to the great classic cocktail bars such as The Dead Rabbit, PDT, Death & Co, Employees Only, The Clover Club, Pegu Club, The NoMad Bar, and attaboy. There are about 50 other newer cocktail bars that are amazing and raising the bar (pun intended).

    Like our BBF alum, I don’t believe anybody should be opening cocktail bars without first getting the education. Our food scene wouldn’t be where it is without it.

    • Knox Villager says

      Self Promote Much? Try a paid advertisement Bro.

      • Aaron Thompson says

        Why would I do that when I can just comment here?

      • If my post came across as self-promotion, I apologize, because that wasn’t my intent. I stated no opinions other than my second to last opinion. The rest of the post was entirely factual. My reply was a plea for other entrepreneurs to consider taking a chance on opening a cocktail bar and to use the Foodie scene that’s in ascension as proof that it may be viable. We have lots of great restaurants and some of them have pretty good cocktails, but those are not cocktail bars (think Kefi and Oliver Royale). A cocktail bar is a place where its primary profit margins and singular focus comes from making craft cocktails.

        I have had this conversation with lots of other folks in Knoxville and this is a perfect place to get the thought in others heads. What is a better way to make people understand that a cocktail bar is a viable business model than to compare it to Sapphire which has been open for 14 years, Public House for 12 years, and Peter Kern for 8 years? I’ll be happy to take your opinion into consideration if you have another productive comment.

        • Knox Villager says

          K

          • Chris Eaker says

            I sure wish Alan could force people to use their real identity so people like this “Knox Villager” couldn’t hide behind pseudonyms when writing useless, unhelpful comments.

    • Alice Waters is overrated in my opinion.

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