Catching Up (and Tagging Along) with Paula Johnson and Knoxville Food Tours

Oiver Royale, Knoxville Food Tours, Downtown Knoxville, October 2023
Inside Mast General Store, Knoxville Food Tours with Paula Johnson, Downtown Knoxville, October 2023

When speaking of downtown’s growth in recent years, often people refer to catalysts like a downtown movie theater, Sundown in the City, and revitalization of Market Square with public and private money. I’d argue that some credit in the mix goes to a couple of local business owners who promoted something that wasn’t quite there, yet, but they believed would come. Zack Roskop with Knox Brew Tours, for example, promoted breweries when there just weren’t that many, nearly a decade ago.

Another person believed in Knoxville’s culinary future at a time when only a smattering of evidence could be found that that would ever be a thing. Paula Johnson started Knoxville Food Tours in 2010 when, with a few notable exceptions such as Bistro at the Bijou, Tomato Head, and La Costa (now long gone), there wasn’t a ton of culinary action going on in the city. She sensed Knoxville might be on the cusp of becoming more serious about food.

Paula grew up on a tobacco farm just outside of Greeneville, Tennessee, with a mother who exposed her to travel and to educational and cultural experiences. She took dance, piano, and learned to twirl a baton, which she did at the Knoxville World’s Fair in 1982. She played piano in church and later attended Carson Newman, obtaining a Music Education degree, while studying piano under Dr. Paul Ridgway who traces the lineage of his piano instruction to Beethoven. While in college, she became a regular at Knoxville Symphony Orchestra concerts.

Knoxville Food Tours, Downtown Knoxville, October 2023
Chivo, Knoxville Food Tours, Downtown Knoxville, October 2023
Chivo, Knoxville Food Tours, Downtown Knoxville, October 2023
Nachos and Taco, Chivo (Photo by Paula Johnson)

She taught music in public schools and taught piano privately, now holding a Permanent Professional Certificate through the Music Teacher’s National Association. She lived in Louisville, Kentucky for a spell working as a pianist, choir director, and music director, while continuing to teach privately. Of that time, she says, “It was while I was in Louisville, a city that celebrated local chefs and restaurants, that I became fascinated by the food and dining scene.”

She returned to east Tennessee, moving to Knoxville, in 2001 and, continuing to teach piano, has students performing in recitals and competitions, as well as popping up places like Fantasy of Trees each year. The food thing never quite left her mind, however, and upon reading a small article in USA today about walking food tours in New York City, she became intrigued. With the emerging development in downtown Knoxville, “I noticed new businesses opening up, and at first it was mostly restaurants.  I began to wonder if we could have one of those walking food tours here too.”

It may be hard to remember or, for more recent arrivals to fathom, but most restaurants we take for granted now, didn’t exist then. In fact, many of the buildings they now enjoy sat empty in 2010. The Daylight Building? Empty, so no J.C. Holdway. The J.C. Penney Building? Empty and roofless, so no Babalu. And on it goes.

K-Town Hot Chicken and Grits at the Oliver Royale (Photo by Paula Johnson)

Still, she thought “it would be fun activity for me to work with area restaurant owners and a way to offer them an opportunity to promote their businesses.” She said it started with curious locals and eventually included out-of-town visitors. Realizing that the business involved promoting the city, she became more focused and began “to take more control of each part of the tours including choosing food samplings and portions and crafting an interesting mix of historical and cultural highlights.”

The award-winning tour (Trip Advisor Certificate of Excellence, Cityview Magazine’s Best of the Best Tour Company, Service Supplier of the Year by the Greater Knoxville Hospitality Association) has continued to cater to a mix of locals and visitors. The locals often become repeat guests and tend to bring friends and out-of-town guests. She’s had guests from all over the country and outside it, as well.

I’m embarrassed to admit she’d never had two particular visitors until just last week: Myself and Urban Woman. Paula and I have known each other for years, our paths inevitably crossing as we did our thing. We’ve chatted pleasantly on many a sunny downtown afternoon and even mentioned the two of us joining the tour. She offered dates, I dropped the ball, time passed. I finally got it together and got myself there.

“There” is in the Tennessee section of Mast General Store, where the tours begin. Paula has carefully constructed her tour to serve many purposes, not only promoting restaurants, but supporting a range of downtown businesses, and offering up a very healthy dose of Knoxville culture and history along the way. An introductory sheet handed out at the beginning of the tour details fourteen different businesses offering discounts to tour participants.

Brdget Reymond at Eddie’s Health Shoppe, Knoxville Food Tours, Downtown Knoxville, October 2023
Annette Morejon at Knoxville Spice and Tea Exchange, Knoxville Food Tours, Downtown Knoxville, October 2023
Knoxville Spice and Tea Exchange, Knoxville Food Tours, Downtown Knoxville, October 2023

We started by stepping out onto Gay Street where Paula talked about the 1897 “Million Dollar Fire,” how Gay Street got its name, and other historical tidbits. While her various tours offer a different line-up of restaurants, our culinary sampling started at Chivo. We enjoyed loaded nachos with house made chips, queso dip, roasted corn, black beans, jalapeños, avocado crema, Korean BBQ and pico. We each got a taco on the side, and I began to consider that I might need to be careful if I wanted to be upright by the end of the three-hour tour.

We moved to Market Square regaled with tales of Knoxville artists and their murals, TVA, the Market House, and the origins of the square. Along the way Paula pointed out a wide range of businesses, many offering discounts for tour participants. We stopped at the Oliver Royale for a delicious dish of K-Town hot chicken and grits with cornflake-crusted chicken, southside gravy, and stone-ground grits, with an over easy egg. As a fun side, we each received a biscuit with house-made jam.

Bridget Reymond, owner of downtown’s Eddie’s Health Shoppe offered the participants a tour of the store and its products, including their ZenEvo health chocolates. Participants went home with a bag of samples of products from the store — including some delicious dark chocolate. We enjoyed the sculptures in Krutch Park while Paula told the participants about Dogwood Arts and the Art in Public Places program. She followed with information about the 1874 Customs House and the East Tennessee History Center as we passed on our way to our next stop.

Annette Morejon, owner/operator greeted us at the Spice and Tea Exchange of Knoxville with cocktails based on the teas, as well as non-alcoholic drinks for those who preferred and plates of goodies from products in the store (the pumpkin bread was great!). As she approaches her second anniversary, she said the store has been embraced locally and the smells and flavors explain why.

The Trixie at Phoenix Pharmacy and Fountain, Knoxville Food Tours, Downtown Knoxville, October 2023
Fruit and Great Pumpkin Icecream Sundae, Phoenix Pharmacy and Fountain (Photo by Paula Johnson)

We ended with great ice cream at the Phoenix Pharmacy and Fountain, served by co-owner Christine Selby and her lovely family. On tap was a choice of a root beer float or a Trixie Sunday (cookie, caramel, chocolate, and ice cream). I also scored a great cup of hot chocolate. We said our goodbyes to new friends in a warm environment that Paula generates as she goes. We left knowing more about the food, for certain, but also more about the history of the city and how it has evolved.

I also needed a nap.

The tours are perfect for “teambuilding for businesses and companies, family reunions and parties, birthday and anniversary celebrations, or just a fun day of exploring.” It’s a great option for out-of-town guests, as well. She offers gift cards, and you will find tickets for the tour here. A discount is available through the Knox County Schools Coupon Book. Tours are offered year-round and typically include up to twelve guests, but larger groups may be scheduled.

Paula has also written two books based around Knoxville Food, Lost Restaurants of Knoxville (2017), and Unique Eats and Eateries of Knoxville (2022). Both are available locally (Union Avenue Books, Visitor Center, Mast General Store, East Tennessee History Center), as well as through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other online book sellers.

“Overall, I hope in my own way that I have helped promote the city and local restaurants and businesses and have helped many guests enjoy a positive experience with Knoxville. And I want it to be that if guests are only in town for a day, and the tour was their main activity, they learn a lot about the city.”