Our Eat & Burn series showcases destinations through their cuisine and inviting ways to burn off the calories.
By Hope S. Philbrick
An abundance of high-quality craft brews and Southern cuisine make Knoxville, Tennessee, a delicious destination.
Go ahead, indulge.
With nearly 1,000 acres of urban wilderness to explore, finding an enjoyable way to work off those calories is a snap.
Your first priority on any visit to Knoxville is to eat breakfast or lunch—or every breakfast and lunch during your stay—at Plaid Apron Café. Trust me, the chance to eat whatever Chef/Owner Drew McDonald has on the menu is reason enough to visit Knoxville—it’s that good. The Tennessee native—whose résumé includes stints at the renowned Blackberry Farm and Capitol Grille—serves up local, seasonal fresh food with Southern flair. The menu offers familiar dishes like vegetable omelets, biscuits and gravy, heirloom tomato salad, burgers, chicken thighs, pasta and pizza. Yet each bite transcends expectations. “We’re here to make a statement of the local food movement,” he says. And that statement is entirely communicated through food. “We don’t do any marketing, it’s all word of mouth, make it or break it,” he says. With dishes this good, we can’t imagine he won’t succeed.
Another must: Tupelo Honey Café was first launched in Asheville, North Carolina, and quickly rose to regional fame as a bastion of Southern cuisine. Open since October 2012, the Knoxville location lives up to the hype. “It’s scratch-made food the way mama would have made but with a chef twist to it,” says David Powell, general manager. Good luck choosing between the extensive menu of full-flavored, made-from-scratch Southern favorites like sweet potato pancakes, fried green tomatoes, shrimp & grits, roast beef po’boy, nutty fried chicken and hand-pulled pork barbecue. Best to dine with a group of folks willing to share. On the side, don’t miss the goat cheese grits and brown butter Brussels sprouts.
When you’re ready for some sweets, head to The South’s Finest Chocolate Factory, which has been manufacturing more than 100 made-from-scratch confections for 30 years. Recently acquired by the Hamlett family, which boasts nearly two decades of candy making experience and promises to maintain the time-tested recipes that locals adore, The factory is a retail shop—and, as its name suggests, it’s a manufacturing facility where you can see a variety of candy making techniques in action. Try a “Tennessee Walking Stick,” a long pretzel covered with caramel, pecans and chocolate.
For a grownup dinner, head to Crown & Goose. Start with one of the exclusive ales, the London IPA or Royal Stout. Or sip one of the 304 scotch whiskies, “We have the most scotch on the East Coast and the fourth largest selection in the world,” says Jeffrey Nash, co-owner. (Among them, 208 single malts.) With its custom-built replica of a 19th Century-style London bar, the place has the ambiance of a traditional British pub. Live jazz entertainment (every Wednesday in the main dining room from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m.) serves as a reminder that you’re in the South. The chef sources local ingredients and puts a modern twist on traditional English fare like fish & chips, bangers & mash, and burgers made of local beef. Other menu temptations include Mediterranean mussels, pan-seared crab cakes, duck confit and more.
At Downtown Grill & Brewery, beer is brewed on site by brewmaster Al Krusen with help from Joey Barbarito. Much of their work is done underneath the main floor and starting as early as 4 a.m., but you can routinely spot them in the 15-barrel brewhouse near the dining room. Try the Downtown Nut Brown Ale if, like me, you enjoy malt and caramel flavors and a moderate amount of hops. The food menu offers an eclectic mix of items including pastas, Mexican fare, seafood, mesquite-grilled steaks and more.
Though it was not yet open during my Knoxville visit, a sneak peek of the new bar atop the iconic Sunsphere, which was built for the 1982 World’s Fair, suggests it will become a hot spot. Located on the fifth level, The Icon Ultra Lounge promises distinctive cocktails to match its singular views—the bar boasts panoramic views of Knoxville and the surrounding Great Smoky Mountains. The bar itself is high-tech, programmed to change colors. A glance at the cocktail menu suggests that drinks lean sweet, so if that’s not your thing then opt for a glass of beer or wine.
Before leaving Knoxville, be sure to stop by Saw Works Brewing Company. Doors and taps open to the public in the tasting room every Wednesday through Saturday, 4 to 8 p.m. Fill a growler (or two or more) with beer to take home. The Double Chocolate Porter is a personal favorite, with notes of malt and toffee balanced with spice, earth and mild hops. On the first and third Wednesdays of each month beginning at 4 p.m. the brewery also sells grass-fed, hormone-free beef raised by partner Century Harvest Farms of Greenback, Tennessee. And on the last Friday of each month “Beers and Steers” offers $5 growler fills and $10 for all-you-can-eat food.
Introduced to Knoxville’s trails after lunch, I expected a leisurely stroll on a flat boardwalk—experience has shown that when a press trip itinerary says “hiking,” that’s usually the way it goes. Not so here. I found myself trekking a dirt trail up a steep rocky mountainside. This is serious hiking, beyond what you might expect of an inner city trail system.
The Knoxville Urban Wilderness Corridor is comprised of 1,000 acres that house ten parks and nearly 40 miles of recreational trails along Knoxville’s downtown waterfront. Bike, hike or ride horseback on the multi-use trails. Legacy Parks Foundation is leading the effort to create trails, connect and expand parks, create an easy-to-navigate system of signs and kiosks, and market the results.
Trails wind along the banks of the Tennessee River, through the woods and to the Ijams Nature Center, a wildlife sanctuary and environmental education center with more than 300 acres of protected woodlands, meadows and the reclaimed Mead’s Quarry site. A birding hotspot, “There are 12 miles of trails on the Ijams property,” says Paul James, executive director. “Some trails are fairly technical with switchbacks,” offering a challenging hike or mountain biking experience. “If it’s your first time mountain biking, I wouldn’t recommend the Turnbuckle Trail,” he says. (At the time of my visit, he indicated that a new beginners’ trail was being built.)
Knoxville Botanical Gardens and Arboretum is a 47-acre garden with 200 years of history just two miles from the city center. Walking trails and “secret” garden paths invite a more leisurely pace so you can stop and smell the blooms.
The Outdoor Knoxville Adventure Center is located on the downtown Knoxville waterfront. Legacy Parks and River Outfitters run the facility with River Sports offering boat, stand-up paddleboard and bike rentals at the center. Outdoor excursions and programs are offered throughout the year.
More To Do…
Local jazz ensembles, choral groups, instrumental performances and other productions are staged in this elegant space where there’s no bad seat in the house. Reasonable ticket prices make it an easy choice for evening entertainment.
Mast General Store
If you’re not a huge fan of Mast General Store, then you haven’t been to one of its eight locations yet. Carrying everything from “cradles to caskets,” and a whole lot of old-fashioned candy to enjoy along the journey, the Downtown Knoxville store is on Gay Street in an ornate building of the Gilded Age.
WDVX Blue Plate Special
The Knoxville Visitor Center does triple duty: It’s a place to gather information, has a great little gift shop and is the stage for live performances of Americana music. Stop by at Noon any day but Sunday to enjoy a free show that rivals Nashville’s Opryland.
Where To Stay…
Holiday Inn World’s Fair Park
525 Henley St.
Knoxville, TN 37902
This clean, comfortable hotel is more upscale than you might expect and within walking distance of many key attractions.
Knoxville Visitor Center
301 South Gay St.
Knoxville, TN 37902
-Downtown Knoxville photos courtesy Visit Knoxville; remainder © HSP Media LLC