KNOXVILLE, Tennessee – From the top of the Sunsphere, Knoxville’s architectural marvel that was the symbol of the 1982 World’s Fair, I wander dizzily around the circular observation deck of the Hexagon Tower, enjoying the view 360 degrees without getting too close to the reflective glass that surrounds the disco ball-shaped structure. I don’t like tall buildings, but with the Sunsphere covered in gold dust, I made an exception just for the scenic landscape. From the top, I look out over downtown Knoxville, the winding bends of the Tennessee River, the towering red-brick campus of the University of Tennessee, and then farther away, the mist-clad peaks of the Smoky Mountains.
Most people associate Knoxville with the World’s Fair, now decades in the rearview mirror, but which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year with a myriad of events from May through October. The iconic 26-story Sunsphere, the most distinctive feature punctuating the city’s skyline, recently reopened as a tourist attraction.
Many country music superstars started in Knoxville, and among that number are Dolly Parton, Kitty Wells, Bill and Charlie Monroe, Chet Atkins, and Archie Campbell. But Knoxville, halfway between an average Southern town and a small mountain town, has always been more than its nickname, the birthplace of country music.
Something else is going on here too, something that has been going on for some time, but only recently have visitors and locals realized. Knoxville is emerging as a hotbed of culinary creations, a dining destination comparable to Charleston, South Carolina; New Orleans and Austin, Texas.
A hodgepodge of downtown Knoxville’s freckled restaurants, cafes, bistros and distilleries, with barely a chain among them. Check out these favourites:
The Tennessean Hotel Lounge
Let me start with appetizers and drinks. The Drawing Room, lavishly appointed and cozy with huge windows for plenty of light, offers a myriad of bourbons and whiskeys, including a range of smooth Tennessee whiskeys. But there is also a sweet selection of special seasonal cocktails. My choice was the Smoky Mountain Peach Margarita with homemade smoked peach puree and a rim of smoked Serrano salt, a cocktail that paired perfectly with the starters of Asian ginger-glazed smoked wings and blackened sirloin tips. Shrimp and grits are on the menu for breakfast, with specialties like maple pecan-crusted salmon for dinner.
Chicken and Myrtle Beer
I’m a Southern girl, through and through, and I have an affinity for fried chicken, cookies with bits of butter, and tomatoes. You get all three and more at Myrtles on Market Square downtown. It’s Southern comfort food: smoked ribs, chili macaroni and cheese, chicken and waffles. Tomato pie is a serious dish, really good to shut up with sliced tomatoes, savory cheeses including mozzarella chunks, a little basil, caramelized onions and a flaky crust.
Marble City Market
For a quick lunch or dinner of local artisan fare, visit Marble City Market, 15,000 square feet of indoor dining space under one roof: The Corners Pizza, Penne for Your Thoughts, Fantail Fish and Frites, Po’ Richard’s, Seoul Brothers, Paysan Sandwich Shop, Smash Knoxville, Myrtle’s Bakeshop, The Donut Theory, Lake and Oak BBQ, Gekko Poke and Ramen, as well as Frank and Georges for creative cocktails and Top Golf Swing Suite Simulators for virtual golf games , baseball and more.
French market creperie
At Knoxville’s first and only authentic French crepe restaurant, you’ll savor sweet flavors including whipped cream caramel, blueberry and lemon curd, Bavarian cream and, of course, Crêpes Suzette. For the less greedy, you will find sandwiches including the classic grilled cheese, omelettes and croissants. The restaurant is as cozy and warm as a Parisian café. Oh dear! From the bakery, try the delicious macaroons and colorful petit fours.
BBQ Sweet P
In all the barbecues, in all the cities, all over the world, I go to Sweet P’s. Part dive, part restaurant, Sweet P’s is barbecue perfection. It’s known for its tender, smoky ribs and brisket, rich, creamy macaroni and cheese, and sweet-tasting banana pudding that lingers for a while. Get the sample plate so you can have some. It’s stacked with a pork or barbecue chicken sandwich, quarter ribs, beef brisket, and three sides.
Phoenix pharmacy and fountain
End a trip to Knoxville by visiting this old-fashioned soda fountain. When I asked for something sweet with peanut butter and chocolate, owner Nolan Sherrill said, “I can make you anything with peanut butter and chocolate.” He then made an impressive PB&C sundae piled high with whipped cream, cherries and homemade ice cream that was unbelievably delicious. Every sundae, every ice cream sandwich, every milkshake, every float is handmade or hand-spun into an icy concoction that will leave you gasping for goodness. Also ask what’s seasonal, whether it’s blueberries, strawberries, rosemary or even papaya.
Knox Whiskey Works
To taste the flavor of Knoxville, the grown-up way, hop up to the bar at Knox Whiskey Works, for a tasting flight of a full lineup of 13 small-batch craft distilled spirits, including whiskey, vodka, gin and rum. If you prefer, try a tasting flight of four house cocktails like the Jackson Avenue Gimlet with Jackson Avenue Gin or the Dragon Tail Lemonade with Deals Gap Dragon Tail Whiskey, uniquely flavored and tangy with clover honey and haberno extracts and ghost peppers.
I can’t say enough about Pretentious Craft, a hybrid glassblowing studio and craft beer brewery. Really. Half of the building is dedicated to creating experimental and unique beers with the best taste and the best names ever: Burn After Drinking, Chillax, Fluffy Sumo. In the other half, Matthew Cummings and his team design and produce exquisite glassware for beer, wine, cocktails and whiskey. Watching him make a glass by hand from start to finish is utterly fascinating. This place is downright fun, perhaps because of Cummings’ mantra, “We take what we do seriously, but we don’t take ourselves seriously.”
For fancier, more intimate dining in a historic setting, the Oliver Royale at the posh Oliver Hotel is the place to go. The dining room is small, the globe lighting romantic and the dark wood intriguing. So. The food? Superb in taste and presentation. It’s seasonal and regional and fresh as a Tennessee daisy. Start with loaded deviled eggs or seared scallops, followed by entrees of North Carolina trout or wild mushroom ravioli, then finish with carrot cake or bread pudding, made with berries or seasonal fruit . All pasta is made daily on site. Accompany your meal with a wonderful wine or specialty cocktail.