KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – From high atop the Sunsphere, Knoxville’s architectural wonder that was the symbol of the 1982 World’s Fair, I dizzyingly walk around the circular observation deck of the hexagonal tower, taking in the 360-degree view without getting too close to the reflective glass panes that enclose the disco ball-like structure. I don’t like tall buildings, but with the gold dust-layered Sunsphere, I’ve made an exception just for the panoramic scenery. From the pinnacle, I look out over downtown Knoxville, the winding turns of the Tennessee River, the towering red brick campus of the University of Tennessee, and then farthest away, the mist-cloaked peaks of the Smoky Mountains.
Most people associate Knoxville with the World’s Fair, now decades in the rearview mirror but this year celebrating its 40th anniversary with myriad events from May until October. The iconic 26-story Sunsphere, the most distinctive characteristic punctuating the city’s skyline, recently reopened as a tourist attraction.
Plenty of country music superstars started out in Knoxville, and among that number are Dolly Parton, Kitty Wells, Bill and Charlie Monroe, Chet Atkins and Archie Campbell. But Knoxville, at a happy medium between a mid-size Southern city and small mountain town, has always been much more than its nickname, the Cradle of Country Music.
Something else is happening here, too, something that’s been going on a while but only recently that visitors and locals alike are catching on. Knoxville is emerging to the forefront as a hotbed of culinary creations, a foodie destination comparable to Charleston, South Carolina; New Orleans and Austin, Texas. If Knoxville’s roots are in Smoky Mountains culture, country music and the world’s fair, then its future is in dining and drinking.
A melange of restaurants, cafes, bistros, breweries and distilleries freckle downtown Knoxville, with scarcely a chain among them.
Check out these local favorites:
The Drawing Room at the Tennessean Hotel
Let me kick off with appetizers and drinks. The Drawing Room, richly appointed and comfortable with huge windows for plenty of light, has myriad bourbons and whiskeys, including a range of smooth Tennessee whiskey. But there’s also a sweet selection of seasonal specialty cocktails. My pick was the Smoky Mountain Peach Margarita with house-smoked peach puree and a smoked Serrano salt rim, a cocktail that paired perfectly with the appetizers of Asian ginger-glazed smoked wings and blackened sirloin tips. Shrimp and grits are on the menu for breakfast, with specialties including maple pecan-crusted salmon for dinner.
531 Henley St., Knoxville. 865-232-1800. Visit www.thetennesseanhotel.com
Myrtle’s Chicken and Beer
I’m a Southern girl, through and through, and have an affinity for fried chicken, biscuits with gobs of butter and tomatoes. You get all three and more at Myrtles on Market Square in downtown. It’s Southern comfort food: smoky baby back ribs, pimento mac and cheese, and chicken and waffles. The tomato pie is serious eats, truly hush-your-mouth good with sliced tomatoes, savory cheeses including gobs of mozzarella, a little basil, caramelized onions and a flaky crust. It’s like pizza, pie and quiche all rolled into one pan.
13 Market Square, Knoxville. 865-851-8833. Visit myrtleschickenandbeer.com
A Dopo Sourdough Pizza
The pizza is wood-fired, based with sourdough and Neapolitan-style, which means it originated in Naples. The characteristics of pizza Napoletana, as it’s pronounced in Italy, are that it is simple and fresh. At A Dopo, the mozzarella is handmade and chewy, the basil the freshest and the olive oil the silkiest. Oh, that crust. It’s fat and bubbly, slightly charred and has few toppings, the way pizza is supposed to be. The Margherita, my choice, was intensely flavorful. It may not be a fancy restaurant, but it is authentically Italian. In Italian, “a dopo” means “see you later.” Oh, yes, I definitely will. PS Try the small-batch gelato.
516 Williams St., Knoxville. 865-321-1297. Visit www.adopopizza.com
Marble City Market
For a quick lunch or dinner of locally curated artisanal food, 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, plus Frank and Georges for creative cocktails and Top Golf Swing Suite Simulators for virtual games of golf, baseball and more.
333 W. Depot Ave., Suite 110, Knoxville. 865-253-7193. Visit marblecitymarket.com
Maker Exchange at Marriott Knoxville Downtown
Inside the newly renovated hotel is the Maker Exchange. Dining is what I would term regional with more of a gourmet twist. The menu can change with what’s available locally, but think of Southern specialties like baked chicken, fried shrimp, smoked pork belly and deviled eggs. You know you’re in Tennessee when pork skins are on the menu of this snazzy, upscale restaurant.
525 Henley St., Knoxville. 865-522-2800. Visit http://wdt.me/marriottknox
French Market Creperie
At Knoxville’s first and only authentic French crepe restaurant, you’ll savor the sweet flavors, among them caramel with whipped cream, blueberries and lemon curd, Bavarian cream and, of course, Suzette crepes. For the not-so-sweet tooth, you’ll find sandwiches including the classic grilled cheese, omelets and croissants. The restaurant is as cozy and warm as a Paris cafe. Ooh-la-la! From the bakery, try the colorful, delicious macarons and petit fours.
412 Clinch Ave., Downtown Knoxville. 865-540-4372. 161 Brooklawn St., West Knoxville. 865-288-7912. Visit http://wdt.me/frenchmarket
Knox Whiskey Works
To get the flavor of Knoxville, adult-style, saddle up to the bar at Knox Whiskey Works, for a tasting flight of a full range of 13 small-batch, handcrafted distilled spirits including whiskey, vodka, gin and rum. If you prefer, try a cocktail tasting flight of four house-made signature cocktails like the Jackson Avenue Gimlet with Jackson Avenue Gin or the Dragon Tail Lemonade with Deals Gap Dragon Tail Whiskey, uniquely and piquantly flavored with clover honey and extracts from haberno and ghost peppers.
516 W. Jackson Ave., Knoxville. 865-525-2372. Visit www.knoxwhiskeyworks.com
Sweet P’s BBQ
In all the barbecue joints, in all the towns, in all the world, I walk into Sweet P’s. Part dive, part restaurant, Sweet P’s is barbecue perfection. It’s known for its tender, smoky ribs and brisket, rich and creamy mac and cheese and banana pudding with a sweet taste that lingers for a spell. Get the sampler plate so you can have a little bit of it all. It’s piled with a barbecue pork or chicken sandwich, a quarter rack of ribs, beef brisket and three sides.
410 W. Jackson Ave., Knoxville. 865-281-1738. Visit www.sweetpbbq.com
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 one-of-a-kind brews with the best taste and 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 handcraft a glass from start to finish is utterly fascinating. This place is flat-out fun, perhaps because of Cummings’ mantra, “We take what we do seriously, but we don’t take ourselves seriously.”
131 S. Central St., Knoxville. Pretentious Beer 865-851-7693 or Pretentious Glass at 865-249-8677. Visit www.pretentiousbeerco.com
For the fancier, more intimate dinner in a historic setting, the Oliver Royale at the chic Oliver Hotel is where to go. The dining area is small, the globed lighting romantic and the dark wood intriguing. So. The food? Stunning 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, and then end with carrot cake or bread pudding, made with berries or fruit of the moment. All of the pasta is made daily in-house. Pair your meal with a wonderful wine or specialty cocktail.
5 Market Square, Knoxville. 865-622-6434. Visit www.oliverroyale.com
If you go
Where to stay
n Marriott Knoxville Downtown 525 Henley St., Knoxville 865-522-2800 or visit www.marriott.com Newly redesigned hotel in downtown Knoxville and within walking distance of numerous shops, restaurants and art galleries. Rates from $ 166 per night per room.
n The Tennessean Hotel 531 Henley St., Knoxville 865-232-1800 or visit www.thetennesseanhotel.com A luxury hotel in downtown Knoxville with 82 rooms. Close to the University of Tennessee, Market Square and Old City. Rates from $ 209 per night per room.
n The Oliver Hotel 407 Union Ave., Knoxville 865-521-0050 or visit www.theoliverhotel.com A recently renovated 28-room boutique hotel in an 1876 building in downtown Knoxville. Rates from $ 229 per night per room.
What to do
n Sunsphere 810 Clinch Ave., Knoxville 865- 314-0660 or visit http://wdt.me/sunsphere Built for 1982 World’s Fair, the Sunsphere offers 360-degree views of Knoxville and the surrounding area.
n Knoxville Museum of Art 1050 World’s Fair Park Dr., Knoxville 865-525-6161 or visit www.knoxart.org An exemplary museum dedicated to the culture of East Tennessee. Admission is free.
n Art Market Gallery A regional cooperative in downtown Knoxville featuring original art and fine crafts from more than 60 area artists, photographers and crafters. 422 S. Gay St., Knoxville 865-525-5265 or visit www.artmarketgallery.net
n Historic Westwood 3425 Kingston Pike, Knoxville 865-523-8008 or visit www.knoxheritage.com Built in 1890 for John and Ann Adelia Armstrong Lutz, the home is a rare example of Queen Anne and Richardsonian Romanesque architectural styles.
The official tourism website of Knoxville: www.visitknoxville.com.
Also visit the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development at www.tnvacation.com for additional information.