I remember hopping into my car at dawn on a Saturday morning and zipping onto 75N in Atlanta, merging into the Smoky Mountains and making my way to Tennessee. It was my first time there and the anxiety of visiting the state where Little Debbie snacks hail from kept me from thinking clearly. Not to mention, I’d heard for years that the food scene in Nashville was pretty swift. I wasn’t going there, though. Nor was I was visiting the Little Debbie plant. I simply drove past it as I arrived at Southern University in Collegedale.
Far from being impressed with the little I was able to see during the brief 18-hour visit, I made it a point to explore more of Tennessee down the road and see what the hype is all about.
Of all the towns and bigger cities we’re most familiar with, Pigeon Forge, a suburb of Knoxville, stands out. During a recent visit to a privately owned cottage there, I spent some time perusing my cheap yet delectable eats options. The intriguing part of finding a good spot to eat is the varying suggestions and recommendations you get when asking locals and even visitors. Ultimately, settling on a place with an attractive ambiance, reasonable pricing and inescapable menu is what you want to go for.
If you’re looking for more than just a good dining experience, Dixie Stampede offers a night of entertainment with their stampede horse show. Dolly Parton’s companies have a way of knowing exactly how to make a big hit even bigger with their design, music and story-telling. This is a great family-friendly option, too.
While driving along the evergreen county roads, I came across Old Mill Pottery House Cafe & Grille, a very low-key and oddly cute restaurant that serves traditional American fare. One of the attractions in going there is the more popular Old Mill Restaurant across the street which lends the café to a great number of second-guessers and indecisive diners. The café is the perfect spot for lunch and delicious staples.
If the weather is amenable, make sure you sit outside and enjoy the beautifully manicured and landscaped grounds, boasting tons of flowers and a myriad of greens. I loved the Reuben, mostly because it’s my favorite sandwich, ever, and the bread was artisan enough to talk about, not to mention the chicken version is the one in-towners enjoy the most, seemingly a favorite on the menu.
If you can’t wait to enjoy dessert until after dinner (like me!), hop back in your car and drive over to Gatlinburg — a bigger suburb of Knoxville — about seven miles away and indulge in donuts by the Donut Friar. They say eat dessert first and this super cute yet tiny house turned fresh bakery epitomizes that statement. It only makes sense to enjoy a chocolate covered French cruller or an éclair right at about 3:30 p.m. The brown façade is located in the Village, right off the main strip. Stop in and enjoy a robust cup of coffee while you’re at it.
For dinner, Knoxville offers the gamut of choices when it comes to diverse cuisines. You’ll find everything from Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese and fine American to Jamaican and Italian. Since I’m always on the hunt for food that will fill me up and allow me to bypass dessert (since I had some earlier in the day), I go for places that have countless of options of well-seasoned dishes.
I completed my dining experience at Brazeiros Churrascaria, a Brazilian steakhouse. I’m sure every major city has one, but I’ve not been to one where the plethora of food intimidated even my palate. The amount of meat offered is heavenly for serious meat-eaters. Fortunately, and very smart on their part, the massive amount of meat is counterbalanced with an equally robust salad bar which alone can fill you up. If you opt for the bottomless salad bar, you can choose from sides such as polenta, fried bananas (or plantains) and cheese bread, which is a common food in Brazilian cuisine. Will you spend some money here? Yes, so be prepared to dish out at least $90 for a couple.
Want a little Parisian fare? One stop to add to your list is The French Market Creperie. Crepes never get old or go out of style and here you’ll enjoy a myriad of combinations and their savory crepes are lovely too. For homey Italian, hit up Bella Luna and ask for the meat sauce which is a customer favorite.
Knoxville isn’t just a lovely city with bright nightlights surrounded by lush mountains, it’s a great town for eclectic and reasonable dining. There’s definitely a place and dish for everyone at every hour of the day, especially if you’re adventurous and don’t mind visiting neighboring villages.
Photo credit: Knoxville Convention & Visitors Bureau and Mike Burton.