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Knoxville offers much to see and hear, but now even more to taste

by Tribune News Service | May 8, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.
Myrtle’s Chicken and Beer on Market Street in downtown Knoxville offer a decadent, very Southern, and super-cheesy tomato pie. Also find fried chicken, cheddar drop biscuits, and fried pimento cheese fritters in the lively restaurant. (Mary Ann Anderson/TNS)

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 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 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.

A mélange of restaurants, cafes, bistros and distilleries freckle downtown Knoxville, with scarcely a chain among them. Check out these 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.

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.

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.

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, crepes Suzette. 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 café. Ooh-la-la! From the bakery, try the colorful, delicious macarons and petit fours.

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.

Phoenix Pharmacy and Fountain

Finish a trip to Knoxville with visit to 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 peanut butter and chocolate." He then whipped together an impressive PB&C sundae piled with whipped cream, cherries and homemade ice cream that was unreal delicious. Every sundae, every ice cream sandwich, every milkshake, every float is handmade or handspun into a frozen concoction that will leave you sighing with goodness. Ask what's seasonal, too, whether it's blueberries, strawberries, rosemary or even pawpaw.

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.

Pretentious Beer

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."

Oliver Royale

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.

photo The Art Market Gallery, a regional cooperative featuring original art and fine crafts, is on busy Gay Street in downtown Knoxville. Many of the artists represented at the gallery teach art to adults and children. (Mary Ann Anderson/TNS)
photo Wood-fired, sourdough-based Neapolitan-style pizza is the specialty of A Dopo. The mozzarella is handmade, too, as seen here in the Margherita, a bubbly concoction full of flavor that includes basil and olive oil. (Mary Ann Anderson/TNS)
photo The Great Smoky Mountain sundae from Phoenix Pharmacy and Fountain includes a fudge-soaked brownie, Italian sponge cake, cacao nibs and house-made vanilla bean ice cream. Every treat at the fountain is made in-house. (Mary Ann Anderson/TNS)
photo Knox Whiskey Works offers a full range of 13 small-batch, handcrafted distilled spirits including whiskey, vodka, gin, and rum. Try a flight of all the spirits or a selection of house-made cocktails. (Mary Ann Anderson/TNS)
photo Pretentious Craft, a hybrid glassblowing studio and craft beer brewery, produces both handmade beer and beautiful glassware. Here, owner—and glass artist and brewer—Matthew Cummings gives a live glassblowing demonstration for several patrons. (Mary Ann Anderson/TNS)

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