While a lot of Southern cities, from Greenville, S.C., to Asheville, have upped their food game, Knoxville doesn’t pop up in every travel magazine – yet. An easy four-hour drive from Charlotte, it’s got a young and creative vibe, thanks to the campus of the University of Tennessee and the headquarters of Scripps Networks Interactive, which runs the Food Network, the Travel Channel and HGTV, among others.
The city tried to put itself on the global map with 1982 World’s Fair. The site is now mostly a park and cultural area, although the Sunsphere, a stubby tower with what looks like a gold disco ball on top, is still the city’s symbol. It’s free to ride the elevator to an observation deck. Since the skyline is remarkably free of skyscrapers, the Sunsphere still sticks out.
The real renaissance, though, focuses on the city’s downtown, where Market Square and the adjoining Charles Krutch Park stretch through several blocks, surrounded by restaurants, bars and shops, and a small area nearby called Old City, which has creative businesses during the day and an entertainment district at night. On a Friday night, Market Square is busy with families, flocks of young people and competing street musicians. Most of the downtown area is walkable, but expect hills: The city is built on the bluffs surrounding the Tennessee River and some sections can be surprisingly steep.
If you’re planning a trip, put these on your plate:
1. Market Square: A lot of women won’t be able to resist a selfie with the Tennessee Woman’s Suffrage Memorial, a bronze rendition of three pioneers for voting rights. Stretching behind the sculpture is a lively town square. Just a few years ago, the district was rundown and mostly abandoned. But city investment has paid off and now there are restaurants, bars and interesting shops. Saturdays and Wednesdays bring a large farmers’ market with crafts and local food. Nice touch: Electric hookups so vendors can bring fresh meats, cheeses and dairy products.
2. J.C. Holdway. This airy and light-filled contemporary restaurant with old-school wood-oven cooking draws national attention for good reason. The chef is James Beard Award winner Joseph Lenn, an alumni of the Inn at Blackberry Farm. It’s named for his late uncle, Joseph Charles Holdway, an enthusiastic eater. The menu is local (and regional – we spotted a lot of Carolinas products). Dinner only; small plates from $12 to $16, entrees mostly $20 to $26.
3. Knox Mason and Emilia. Knox Mason chef Matt Gallaher, also a Blackberry alumnus, calls his menu “hyper-local,” with twists on Southern food. It changes seasonally, but expect tasty things like local pork rinds, pimento cheese and charcuterie, as well as entrees. It’s a brisk, six-block from Market Square to Gay Street. If you want to stay closer but go farther with your taste buds, sister restaurant Emilia, on Market Square, is Italian-focused and inspired by the Emilia-Romagna region. Both dinner only (Knox Mason also serves Sunday brunch). Knox Mason: $5 to $9 for snacks and small plates, $16 to $25 for entrees. Emilia: $3 to $13 for antipasti and contorni, $18 to $34 for secondi.
4. Yassin’s Falafel House. Good Middle Eastern food isn’t rare these days. But two things make this small, counter-service spot special: One is a short documentary (watch it on YouTube) on owner Yassin Terou, a Syrian refugee who arrived in Knoxville penniless and started selling falafel sandwiches outside a local mosque. The second is: This is seriously good Middle Eastern food. The crispy falafel is bright green with herbs, chicken schwarma is tender and juicy, and that baba ganoush is downright ethereal.
5. Knox Whiskey Works and soon-to-open PostModern Distilling. The success of craft beer has brought an explosion of craft liquors. Two to watch for are on West Jackson Avenue, once a rundown warehouse district next to the city rail yards. Knox makes vodka, gin, barrelled whiskey and several liqueurs, including a high-caffeine coffee version using Counter Culture beans. PostModern isn’t open yet, but will focus on spirits aimed at craft cocktails.
6. Pretentious Beer Co./Pretentious Glass. Yes, every city has breweries now, including Knoxville. But this is a little different: It’s a taproom next to a glass works. Watch artisans working at fiery kilns, then step next door and cool off with a curated list of beers, sodas and kombuchas served in glasses made to match what they serve.
7. Blackberry Farm. It’s a 40-minute drive from the city to the legendary country resort in Walland, where the prices are steep for most budgets: Rooms start at $800 and go way up, with a three-night minimum. There are a limited number of spots for dinner if you’re not staying there ($55 for a tasting menu, $250 with wine pairings). If you can’t swing those, you can get a taste with the farm’s products. The jams and spreads are at stores around town, and the farm brewery is now making creations like saisons.
8. Cruze Farm . . . everything. The family-owned Knoxville dairy has a cult following for churned buttermilk, flavored milks (coffee, chai and chocolate), butter and, oh, those ice creams. Find it in local stores like Three Rivers, look for the farm truck on Saturdays in Market Square or watch for the summer pop-up store. You could just get a cup of ice cream. But if you’re driving, bring a cooler and stock up for baking projects.
9. Benton’s . . . everywhere. To chefs, Allan Benton is The Man. His bacon and country hams set the standard for cured meats and regional ingredients all over the country. You can visit the small store attached to his ham house is in Madisonville, just 50 miles or so from Knoxville, or stop by Three Rivers Market, the only co-op in Tennessee, to load up. Or keep an eye peeled for Benton himself: He shows up at restaurants, markets and food events. Watch for a genial fellow who looks a bit like Jimmy Carter’s younger brother.
Knoxville is one of many day and weekend trips Charlotteans can take without a lot of planning. Check out our tips on Asheville next.
Kathleen Purvis: 704-358-5236, @kathleenpurvis