Bay's Travel Blog

I don't travel much any more. Resist!

Thursday, March 24, 2016

My favorite Knoxville restaurants

I recently compiled a list of restaurants I would recommend for a friend. Actually, it was for a friend's friends who are coming to Knoxville soon. This weekend, I think. I will not be here to greet them myself -- and really, they didn't ask for a tour guide. They asked for restaurant recommendations, and I was more than happy to comply.

I worked in downtown Knoxville twenty years ago at an ad agency on Fifth Avenue. Downtown Knoxville was a slum in those days, truly horrifying in more ways than I can count. I really hated working here. Lunches out were confined to a Mexican restaurant in the Old City, a diner on a side street near the agency, a nicer place on the edge of Fountain City, and Chesapeake's, where I always got the crab cakes with cole slaw and applesauce.

That was then. Now downtown Knoxville is a sparkling wonderland filled with beautiful places, parks, restaurants, shops, theatres, historic houses, hotels, boutique hotels, and more. I can get my Hermes scarf dry-cleaned just across the street from my office building. I can get sushi, home cooking, pasta, pizza, quiche, tacos, espresso, or tapas in a short walk. I can go to a biscuit festival in May and a Pride parade in  June.

I love this town. I want to live here. Seriously.

So since I went to all the trouble of writing a list of favorite restaurants for a stranger, I thought, "I should post this on the poor, benighted blog. Next time someone asks for a list, I can just send a link."

Without further ado, here you go: Bay's Knoxville Restaurant Revue

Cru Bistro (141 S. Gay St.): Flatbreads; small plates; great salads, entrees, and desserts. Very good cocktails; cool beer list. One of my favorite places, and it's on the very pretty 100 block of Gay Street. (There's another one out west in Turkey Creek. The one downtown is more to my style; it's more ... mellow.)

Knox Mason (131 S. Gay St.): Small, a little pricey, but right now it's the only restaurant in Knoxville with a chef who was nominated for a James Beard Award. (Soon JC Holdaway will open, and that chef actually *won* a James Beard. But it's not open yet.) Also on the very pretty 100 block of Gay Street.

Stock and Barrel (35 Market Square): Incredible burgers and an extensive bourbon and rye list. Absolutely delicious. Seriously. Duck confit french fries are amazing. Beer-battered onion rings are amazing. All the "ordinary" burgers are amazing; the turkey burger and lamb burger are *also* amazing. This restaurant is very, very, VERY busy and small. Get there at an off-time, or be prepared to wait for a table. 

Bistro at the Bijou (807 S. Gay St.): Historic location next to the historic Bijou Theatre. Great farm-to-table fare, very reliable place. I *highly* recommend the turkey and dressing or the squash casserole if it happens to be the special of the day when you're here. Really, though, I've never had anything except great food at the Bistro.

(Bonus: The owner of the Bistro at the Bijou publicly and loudly banned an obnoxious, ultra-conservative, hatemongering ex-state senator from the restaurant. It made the national news. She gets my business not just because the food rocks, but also because she rocks.)

Nama Sushi (506 S. Gay St.): Best sushi in Knoxville. Very hip. Gets crowded on weekends; much more affordable for lunch. *Love* the miso soup! (Another location in the Bearden neighbhorhood -- the soup is better downtown.) Claire is the best bartender in town, too!

Baja shrimp taco at Shuck with fabulous cole slaw
Shuck (5200 Kingston Pike): Speaking of Bearden, Shuck is the best seafood place in town. I dearly love the fish tacos (135 or Baja, fish or shrimp, grilled or fried, it's all fabulous). I had a wedge salad with a salmon steak that was crazy perfection. Dear Husband loves the oysters. The list goes on and on. If all you want is the best seafood in a land-locked town in the Smokies, then you have to go find Shuck.

Sweet P's Downtown Dive (410 W. Jackson Ave.): If you want barbecue, this is the only locally-owned joint I recommend. There are a few other barbecue places around town; Sweet P's really captures the Knoxville vibe the best. They have a smoker right there. (Another barbecue restaurant trucks its meat in from a commissary somewhere in the suburbs. Phoo.) Sweet P's also has a beer garden, and they call themselves a dive. That just yells "Scruffy City." (It really isn't all that divey.)

Tomato Head Pizza (12 Market Square): Extremely good pizza, good beer list, great sandwiches. Extensive vegan and gluten-free menus. Earliest survivor of the Market Square renaissance -- it's been in business since at least 1992, and it was the first restaurant in Knoxville to ban smoking. Loud ambiance, but ... *pizza*. Yum.

Coolato Gelato (524 S. Gay St.): Quiche, paninis, soups, and salads, and espresso and gelato and pastries. This place is *adorable*, and the food is *so* *good*. I love the lobster bisque if it's available; the chicken toscana soup is divine, too. So many good things to eat! Very grown up, though. Ladies-who-lunch kind of place during the day; very busy at night when people get out of the movie theatre and go to Coolato for the gelato.

Bacon wrapped shrimp at Five
Restaurants that are not locally owned but are very good, anyway:
Babalu Tapas and Tacos - Gay Street
Five - Gay Street
Tupelo Honey - Market Square

Five is more of a special-occasion kind of restaurant, but it's really, really good if you can afford it. Babalu and Tupelo Honey are both kind of expensive. Babalu's food is just divine, though. Service at all three restaurants is top-notch. Seriously. 

Top 4 (tried really hard to make this as short a list as possible)
1. Stock and Barrel
2. Cru
3. Bistro at the Bijou
3. Coolato Gelato

Two restaurants I haven't tried yet but others recommend:
- Balter Beer Works (very new, on Jackson Avenue)
- Dazzo's Pizza (on Gay Street)

One of the associates sometimes brings leftover pizza back from lunch at Dazzo's, and it just about knocks me out every time. It smells like pizza from heaven.

There! I think that just about covers it. If you also dine in Knoxville and have an opinion, please do not hesitate to let me know what you think!