Many people, when they hear that I’m from Knoxville, Tennessee, react in a couple of different ways. The French reaction is typically to sing “Quelque chose de Tennessee” by Johnny Hallyday – this reaction has become relatively endearing over time (but he’s really talking about Tennessee Williams in the song. Not going to spoil it for them). The American reaction is, “How does someone from Tennessee end up in Paris?” I’ll generally quip that it’s a long story and respond with grace, while ignoring the subtle zinger contained within the question.
The truth is, I wasn’t always a fan of Knoxville. When I was little, I dreamed of moving back to Washington, DC or New York City. (I went slightly off the path by moving to Paris, but hey, can you blame me?) But when I would talk about Knoxville and the area where I grew up, I actually became more attached to East Tennessee: the food, the people, the climate, the natural side. Knoxville and my home in Anderson County have actually now become a haven for me. A place I look forward to going to to escape the fast pace of Paris. So when I found myself not working (for once) and the kids had their Spring Break of two weeks, I figured I would head home to really enjoy a Tennessee springtime with my kids.
I’m always pleasantly surprised when I head back to Knoxville – the new restaurants, the new refurbishments, the growth that happens in between each visit. The college town that I once knew with a seemingly endless number of chain restaurants and grungy bars has shifted to showcase local cuisine, local beers and create a bigger sense of community. Downtown Knoxville has becoming a hopping center of creativity, social life and gastronomy, playing host to many cultural events and foodie havens. I have so many favorites now, that it’s hard to pick which ones to share with you – but hopefully you’ll appreciate these local gems.
I’ve been going to Nama since I was a senior in college. It started off as a small sushi restaurant near the part of town known as the “Old City.” It was a place to be seen and brought a bit of trendy glamour to Knoxville that didn’t really exist at the time. Think “Sex and the City” vibe. Over time, it became incredibly popular to the point where they moved out of their small space and expanded to two bigger locations – one in Downtown on Gay Street and the other in Bearden.
Nama is one of my must do restaurants whenever I go back to Knoxville. You can get good sushi in Paris (and in Johannesburg when we were there) but Nama’s offerings make me crave some of their food as soon as I start thinking about heading home. Their warm crab and asiago cheese dip with sriracha sauce on top is my perfect starter, followed by some amazing tuna tataki (raw tuna sashimi with Chinese 7 spice on the edges.) Their rolls can be basic (california, crunchy shrimp) or creative (the Thai Stick is a new fave – crunchy shrimp, roasted red peppers, cream cheese topped with tuna tataki, avocado, coconut milk and fresh basil). Even after almost 10 years, I’ve yet to be disappointed in a meal there.
This is a new place for me. Makers Donuts opened in January 2016, so I hadn’t been able to go on my last couple of trips home. But man oh man, am I glad I went this time. The shop is minimalistic in itself – “industrial chic” as I like to describe it. You have a glass counter that displays each of their weekly offerings as a single donut on a polished silver metal tray. Behind the counter lies mouth-watering trays full of freshly made donuts. It’s so hard not to get carried away! When I was there in mid-April, they had flavors such as blueberry bourbon (which my friend, Justin, described as the best jelly donut, but without the jelly or the mess – he was definitely a fan at first bite) or dark chocolate ganache with sea salt. I didn’t go for the key lime pie donut, but it looked equally tempting. Makers is also open late on Fridays and Saturdays, for what they call “Midnight Donuts,” so you can get a fix after a great night out in Downtown. I’m definitely adding this new North Knoxville addition to my list of places to go when I’m home.
I first tried Magpies at a friend’s wedding back in 2007. I had no idea who they were, but when I had a first mouthful of Magpies, I was hooked. The cake was light and full of flavor, the icing was a rich buttercream that melted in my mouth. I usually go get a pack of cupcakes when I’m back in town, but this past visit, I decided to go more for cookies. They had Easter sugar cookies that were frosted and decorated with a variety of springtime sprinkles. The boys ate them right up, but I did have time to snap a quick pic before they were gone for good. I also snagged a couple of chocolate chip cookie sandwhiches. Two cookies chock full of delicious chocolate chips and brought together by a layer of vanilla buttercream frosting. They were the perfect size – just enough to satiate your cookie craving. They also had some lemon thumbprint cookies, which were pure buttery nirvana. The lemon icing was juicy and flavorful – not too sugary. Magpie’s is located off Central Ave in Knoxville – you can’t miss it with the Magpies outside the building!
Bearden Beer Market
Bearden Beer Market is a friendly little beer garden/beer market located off Kingston Pike near the Sequoyah Hills district. You can pretty much do anything you want here (within reason) all while drinking from a huge menu of beers and ciders. Sour beers? You got it. Canned fruity beer? They got that too. The beer market is set up to where you can bring your own food or you can order from food trucks that wait outside. You can play cornhole or meet up with your friends with your dog – or your kids! They even have running groups that meet there, get in their run, and then come back for a refreshing beer afterwards. I have always loved how relaxed and unpretentious this place is, along with their draught beers.
Alliance Brewing Company
Drive across the Henley Street Bridge, over the Tennessee River from the University of Tennessee (my alma mater!) and Downtown Knoxville, past the JFG Coffee sign and you end up in what is becoming a new hot spot in town. Alliance Brewing Company is part of a little complex with a yoga studio and a resident food truck (aka hipster central). But again – like their sister Bearden Beer Market – everyone is welcome to this laid back craft beer mecca.
I particularly enjoyed the Cubano Coffee Brown. It’s a “malty brown ale” that happens to be combined with cold brew coffee. The result is perfect for a multitasker like me (ha!) – coffee and beer at the same time! The coffee taste was present but not overwhelming. And it was not super heavy – like some darker beers tend to be. There’s a beer for every taste, and the staff is super friendly and helpful.
Knoxville can be a really pleasant place to visit, especially given its position as a gateway to the Smoky Mountains, Gatlinburg – and even a short distance from Asheville, North Carolina. This scruffy city is coming into its own, and it has delicious results. If you find yourself in the area, I hope y’all will stop by and stay a while!