Two major ice storms ago—i.e. last month—my mom and I ventured two hours east to a place near and dear to our hearts: Knoxville.
She was born there and I graduated from the University of Tennessee, and we both visit this big-city-with-a-small-town-feel any chance we can get. In this case, it was for a story I was writing for the magazine, but we also snuck in a Lady Vols victory. My senior year in college, I interned for the women’s athletics marketing department, and it was the most fun I’ve ever had at a job. My mom is a diehard women’s basketball fan and never misses the Lady Vols on TV. It had been a decade since I’d last stepped foot in Thompson-Boling Arena, so I was glad we were able to make a game work—and a big victory over Kentucky at that.
But the real agenda was to check out all that’s new in Knoxville by way of food and drink. And let me tell you, Knoxville’s culinary scene often gets overshadowed by Nashville and maybe even Memphis when it can hold its own.
Exhibit A: Stock & Barrel. A couple of Seattle travel writing pals told me the burgers were a can’t-miss Knoxville, and they weren’t wrong. Paired with the duck confit fries and a s’mores shake to go, this meal couldn’t have been tastier. I didn’t know it was possible to fall in love with a burger, but I did just that. New favorite casual spot in Knoxville, and while the lines are ridiculous (and no reservations taken), Mom and I found two seats at the bar and ate there in half the time it would have taken us to wait for a table.
Exhibit B: Olibea. You guys know I love me a good brunch spot, but what I love even more is a place that serves brunch every day of the week (not nearly enough do). Olibea (pronounced Ollie-B) is brand new to town, and you can guarantee I’d be there daily if I lived locally.
Exhibit C: Knox Mason. I’ve been trying to get here for the last two years, and every time I’m in town, it’s either closed (on Sunday and Monday nights) or fully booked. Luckily, we were able to get to town with an hour left of the Sunday brunch service, as I gobbled up every last morsel: pork rinds, banana bread, Pimento cheese grilled sammie and more!
Exhibit D: Buttermilk Sky Pie Shop. Was there ever a pie place that wasn’t delicious? Well, no, I’ve yet to meet one, but I’d still wager that Buttermilk beats all the rest. We bought a four-pack, at the cherry one on site, and then I was kicking myself when I let Erin take the other three home. (What was I thinking?!)
Exhibit E: The Peter Kern Library. Now, this wasn’t my first time to the Peter Kern rodeo. I think I’ve managed to slip into the speakeasy-style lounge on every visit since it opened a handful of years back. I love the literary-inspired names like the Grendel and the Holly Golightly, and what I love even more is that it’s not at all pretentious. I camped out here with a cocktail all afternoon one day (who knew they’re also open during daylight hours?), and they let me work on my computer as I sipped. Most speakeasies don’t even allow you to use your cell phone, so this convenience was not lost on me.
Exhibit F: Magpies Bakery. The oldest of all the places I’ve previously mentioned, Magpies is one of the most beloved sweet shops in town. We were there just in time to nab a king cake and a half dozen cookies before they closed for the storm. Fun fact: Peg, who founded Magpies in 1992, and Holly of Holly’s 135 are sisters. Isn’t she just the cutest?
Of course, there are my other tried-and-true favorites that I didn’t even have time to stop by on this visit: The French Market Crêperie for breakfast, The Tomato Head for lunch, Coolato Gelato for a sweet treat, Sunspot for dinner, Downtown Grill & Brewery or Barley’s for drinks, Crown & Goose for a pint. Tupelo Honey Café is good, too, but I’ve stopped going there with all the new additions to downtown. And all those other newer places like the Public House that I still didn’t have a chance to visit due to the ice storm stopping the city dead in its tracks.
I also finally had a chance to stay in the city’s only boutique, the Oliver Hotel, which opened its doors on Market Square in an 1876 historic building four years ago. Our room was gorgeous, and the service was absolutely on point. If ever I’m back in Knoxville and not staying with our family there, I’ll definitely be booking myself back into the Oliver. In fact, I’ve already inquired about rates for New Year’s, as we’ll be there for a wedding….
Shopping is another thing Knoxville does particularly well. Alas, none of my regular haunts—Nothing Too Fancy for its quirky assortment of gifts; Rala for its whimsical paper goods; Bliss and Bliss Home for anything and everything—were open due to the weather, but I did discover a new trove of vintage and antique treasures, Mid Mod Collective, and could easily furnish my whole house from this place.
I may or may not have walked out of there with these Mad Men-esque glasses.
After all, a girl can never have too much barware in which to house her bourbon, amirite?
I have a family friend who lives in Knoxville so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that I might visit her someday. Bookmarking this for future travel! 🙂
So… that whole magazine thing was a cover story, right? This was a research trip for our trip to Knoxville… no?
All good spots. Also make the 25 minute drive to Maryville and eat at Foothills Milling Co.
Yay! I am heading to Knoxville Memorial day weekend for a wedding! And the Smokey mountains. I am SOO excited. 🙂
I am lucky enough to actually live in downtown Knoxville on Gay Street since August of 2014 and can literally walk to most of the places you mentioned. I think you hit the nail on the head with your tips! There’s even a couple of places I have yet to try that you mentioned. Great article! 🙂
Don’t forget Hard Knox Pizza.
Knoxville seems to be the place to eat and drink. Lots of those things aren’t easy to skip.
Each time I return home, I make a beeline for Hard Knox Pizza, get a biscuit from Tupelo Honey, and a sandwich from Tomato Head. Glad to see the new recommendations, although I’m not sure I’ll be able to break away from my Top 3 unless I just move back.