By Jennifer DePrima
Located in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains and along the Tennessee River, Knoxville is the third largest city in Tennessee after Nashville and Memphis. Knoxville’s downtown has experienced a major revitalization in recent years and today the city is a vibrant college town where University of Tennessee Volunteers fans pack Neyland Stadium, and there is a thriving arts, dining, and nightlife scene. A great place for foodies, Knoxville restaurants offer everything from high-end French cuisine to New South locavore dining. You can also visit local farms and shop at farmers’ markets. Most of the action is centered at Market Square and Old Town, but there are interesting options a short drive out of town, as well.
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Lunch: After a long morning of travel, Café 4 (4 Market Square, 865/544–4144, www.cafe4ms.com) is the ideal place to unwind. This casual eatery offers seasonal updates on Southern comfort food such as lobster mac-and-cheese, shrimp and grits, and meatloaf. The soaring space in a restored 1920s building mixes industrial chic with exposed-brick walls, soft lighting, and local art. Diners can enjoy the views out on bustling Market Square or turn their gaze toward a wall of soundproofed windows which look in to a performance space called the Square Room (865/544–4199, www.thesquareroom.com). Knoxville’s newest music venue, the Square Room holds up to 200 people and features live music—ranging from bluegrass to indie rock to jazz—nearly every day. On Fridays from noon to 1 pm, the Square Room hosts local radio station WDVX’s Blue Plate Special, a live broadcast of local and touring folk and bluegrass acts. Music is piped into the dining room for guests to enjoy.
Shopping Trip: Visitors who long to join the do-it-yourself food movement will enjoy a trip to Everything Mushrooms (619 N. Broadway, 865/329–7566, www.everythingmushrooms.com). The friendly and knowledgeable staff will answer your mushroom-growing questions and set you up with a kit to grow your own shiitake, lion’s mane, or oyster mushrooms. Can’t wait that long for your fungi fix? The shop also sells a wide variety of dried wild and cultivated mushrooms, as well as a small selection of mushroom-themed cookbooks and gifts.
Dinner: For classic French fare, head to Le Parigo (416 W. Clinch Ave., 865/525–9214, www.leparigo.net). This tiny, elegant restaurant on a quiet side street serves up foie gras over poached pears, steak tartare, and seared veal ribeye with fingerling potatoes and haricots verts. Chef-owner Cedric Coant, a native of Brittany, can often be found greeting and serving guests in the dining room on busy evenings.
Breakfast: Enjoy a hearty breakfast at Trio Café (13 Market Square, 865/246–2270, www.trio-cafe.net), a favorite among locals for its homemade “bennies” (variations on the classic eggs Benedict), “lunas” (stuffed croissants), and biscuits and gravy. Their bottomless cup of coffee provides the fuel to get you through your day.
Shopping: Walk off your breakfast with a more thorough exploration of Market Square. Every Saturday the square is transformed into an extensive farmers’ market (Market Square, 865/405–3135, www.knoxvillemarketsquare.com) featuring produce, meats, cheeses, milk, baked goods, and arts and crafts from Knoxville and surrounding communities.
After a morning of shopping, satisfy your sweet tooth at MagPies Bakery (846 North Central, 865/673–0471, www.magpiescakes.com). This unassuming shop at the edge of downtown has inspired a fiercely loyal following among Knoxvillians since it opened in 2005. Free samples will get you hooked on their wonderfully rich yet light-textured cakes, and you’ll find it hard to leave without a sampler box of mini cupcakes that include classic varieties like chocolate, lemon, and red velvet, along with special custom and seasonal flavors like Guinness, caramel apple, and raspberry cream.
Lunch: For a taste of Knoxville’s history, head to Gay Street downtown for lunch at the newly restored S&W Grand Café (516 S. Gay Street, 865/566–9800, www.swgrand.com). First opened in 1929, S&W served hearty cafeteria-style classics for more than 50 years, when it closed in the early 1980s. Stephanie Balest and her brother, Brian Balest, owners of the popular North Shore Brasserie just west of the city, have restored S&W to its original art deco splendor. Chef Shane Robertson has developed a menu that pays homage to the past with offerings like matzo ball soup and liver and onions while remaining solidly in the 21st-century with a house-cured tuna Reuben and turkey leg confit with spiced sweet potatoes and cranberry coulis.
Field Trip: Tennessee’s number-one industry is agriculture, and the state is second in the nation in agritourism. Several farms on the outskirts of Knoxville welcome visitors, usually by appointment. Locust Grove Farm (500 Mountain Breeze Lane, 865/388–4123, www.locustgrovefarm.net) is a sheep dairy that produces award-winning raw-milk cheeses, which have found their way into shops and restaurants from New York City to Napa Valley. Take in the peaceful views of sheep grazing on the rolling hillsides and take home a wedge of the farm’s Manchego, Galloway Reserve, or La Mancha cheeses.
Dinner: Some of Knoxville’s most inventive cuisine can be found at Seasons Bistro & Wine Bar (12740 Kingston Pike, Suite 106, 865/671–3679, www.seasons-cafe.com), a short drive west of the city. Head chef Stephen Myers prides himself on sourcing as much of his food as possible from local farms; on Saturdays he creates his evening specials directly from the offerings at the small greenmarket that sets up in the parking lot outside the restaurant. Menu highlights include the Granger County BLT, with locally produced bacon and heirloom tomatoes, and the house-smoked duck breast with tart cherry glaze and cornbread pudding. Desserts include a cinnamon, raisin, and coconut bread pudding, and the “game-day brûlée,” which celebrates the University of Tennessee team colors by incorporating white chocolate swirled with orange Cointreau.
Brunch: Market Square’s La Costa (31 Market Square, 865/566–0275, www.lacostaonmarketsquare.com) has evolved into one of the city’s most popular brunch destinations. The Latin-inspired menu offers standards like huevos rancheros along with more inventive dishes like a smoked duck breast burrito with scrambled eggs, black beans, caramelized onions, and Manchego cheese. Vegetarian options include a burrito made with black beans, blackened tofu, scrambled eggs, roasted tomatoes and artichokes, cheddar-jack cheese, and romesco sauce, or sweet potato pancakes with a brandy-pecan syrup and cinnamon butter. Forget the mimosas; instead take advantage of La Costa’s half-price Sunday specials on sangria.