New Life in the Old City
Long a weekend destination for the orange-wearing crowds coming to cheer on the Tennessee Volunteers, downtown Knoxville has seen renewed energy in the past five years, and a revitalization of the area surrounding Market Square. New life—in the form of smart restaurants, inventive bakeries and breweries, and stylish hotels—has been breathed into the Marble City. Now a stopping point for music and art lovers who come for the Big Ears Festival, or to catch a show at the 109-year-old Bijou Theatre, as well as food hounds seeking out Blackberry Farm-caliber eats, K-Town is making a comeback.
Step inside the light-filled Pearl on Union coffee shop for a fruit-filled galette from sister business Wild Love Bakehouse, and you’ll get a glimpse of the efforts being made to preserve Knoxville’s historic district. For a heartier start, head to OliBea for plates of chorizo breakfast tacos, pancakes, or a squash bowl. If it’s a Saturday, stroll through Market Square and peruse one of Tennessee’s most vibrant farmers markets for locally-raised produce, meats, and eggs. Look for the Good Golly Tamale cart, which dishes out spice-filled tamales made with local ingredients.
Mid-day hunger pangs are best sated at the Tomato Head, the art-filled, pizza and sandwich haunt that, as a trailblazer in 1990, helped kick off the Square’s revival. Now, Gay Street is a main drag again, with help from spots like Maple Hall, an eleven-lane bowling alley with a full bar and menu of small plates. And just outside of the Square, find creamy hummus and crispy falafel at Yassin’s Falafel House.
Dinnertime allows you to explore the wave of Blackberry Farm-influenced restaurants that has recently hit Knoxville, like chef Matt Gallaher’s Knox Mason, which beckons with fresh pork rinds and black-eyed pea hummus. Gallaher’s second venture, Emilia, is a casual Italian bistro where pastas, like the Benton’s bacon-laced fusilli carbonara, are made in-house. At J.C. Holdway, James Beard Award-winning chef Joseph Lenn is stretching his southern Appalachian roots, incorporating Korean chili paste into his Carolina vinegar sauce and mixing sweet-and-sour sausage with a plate of mussels. At A Dopo Sourdough Pizza, Blackberry alum Brian Strutz puts out light and airy wood-fired pies. There are transplants to explore too, like the game-heavy Lonesome Dove from chef Tim Love who once attended UT.
More than dive bars and college watering holes, the Knoxville bar scene has matured thanks to cocktail-focused spots like the Peter Kern Library, a speakeasy inside the boutique Oliver Hotel. So, too, have the beer offerings. Pretentious Beer Co. works in tandem with the neighboring glass-blowing gallery, and pours its inventive IPAs and lagers into specialty glassware from hand-blown tap handles. A short walk away, Alliance Brewing serves hoppy ales inside a lively taproom. Soon, Clinch River Brewing will join the mix with a new taproom and Creole-inspired restaurant at the East End of Market Square.
With its spacious rooms and floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over World’s Fair Park, The Tennessean, a newly renovated hotel, weaves Knoxville’s history and a collection of maps through its stately decor, plus Molton Brown bath products and Illy coffee. Inside The Drawing Room lounge, find stellar bourbon cocktails and the temptation of elevated Southern small plates like the stone crab hushpuppies served with Tennessee chow chow.
- by Erin Byers Murray