Travel

Knox'ed Up

Small-town comfort meets a world-class dining scene in Knoxville, Tennessee
Photo: Bruce McCamish
Best Restaurants in Knoxville, TN

Welcome to TT on Tour, where Tasting Table's editors guide you through everything you'll want to eat, drink and do in rising travel destinations around the world.

Nashville has its hot chicken and whiskey-drenched bars and Memphis, an endless lineup of smoked ribs. But Knoxville, the northeastern Tennessee city, is quietly stepping into the limelight with its own unique type of cuisine.

That's not to say you won't find a few old-school classics. In the confines of your tattered vinyl booth at Jackie's Dream, fried chicken comes lacquered in a sweet but still red-tinged glaze, and the fried okra is miraculously lighter than packing peanuts. Just up the street, 50-year-old Pizza Palace is an institution that's more American in its offerings than anything else. Behind a faux-wood counter, you'll find workers who've been stretching dough for more than 40 years—the same who'll also deliver a mountain of cornmeal-dusted onion rings wrapped in foil and a locally famous Greek salad to your car.
Some Pizza Palace employees have worked there for over 40 years.
But that's where the predictability ends in this city's dining scene. The chefs who grew up in between visits to Pizza Palace and then moved away are returning home, like local gem Matt Gallaher. After getting a chemical engineering degree, Gallaher spent time at Blackberry Farm—the legendary inn and restaurant 45 miles south— and became a touring chef for bands like Kings of Leon. He then returned to his hometown to open Knox Mason, where Southern cuisine is given a distinct, regional accent. Freshly made pork rinds dusted in bourbon barrel-smoked paprika never leave the menu, and brioche Parker House rolls come brushed in pork fat and served with sorghum butter.

"Southern food is not an artifact that's stagnant and static and never changes," Gallaher mentions. "Southern food is always evolving and moving forward . . . we have access to new ingredients now."
An Italian meal at Emilia includes several Knoxville touches.
That philosophy shines even brighter in his Italian restaurant, Emilia, in Market Square. Carbonara ditches guanciale for the perfumed, meatier smoke of Benton's bacon, a cult favorite among the area's chefs. Focaccia comes with a side of house-made ricotta made with Cruze Farm milk—the local dairy you'll hear proudly name-dropped in almost every nearby restaurant. It makes for a distinct type of Italian cuisine you won't be able to find anywhere other than Knoxville. 

A couple of blocks away, another Blackberry Farm alum is also at work defining Knoxville's cuisine. After winning a James Beard Award—the first chef in the state to do so—Joseph Lenn opened J.C. Holdway, the restaurant that had critics gushing from the start. But the adherence to tradition you'd expect from a Blackberry Farm chef is noticeably missing. Step inside, and you'll smell the faint yet ever-present scent of smoke from the wood-fire oven, which Lenn uses for dishes like pork ribs coated in a gochujang-spiked glaze and dressed with peanuts. Mashed potatoes are transformed with parsley butter and Cruze Farm's buttermilk (naturally), and potato gnocchi is nestled in a broth with confit chicken.
The exterior of J.C. Holdway.
Despite the restaurants' close proximity to one another, there isn't a "too many chefs in the kitchen" scenario. Lenn and Gallaher, together with Knoxville's other chefs, share a camaraderie that may be unexpected in a competitive industry. The city's chefs are always in constant communication, making it easy to find a last-minute dishwasher, a cheaper source for produce or a new opportunity to collaborate.

You'll see this in practice at OliBea, a breakfast spot where down-to-earth Southern food has enough of chef Jeff DeAlejandro's signature flourishes to remind you you're somewhere special. The fried chicken comes perched on top of a biscuit and crackles with every bite, and a poached duck egg spills onto a pillow of butternut squash grits. But it's the sourdough toast made with the spent grains from Pretentious Beer Co. three doors down that proves the most memorable.  
Breakfast at Olibea in Old Town, Knoxville.
DeAlejandro also provides the bar snacks for nearby PostModern Spirits. "We're all able to interact and work together in a larger sense," founder Stanton Webster says of his decision to establish the gin-focused distillery in Knoxville. 

Though Pizza Palace will always hold a special place in locals' hearts, there's always room for a puffed sourdough pie from Brian Strutz at A Dopo. The former paint store embodies everything that defines Knoxville's restaurant scene at the moment: The prep table was donated by yet another chef from Blackberry Farm, the lights designed by a firm next door and the milk for house-made gelato sourced from—you guessed it—Cruze Farm. More fitting is A Dopo's name, which translates to "see you later"—a nod to the people returning back for another one of Strutz's pies, and perhaps also to the chefs who'll eventually return home to grow their Knoxville roots.

  • The open kitchen at J.C. Holdway.

  • Matt Gallaher's Market Square resto, Emilia, features Italian food with a Knoxville accent. Benton's bacon gives fusilli carbonara a smoky underlayer, while crema made with Cruze Farm dairy finishes a plate of grilled octopus with chickpea croutons.

  • Joseph Lenn opened J.C. Holdway just a little more than a year ago, but within that time, critics across the country have taken notice of his adventurous approach to Southern cuisine, such as smoked pork ribs glossed in a Korean gochujang glaze.

  • Lunch at Jackie's Dream is worth hunting down: The hot chicken stays crisp under a sweet but still red-hot lacquer, and okra comes out of the fryer lighter than packing peanuts.

  • The brunch menu at OliBea in Old Town gives visitors a taste of Southern food they can't find anywhere other than Knoxville, including fresh-baked bread that uses spent grains from Pretentious Beer Co., located three doors down.

  • OliBea's dining room.

  • At A Dopo Pizza, Brian Strutz (another Blackberry Farm alum) hand-pulls mozzarella to top blistered sourdough pies. Take heed of the menu's warning and save room for dessert: house-made gelato made with—you guessed it—Cruze Farm milk.

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