For most Americans, Knoxville is synonymous with three things: hosting The World Fair back in 1982, its proximity to the country’s most visited national park – the city’s nickname is “gateway to the Smoky Mountains” – and the University of Tennessee.
But here’s a little-known fact about Tennessee’s third-largest city. It’s also home to an exciting and ever-growing culinary landscape. From Knoxville natives celebrating their love of Italian food and drink in historic Old City to a Syrian refugee making one of the country’s best falafels in a wonderfully inclusive space, there’s something enticing for every appetite and occasion.
So pack your bags, and gear up for a deliciously eye-opening getaway with this handy guide on where to go, and where to stay when visiting Knoxville.
The Tennessean Hotel
For years, Knoxville’s hotel scene was dominated by big corporate brands with cookie cutter rooms. Then, The Tennessean Hotel opened its doors in 2017, ushering in a new era of design, culture, and culinary offerings. To honor its setting near the Tennessee River, the 82-room property features subtle aquatic nods throughout, from the gleaming lobby adorned with droplet sconces and carpeting featuring an abstract, water-inspired pattern to the crisp accommodations accented with oversized city maps and side tables evocative of river reeds.
But arguably, the best part of staying at The Tennessean Hotel is the distinctive dining options. The newly-opened Maker Exchange is equal parts welcoming gathering place, gallery showcasing the talent of local creatives – Knoxville’s also known as The Maker City – and restaurant, Tavern at Maker Exchange. Open for weekend brunch and dinner, the buzzy newcomer doles out hearty Southern fare with a twist by chef Robert Hoffman, like a Calabash Fry with pickled chiles and preserved lemon aioli.
For a regional take on an English tradition, book the hotel’s popular afternoon tea. You’ll be presented with tiers of dainty sweets, sandwiches, and scones on Wedgwood China, along with a selection of fine teas, such as the signature Sweet Peach Noir, from Rare Tea Cellar. But no stay at The Tennessean would be complete without a Smoked Old Fashioned finished with cherry wood smoke and a boozy cherry at the Drawing Room, a cozy lounge discreetly tucked away on the hotel’s second floor.
Brother Wolf and Osteria Stella
Situated side-by-side, Aperitivo bar Brother Wolf and northern Italian restaurant Osteria Stella by Knoxville hospitality veterans Jessica King and Aaron Thompson might have different looks and personalities – the former is bold and energetic, the latter is dark and romantic – but both honor the couple’s deep love of Italy through and through with extensive classic cocktail offerings (including nine Negronis and eight spritzes), over 250 Italian wines by the bottle, and made-from-scratch dishes by Milanese chef Amalia Brusati.
Your best bet? Kick off the evening at Brother Wolf with a snack – King suggests the arancino with meat ragu, mozzarella, peas, and pickled onion, because “every bite is the perfect bite” – and of course, a proper aperitivo, before slipping into Osteria Stella for supper. The Lasagne alla Bolognese, which takes three days to prepare, is especially swoonworthy with delicate spinach pasta sheets, meat ragu, and besciamella (Italian béchamel sauce). Though the dish is rich and satisfying, it won’t weigh you down like many cheese-laden counterparts.
A Dopo Pizza
At A Dopo Pizza by Brian and Jessica Strutz, it’s all about going back to the basics – of pizza, that is. The dough is made daily with a starter that’s been kept alive for years. It’s also naturally fermented with “no added yeast, ever,” says Brian. “This demands a devotion to every variable from time to absorption, which keeps my job fun and engaging.” The rest of the ingredients, like the sauce made of just crushed plum tomatoes and sea salt, are refreshingly simple, too, and a quick visit to the crackling wood oven ensures the crust is beautifully blistered, airy, and chewy. While most diners go for pizzas topped with cheese, Brian recommends a marinara with “some of our fresh (uncooked) mozzarella added after the bake. To me, that’s sublime.”
You’d be hard pressed to find a spot that feels more quintessentially Knoxville than J.C. Holdway. After spending a decade at Blackberry Farms and helping it garner worldwide acclaim, chef and Knoxville native Joseph Lenn returned to his hometown to open J.C. Holdway in 2016. Named after his great uncle, the beloved downtown restaurant specializes in, Lenn’s words, “seasonal and regional food cooked over wood fire.” Though the menu has Southern influences (think hush puppies, pimento cheese, and smoked bologna sandwiches), you’ll also discover globe-trotting creations like the hand-cut papardelle folded with a Benton’s Bacon bolognese. One of Lenn’s favorites, the pasta “is a wonderful take on a non-southern dish featuring a regional product I could eat pretty much every day.”
Yassin’s Falafel House
When Yassin Terou fled war-torn Syria and immigrated to the United States in 2011, his future was all but certain. But after grabbing the attention of Knoxville activist and investor Nadeem Siddiqi while selling his falafel sandwiches at a local mosque, it became clear that Terou was destined for bigger things. So with some funding and community support, Yassin’s Falafel House was born in 2014. There are now two locations with another one in the works, but thankfully, two things haven’t changed: the fresh, affordable food and the cheerful setting that genuinely welcomes everyone. No wonder it was deemed the the “Nicest Place in America” by Reader’s Digest.
Wild Love Bakehouse
Despite opening in 2015, Wild Love Bakehouse firmly remains a cherished city staple. That’s because owners Meg and Shaun Parrish, whom also have Old City Java, a popular Knoxville coffee house, put plenty of time and care into everything they make. The best-selling croissants, for example, take four days from start to finish and are baked to perfection with their golden hue, rich, buttery aroma, and super-thin layers. While the plain versions are sublime, branch out and try a seasonal one. “These are special because the seasons move so quickly,” explains Meg. “We have a lot of fruit and vegetable-focused pastries spring through fall, and during the cooler months we use warm spices, apples, nuts, chocolate, and citrus.”
Sticky Rice Cafe
Don’t be fooled by the appearance or address of Sticky Rice Cafe, a low-key joint in an equally unassuming strip mall. Why? Because this is one of the few places practically every Knoxville local raves about. Here, Khan Sikarng and her family whip up homestyle Laotian cuisine like the namesake sticky rice, Laab (meat salad seasoned with herbs, fish sauce, and lime juice), and Siin Haeng (sun-dried beef) with a few crowd-pleasing surprises sprinkled in like Phorrito, a tortilla stuffed with what you’d find in pho (beef, rice noodles, bean sprouts, hoisin sauce). The prices are forgiving, too, with everything under $12.