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A Self-Guided Food Tour of Knoxville

Knoxville is celebrated for many things: its walkability, its dreamy position along the Tennessee River, its ample green space, its gilded Sunsphere orb rising from the center of town. And hovering at the top of that list is a serious commitment to the culinary arts, anchored by a roster of world-class restaurants, bars and breweries.

Knoxville’s dining scene is not only robust but perhaps surprising to those who are visiting. And that’s fair – those of us who have watched it rise over the decades never doubted Knoxville would eventually become one of the South’s tastiest cities.

While Gay Street’s Downtown Grill & Brewery still thrives and Preservation Pub continues to hold court on Market Square, these downtown mainstays are now joined by inventive newcomers like Thistle & Brier, STIR and Lilou, the latter offering contemporary interpretations of classic French dishes. Vida’s plating of food pairs seamlessly with the design touches that mimic the building’s Art Deco era origins, and the level below the restaurant houses The Vault, an impossibly stylish cocktail lounge with strong speakeasy vibes.

For a more casual night out, A Dopo Pizza offers Neapolitan-style pies and rotating taps of local beer. If I’m in the mood for Italian, I’ve got many choices in Knoxville: Osteria Stella and Emilia just to name a few. And, of course, you can never go wrong by nabbing a table at J.C. Holdway, helmed by James Beard Award-winning chef Joseph Lenn.

If you’re a fan of international food, you’ll definitely want to plan your days around your meals. Voted “Nicest Place in America” by Reader’s Digest several years back, Syrian refugee Yassin Terou’s eponymous restaurant has become a Knoxville icon. Potchke Deli, too, has become a Knoxville staple. The Ukrainian-inspired delicatessen consistently whips up the best bialy, borscht and matzo ball soup around.

Sample more flavors from around the world at Kefi, a Greek restaurant with a wide range of dishes from grilled octopus and mussels to spanakopita and pastitsio. The elevated Japanese cuisine at KOYO – think mushroom crispy rice, duck bulgogi, ginger-braised pork spare rib – inevitably will taunt your taste buds. The pan-Asian izakaya Kaizen not only serves a variety of steamed buns, but lays claim to one of the most impressive Japanese whiskey and sake collections in Knoxville.

Bakeries and coffee shops make great grab-and-go dining options for travelers. The croissants and pastries at Wild Love Bakehouse draw a crowd and the baked goods from Magpies Bakery always leave my stomach happy. Old City Java is a must for my midday caffeine boost, while The French Market Crêperie lures me with Parisian-style crêpes.

But what’s a food town without beverages to wash it all down? A stop along the Tennessee Whiskey Trail, PostModern Spirits is not just a distillery but a cocktail bar where you can sample its many single-barrel and barrel-strength whiskeys, ryes and gins before choosing which bottle (or bottles!) to take home as a souvenir. Tern Club is my favorite happy hour spot thanks to its flavor-packed tropical cocktails served up in an array of Instagram-worthy tiki barware. Tern Club’s sister bar Fly by Night is equally appealing with 70s-themed décor and dance parties.

If beer is more your thing, Knoxville’s got plenty of that, too; in fact, the city boasts more than 20 local breweries, as well as popular gastropubs like Balter Beerworks and outposts of larger brands like Hi-Wire Brewing. Start just north of downtown at Schulz Bräu Brewing Company, the city’s first German Biergarten that opened nearly eight years ago. Yee-Haw Brewing Co. is just around the corner, and there’s no better place to watch a game – other than inside Neyland Stadium, of course.

And I’m here to tell you firsthand that humans aren’t the only ones who enjoy the Scruffy City – my 13-year-old pup Ella is one of its biggest canine fans. Not only is she welcome at bars, patios, restaurants and hotels all over town, but Knoxville hosts many festivals of all sizes like Mardi Growl that specifically cater to her kind.


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