But first: the okra. I realize okra isn’t as popular as BBQ or chocolate. But I love okra. Stewed in a Cajun creole or gumbo, pickled, stuffed or stir-fried dry with Asian or East Indian seasonings, I love it all. In Knoxville, the most popular preparation is sliced in rounds and fried in a corn meal batter or breading—sometimes advertised as “Southern Popcorn.” And that, my friends, is a very good way to enjoy okra.
Whether or not you’re an okra fan, Knoxville’s brand of Southern cuisine will make you a happy traveler. Here are four do-not-miss restaurants that will leave you satisfied and content.
Tupelo Honey Café: Market Square
Yes, it’s a chain. And that’s a good thing, because it means you can only hope a Tupalo Honey Café opens in your hometown. There are currently seven restaurants, located in North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. This “Southern temple” of home cooking right in Knoxville’s Market Square is not to be missed.
Our server, Sam, starts us with a couple of complimentary biscuits and thick homemade blueberry jam. There’s honey on the table too. We’re making happy sounds before we’ve even ordered. Sam says the biscuits used to be “ginormous,” but as good as they are, people complained they didn’t have room for their entrée. So now the biscuits are smaller, but we can have as many as we want.
We groan. Sam is as pleased as if this were his restaurant. Brian, the manager on the floor, is also genuinely enthusiastic about his workplace, as well as Knoxville’s food scene in general.
The menu is a celebration of Southern and Mountain cooking: grit cakes, pimento cheese, pickled shrimp, entrée salads, Po’boys, shrimp, steaks, catfish, trout, chops and pulled pork, crab cakes, meatloaf, nutty fried chicken and more. There are plenty of vegetarian options, a gluten free menu, an all-hours breakfast menu, along with a few fun spins, like “Appalachian egg rolls.”
They have me with their side dishes—all 17 of them: sweet potatoes (both fried and smashed) pickled beet salad, salsa verde black-eyed peas, goat cheese grits, fried green tomatoes, fruit salad, and more.
I know I’m going to regret not having the catfish or trout, but what I really want are the side dishes. I create a meal out of brown butter Brussels sprouts, sautéed greens, cheesy cauliflower, and of course, the fried okra. My daughter enjoys the meatloaf free, (hormone-free, grass-fed beef), topped with rosemary tomato shallot gravy and mac ‘n cheese and asparagus.
The pecan pie with salted caramel ice cream we share for dessert is divine. Each dish we have is a flavorful and fresh.
Cru Bistro: Gay Street
Cru Bistro and Wine Bar is Knoxville’s first to follow the small plates and wine bar concept that is so popular. And right out the gate Cru gets the trend hands down. Half of Cru looks like a neighborhood tavern; a long busy bar, a few tables and a row of booths along one wall. The adjacent room is a little more upscale in decor, but it’s happy hour and the activity is in the bar, so that’s where we sit.
The menu is fun and eclectic. The dishes are pretty, but generous and unpretentious. This is just well-prepared, great bistro food. While there is a full menu, we enjoy some of their small plates: hummus (a red pepper hummus, olive tapenade, and cucumbers, feta and naan), pesto grilled chicken club sliders (with provolone, bacon, tomato, and sundried tomato mayo), filet and bleu flatbread (beef tenderloin, caramelized onion, bleu cheese, arugula and balsamic reduction), perfectly seared rare tuna, and, my favorite, pan-seared scallops with tomato bacon cream.
Our server and manager on duty, John and Chris, respectively, are both New York transplants and their enthusiasm for their workplace—and their new hometown—is contagious. John happily confesses he often stops in to hang out and eat here on his day off. This is a terrific spot for a full lunch or dinner, weekend brunch, happy hour or late night meet-up with friends.
Knox Mason: Gay Street
Knoxville native Matt Gallaher has had a star-studded career and brings his excitement and expertise to his Gay Street restaurant, Knox Mason. Gallaher has some 15 years as a chef, honing his skills and sharing his talents as Sous Chef at Tennessee’s famous Blackberry Farms, years of cooking on the road for rock stars, and, most recently, as Executive Chef for Tennessee Governor Haslam.
Matt and childhood friend, David Rudder, share a sophisticated approach to Southern cuisine, with a commitment to fresh, locally-sourced ingredients. Our meal is memorable. Matt is a big Michael Pollen fan, and his website lists all of his many local sources. Building relationships with those he’s working with is a goal—and a strength.
The menu changes seasonally. I’m dining with six others tonight. We start with smoked paprika fried pork rinds (amazingly better than what you buy from the snack aisle in a convenience store), country ham croquettes, deviled eggs with chow chow, and a pimento cheese spread with pickles and beer bread.
The main courses arrive, and between us, we “ohhh, ahhh, and mmm” our way through a good portion of the menu. My duck leg confit with noodles and braised cabbage is sublime; the apple jus and grainy mustard makes the flavors pop. Braised collard greens with garlic and rosemary are fresh and even crunchy–perfect on the side.
The dessert menu is fun—and definitely Southern: Deep fried mini moon pie “with a ‘Lil glass” of chocolate milk. Banana Pudding. Tennessee Derby pie (chocolate, Jack Daniel’s, pecan and whipped cream), and a chai spiced buttermilk panna cotta with house made pumpkin butter, topped with a crispy meringue.
Chef Matt visits our table and while naturally amenable to chat about Knox Mason, he also regales us with stories about the challenge and fun of pulling meals together for rock bands; some 14 countries in four continents. “It’s basically building a kitchen from scratch every day,” he tells us. Knox Mason allows him to act on all he’s learned about food along the way—and we’re happy he’s here to share.
Calhoun’s on the River: Riverfront at Volunteer Landing
It’s lunchtime. We approach Calhoun’s and the steady stream of cars entering the parking lot has us convinced we’ve arrived in the midst of a parade or a surprise presidential visit. But, it’s (just) a Tuesday weekday lunch. Inside, it’s a cozy cavern with a funky riverboat décor theme. The place is abuzz with just about every Knoxville demographic here. This is one of nine restaurants in the group, and they have this down. They’re far larger than I first suspected, and we’re seated right away.
I have a hankering for the meatloaf and mashed potatoes, but have trouble choosing my second side. I want fried okra even though I’ve eaten it every day now, but their Spinach Maria would complete this Southern comfort food plate. Our server and I chat about our shared love of okra and he tries to convince my daughter that theirs will change her mind. He insists I order both the okra and spinach, as well as the mashed.
He’s right–the okra is crunchy and hot and has the most flavorful breading I’ve had yet. It doesn’t change my daughter’s mind, but that just meant more for me. The meatloaf is moist, with lots of onion and peppers. The Spinach Maria is horribly/wonderfully rich with Monterey jack and cheddar cheeses, just the right bite of mustard and a buttery crust. My daughter is happy with her BBQ ribs, pulled pork, moist chicken tenders, slaw and fries. We both have sweet tea.
Classic Southern dishes are here: fried green tomatoes and fried pickles on the appetizer menu, entrees like catfish, BBQ, steak, chops, and shrimp. Side dishes include, among others, baked beans, cinnamon apples, broccoli, corn pudding, mac and cheese, and baked potatoes. Calhoun’s has won all the local and national BBQ awards; it’s good solid, casual BBQ you won’t want to miss – Story and photos (unless otherwise noted) by Nancy Zaffaro, RFT Contributor
IF YOU GO
• Cr ú Bistro, 141 S. Gay Street, www.crubistroandwinebar.com
• Tupelo Honey, 1 Market Square, www.tupelohoneycafe.com
• Knox Mason, 131 S. Gay Street, www.knoxmason.com
• Calhoun’s on the River, 400 Neyland Drive, www.calhouns.com