Today’s Knoxville, TN City Guide comes to us from Kate Irwin and Ariel Duncan, best friends since sixth grade and Knoxville girls to the core! Ariel works as a freelance user-experience consultant and college-application-essay guru at her firm, The Yes Woman. Kate is a personal assistant, photographer and artist working on a line of bike-inspired recycled jewelry. Today, these ladies take us on a tour of this beautiful Tennessean city. Thank you, Kate and Ariel, for this wonderful guide! — Stephanie
Read the full guide after the jump . . .
The Metro Pulse calendar is probably your first place to check for exciting events like the International Biscuit Festival or a show at the recently restored (and gorgeous) Tennessee Theatre. The Weekend Plan-It feature usually culls the best. Though on Mondays, check out the offerings of the Birdhouse Walk-in Theater, a fun group that meets in a Victorian house in the hip Fourth and Gill neighborhood.
In the past decade, downtown Knoxville has undergone a transformation. New municipal parking garages (free after 6pm) fill up regularly. A free trolley makes a circuit through downtown. Refurbished public spaces like Market Square and Gay Street attract visitors who arrive to relax and dine after the 9-to-5 crowd has left. The up-and-coming neighborhood of Happy Holler in Old North Knoxville offers the area’s best thrift stores and cupcakes and completes its one-of-a-kind glory with a biker-themed coffee shop and a sweet bridal boutique. Whether you’re here for a few days or just a day, one event you shouldn’t miss is the Blue Plate Special, a live showcase of bluegrass and Americana music taped Monday through Saturday in the Knoxville Visitor Center from 12pm to 1pm.
To get a sense of where these places are, check out this Google map.
Downtown: Market Square and Gay Street
Staying downtown is a must if you’re hoping to enjoy Knoxville on foot or bike, though to be honest, a car is pretty necessary.
Blue Plate Special: At noon, a crowd of businesspeople and locals gather at WDVX studios on Gay Street to enjoy lunch with live bluegrass music. Bring your brown bag or order the blue plate special at the counter. Either way, the regulars will welcome you, the music is great and you can see where the old Knoxville meets the new. Plus, this is a great place to start an afternoon. Gay Street is the heart of Knoxville’s urban renaissance.
Wander over to the Knoxville Museum of Art, the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame or the East Tennessee Historical Society museum, or check out the cluster of local art galleries as you head north on Gay Street. The Sunsphere, our awesome larger-than-life ’80s disco ball, is free and open to visitors (view seasonal hours here).
On Market Square, Tomato Head is a staple for creative and fresh vegetarian-friendly fare. They also have fabulous meaty sandwiches like the Oh Boy: chicken with sundried tomatoes, Benton’s bacon, spinach, provolone and homemade poppyseed dressing on a whole-wheat bun. Yum! The menu is full of goodies, including respectable vegan baked goods.
Just Ripe is a cozy little deli and grocery on Union Street that always has a table free. I feel good after eating here because it’s totally what Michael Pollan meant when he said “eat food.” Terrific homemade granola, a deluxe “Fancy” grilled cheese of the day, yummy soups and great salads. The “Pig and Fig” (bacon and fig) sandwich is a classic. Everything in the store is marked with the distance it traveled, with locally roasted Three Bears Coffee, insanely good Cruze Farm salted caramel ice cream and Blackberry Farm cheese.
Tupelo Honey: No. 1 YUM! And I’m not just saying that because everything comes with a warm biscuit and jam. This Asheville import serves southern food with a twist, sourced locally. Enjoy the view of Market Square. I take all my out-of-town guests here for the Breakfast Bowl of goat cheese grits, black eyed peas, eggs over medium, salsa and cheese. Did I mention the biscuits? Veggie burgers are awesome, too, but they serve breakfast all day.
The Bistro at the Bijou is known for its fabulous, delicious weekend brunch specials with plenty of seating. Goat cheese eggs over homemade cheddar herb biscuits are my go-to, but I always secretly want to order the French toast, too. Famous for expelling a homophobic state senator. It’s an uphill battle to convince my friends to eat brunch anywhere else because the prices (and food!) are so good.
If “Ale Yes!” could be your calling card, Suttree’s High Gravity Tavern on Gay Street has got your number! The latest addition to Knoxville’s brew culture is developing a bar menu courtesy of the infamous Holly’s Eventful Dining. Try new things: order a “flight” and get to try four beers for just a few bucks. Atmosphere is relaxed.
Just off Market Square, Räla is a small shop, but you don’t want to miss anything inside! Serious art collectors and letterpress fans will be excited to know that they carry inventory from the beloved but now defunct local letterpress firm Yee-Haw Industries, specifically work by artist Kevin Bradley. Gorgeous candles from Paddywax, Beautiful Briney Sea flavored salts from Atlanta and a deliciously clever assortment of handmade cards are just a little of what you’ll find. “Räla” stands for “regional and local artists.”
Nothing Too Fancy is a T-shirt store on Union Avenue specializing in local prints and wit. One of my favorites could be true for so many cities, a slim navy v-neck that says, “Looking for a bearded man.” Glasses proclaiming “Eight Six Five” celebrate our area code, which we changed a few years back to spell “VOL,” a reference to the UTK Volunteers.
Union Avenue Books is a local new and gently used indie bookstore stocked with excellent children’s books, comfortable chairs and a local “hottest picks” shelf to show you what people in town are reading!
Bliss and Bliss Home are popular local shops on Market Square. Displays are always changing to reflect the seasons and whatever’s new. Lovely candles, art, jewelry, kids’ books and clothing. Bliss Home has a larger store in West Knoxville, too.
The Happy Envelope always makes me smile. Custom-designed letterpress so clever and sweet that you may decide to get married just to see your name in their type! My fave: a wedding program that looks like a book, complete with a weathered cover and table of contents. They ship all over the country, but you can see (and touch!) their offerings here.
The Oliver Hotel is an old building made new on the corner of Market Square. Haunted by past lives as a bakery, candy store and 1870s “Ice Cream Hall,” the 2011 reincarnation embraces the eccentricity of its history. Featuring incredible abstract letterpress art from the much-mourned Yee-Haw Industries. Push through a wall in the lobby to arrive at the Peter Kern Library, a luxe speakeasy named after the building’s first owner.
Downtown: The Old City
The Old City is only a short walk from Market Square and Gay Street, but you’ll see by the buildings that the feel is different. The Old City has some neat coffee shops but really comes alive at night.
Big Don the Costumier is a place of wonder. As a little girl, the greatest prize I could earn was the chance to pick out something bizarre and beautiful for my dress-up wardrobe at this shop’s former incarnation, Big Don’s Elegant Junk. The kind-spirited owner and costumier, Ramona, does meticulous and inventive costuming for local high school productions. If you are serious about vintage clothes, she might offer you a deal you can’t refuse. I have a diagonal stripe swing coat that blows my mind. Hours are by appointment, so stop by or call ahead.
Lil’ Vinnies serves up homemade ravioli in perfect portions. Exactly what you think of when you think “little Italian restaurant.” Menu is simple, rich and good. BYOB.
The Crown and Goose is a gastropub known for its cozy atmosphere and delicious cheese plate and brunch. Lovely brick courtyard in the summers.
After a 15-minute ride down Magnolia Avenue from the Old City, in a requisitioned Taco Bell building painted pale pink, you’ll find the best BBQ and soul food in Knoxville: Chandler’s Deli. It’s not fancy, but you won’t care after you smell the food. Perfect cornbread, the best fried green tomatoes of your life and, of course, and a selection of “bone-suckin” BBQ specialties and freshly fried chicken. If you are an okra-hater, their fried okra might change your mind. They sell bottles of their seasonings, too, which are neat K-town souvenirs!
The Public House combines a smooth, modern interior with an old-fashioned vibe: low lights, not-too-loud music and no TV to speak of (or over!). Favorites: Lavender-infused vodka, truffle and parmesan popcorn and Benton’s-bacon-infused bourbon. Their pimento-bacon spread is a close runner-up. Not walkable from the Old City at night.
The Pilot Light is Knoxville’s “best” dive bar. A strange designation, but true! No hassle, no flashing lights, just people and beer. Shows several nights a week are worth checking out. It’s an intimate space, with just the right amount of light and people.
Boyd’s Jig and Reel is a lively Scottish-themed pub with great live music Fridays and Saturdays. Fancy scotch is available for those who care, but atmosphere is always laid-back. As is proper, they fry things well, like potatoes and Mars bars! A great place to check out if you’re in town for the weekend. There is always great live music!
Sassy Ann’s House of Blues is an adorably funky bar in a “painted lady” Victorian house in historic Fourth and Gill. It’s about a five-minute drive from the Old City and plays a big role in Knoxville nightlife. How laid-back it is depends on what time you arrive. Get there before 10 to avoid the crowds Thursday through Saturday. Come after 10 for Knoxville’s best dancing. A friendly crowd of regulars comes just for the food and conversation on Fridays.
Three Rivers Market: In the prime thrift and antique-shopping zone of North Central St., Knoxville’s Co-op is open to non-members, and their hot bar serves up fresh, simple salads with meat and vegetarian entrees made with organic, local ingredients (when possible). They also have Magpies cakes by the slice and Cruze Farm chocolate milk for dessert!
A few words on Magpies: The first thing you ask when someone tells you they are getting married in Knoxville is “So, are you getting the cake from Magpies?” It’s a given, but the thought of eating a cake full of creamy, tangy, crazy flavors like Key Lime Coconut Mango or Guinness Chocolate makes a wedding even more fun to look forward to! They offer cupcakes in “deluxe” or “super deluxe” flavors like Lemon Raspberry and Nutellanut, but my all-time favorite is the strawberry “shortcake” with fresh strawberries in the icing.
The Time Warp Tea Room is the only place of its kind in the world. It’s a biker-themed tea room, complete with cozy wooden booths and delicious drinks. The game room in the back is a treasure trove of old school arcade games.
Senor Taco: A big smiling taco with a mustache says it all. Not actually in Happy Holler but a few blocks over on the less-gentrified Broadway, this place is a local favorite. Authentic Mexican with full seafood options and queso you can only dream of. Chicken Fajita Nachos are not something you’ll regret. Drink specials every day of the week.
While we’re on the subject of not-quite Happy Holler but not too far away either, I should mention Saw Works Brewing Company’s tasting room, the Mill, open Wednesdays through Saturdays from 4pm to 8pm.
If you’re into antiques and vintage wares, you can drive or bike from downtown to Friend’s Antiques and Collectibles Mall, a three-story, two-generation family-owned museum of curiosities. From vintage typewriters to your grandma’s mixing bowls, it feels like a Noah’s Ark for the twentieth century. Ceramic ducks flock together, as do old family photographs, vintage saws, funky planters, old telephones and ’80s earrings. Lovingly curated sections show you what once was and may never be again, like a pack of dog-shaped perfume bottles, for example!
The Ladies of Charity Thrift Shop is my first stop for thrift shopping because they have fabulous prices. Don’t miss the furniture room!
The KARM (Knoxville Area Rescue Ministries) thrift store is not exactly low-priced, but they have a huge selection and especially nice furniture, so it’s worth a shot!
Closer than it seems, there are many wonderful outdoorsy options just across the bridge from downtown in South Knoxville.
Nearby is Ijams Nature Center, a kid-friendly museum with walkable scenic trails.
To paraphrase a friend who described it as, “Always weird, always good,” King Tut’s Egyptian cuisine comes with a few extra levels of homemade exoticism. Drink out of florist vases (you’ll never need a refill) and enjoying seeing your tablemates make fools of themselves as the exuberant owner, Mo, brings party hats, karaoke and musical instruments to your table. Maybe it’s for his entertainment, maybe it’s for yours. Either way, you’ll never be bored.
Disc Exchange: Stop by the largest new and used record store in town. Solid vinyl selection and a great place to pick up concert tickets, too.
Colonel’s Deli: One word: spanakopita. This beloved hole-in-the-wall diner received an upgrade when bought by Ted, a Greek guy who can cook. Also Knoxville’s only diner with true diner ambiance. Garage-sale art decorates the walls, and the service is excellent.
Surin of Thailand: Chill atmosphere during the day, chic bar at night. The peanut sauce salad is delicious. I believe its official name is the “Fresh Thai Salad,” but when I order it, it’s basically peanut sauce with a side of veggies. In addition to the best Thai food in Knoxville, lunch specials ($7) come with coconut curry soup and hot tea. Conveniently located next to Krispy Kreme.
The Sitar: Saag paneer, malai kofta and chicken tikka masala mean that this Captain D’s-turned-Indian restaurant will warm you up from head to toe. Has received “Best Middle Eastern Food” award for years, a pretty impressive win given India’s not in the Middle East. Lunch buffet 7 days a week. If you are hungry for dosas and sambar, try India Cuisine a bit further west.
RouXbarb: At the Papermill Drive exit of I-40, this tiny little building by the railroad tracks serves up a great big heap of gourmet flavor. When you order fried chicken, they fry it for you and you wait. Need I say more? I feel obligated to say: not awesome for vegetarians or the health conscious. BYOB.
The Plaid Apron: A lovely neighborhood spot in the Sequoyah Hills area, just west of downtown. Fresh, local. Eat your heart’s desire of French toast, then head to Cherokee Boulevard, a public park that follows the scenic Tennessee River, to walk it off.
Hard Knox Pizza: My mom asked “what’s ‘neo neopolitan’ pizza?” The answer is, who cares if it’s the best pizza in town, which it is! Their seasonal “Festivus” pizza blew my mind: balsamic and strawberry jam sauce with chicken, bacon, strawberries, cilantro and fresh mozzarella. If only Festivus could be year-round!
Hanging out at Bearden Beer Market’s beer garden is like attending the big outdoor party of someone you vaguely know, starring a big mashup of kids, dogs, games of cornhole and an extra-large Jenga set made of two-by-fours! Pick up a six-pack or sit down at the picnic tables. Gourmet food trucks like Savory & Sweet and Dale’s Fried Pies make an appearance, as well.
Nostalgia: This little flea market in suburban Knoxville actually brought tears to my eyes, and it wasn’t just my allergies to the dog! Hand-embroidered pillowcases, old-school mixing bowls and vintage shoes just hang around, waiting for me to ship them to friends in Brooklyn! The prices here are a joy to city-dwellers starved for oldies but goodies and still fair by local standards. Clothes, dishes, furniture and exquisite vintage jewelry.
Sweet Pea is a carefully curated home decor and gifts boutique located in a little white house between Sutherland Avenue and Kingston Pike. It can be easy to miss but totally worth driving back and forth for! Owner Dee Lockwood-Hicks has incredible taste and is particularly knowledgeable about fairy gardens, terrariums, air plants and other “gardening for beginners” projects!
Bennett Galleries is one of Knoxville’s oldest art galleries, showing the best of local and regional paintings, jewelry, sculpture and ceramics. A full upstairs of furniture and an eclectic selection of funky and one-of-a kind gifts make this a neat place to stop by, even if you’re not a collector.
There are too many gift and antique/thrift stores to mention on the stretch of Kingston Pike between Sequoyah Hills and Northshore Drive, and the turnover rate is pretty high, so just keep your eyes peeled for a window that looks right, and you’ll be sure to find what you are looking for!
A friend recently informed me that he is in the “double digits” book club: He only reads books priced .99 cents or below at McKay’s Used Books and CDs! A nondescript warehouse next to I-40, McKay’s puts every bookstore in every other city I have ever lived in to shame! Most books are more than a buck but not by much. No one has ever left here empty-handed. From bodice-rippers and DIY to art books and world literature, they get the richness of the residue of course readings at UTK but keep the prices competitive.
Try the secluded Maple Grove Inn in West Knoxville for plenty of peace and quiet.
Northshore Brasserie: Off the Northshore Dr. exit of Pellissippi Parkway, this country French restaurant offers a bargain of a buffet lunch for $10, always seasonal and fresh. Fish, soup, meat, dessert and an assortment of salads. You get the sense they are cleaning out their gourmet fridge, but I am happy to oblige, since my fridge is only rarely full of grilled salmon or camembert!
The Sweetery: A few doors down from the brasserie, you’ll find the most divine cookie Knoxville has to offer. As the name implies, it’s a sweet one, but if you like that sort of thing, the caramel coconut thumbprint will stay in your heart forever.
Three Rivers Rambler is a real live old-fashioned steam engine that starts by the Tennessee River downtown and heads into the valley! They only take passengers when they’re not taking freight, so check their schedule.
Brewer’s Jam: Our own not-so-little local Oktoberfest.
24 Hour Film Festival: Just like it sounds, 24 hours to make a four-minute film. Held in June.
International Biscuit Festival: From “Miss Biscuit” to four categories worth of biscuit competitions, dough is serious business!
Market Square Farmer’s Market: Fresh and local produce, crafts and baked goods. Wednesdays and Saturdays when the weather’s suitable.
First Friday: Galleries downtown offer free wine and snacks on this artsy evening out. Not played out, the vibe is good, and the community of interested people is big enough to mingle with but small enough to recognize each other. Each shop or gallery displays a local artist for a month.
For kitsch within an hour’s drive, there’s always Dollywood and The Lost Sea, a cave in Sweetwater full of evolutionarily blind fish that you can see in glass-bottom boats. The Museum of Appalachia is closer and more historical in character. Rock City is a bit farther, but a lot of fun!
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a standby, and tubing adventures on the Little River in Townsend is a great way to stay cool in the summertime.
Erin’s Meadow Herb Farm in nearby Clinton lets you pick your own and get tips for growing and gardening, too!
James Agee, author of A Death in the Family (and a vignette of 1915 Knoxville here)
Alex Haley, author of Roots
Poet Nikki Giovanni
Joseph Lenn, executive chef at Blackberry Farm (where farm-to-table is a very short distance!)
Musician Scott Miller
Joseph & Beauford Delaney, artists
Pat Head Summitt, coach of the Lady Vols
The Black Lillies, band
Dolly Parton, singer/songwriter, businesswoman and education advocate