The culinary scene in Tennessee receives a lot of attention from the national food media, and deservedly so. That’s due, in part, to the many tantalizing ingredients and cultural traditions that come together to create Tennessee’s shared food history. Read on to see how some of the best chefs in the state rely on influences of place and time for the dishes they serve at their unique restaurants.
In Townsend, Chef Shelley Cooper preaches the gospel of simple seasonal ingredients as the cuisines of the Mississippi Delta and Blue Ridge Mountains come together at her unique, farm-to-table restaurant, Dancing Bear Lodge & Appalachian Bistro. The chef oversees all the details, starting with the planting of culinary gardens on the property to the final artful presentation of each plate. The dish Cooper playfully calls an “Appalachian Lunchable” features an array of snacks with fun bites such as benne seed bacon, deviled eggs, pickled shrimp, green onion cheese spread, pit ham and herb biscuits.
Chef Matt Gallaher offers a menu of updated Southern and Appalachian classic dishes like “kilt” greens salad and pork rinds dressed up with smoked paprika and his own house hot sauce at Knox Mason, a “Fine Southern Kitchen” in Knoxville.
Nearby at Emilia, Gallaher’s menu leans Italian but with plenty of local produce and proteins included in the mix. Try his crispy fried local eggplant chips served with homemade ricotta using the rich milk from nearby Cruze Farm and Tennessee prosciutto cured by Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams in Madisonville.
Another East Tennessee chef combining Southern ingredients with Italian sensibilities is Daniel Lindley at Chattanooga favorite, Alleia. Lindley’s eclectic menu focuses on simple Italian-inspired cuisine that shows up in dishes like dates wrapped in Benton’s bacon drizzled with aged balsamic, and gnocchi with mushrooms and blue crab. His cooking reflects his experience traveling around the Mediterranean and Africa on a hospital ship and then honing his craft working in restaurants across America.
Slim & Husky’s Pizza Beeria began as an idea between three roommates at Tennessee State University. Looking for a way to help revitalize the Buchanan Arts District in Nashville, Emanuel Reed, Clinton Gray and Derrick Moore opened a hip-hop inspired pizza parlor and draft house. Their inventive menu of pizza toppings includes items like shrimp, pineapple and pulled Italian sausage. Their “Nothin’ but a V Thang” pie is an all-plant-based pizza that combines bean ragu, vegan cheese, caramelized onions, roasted peppers, spinach and oven-roasted corn. Thanks to their bold vision and fantastic pies, Slim & Husky’s has opened a half-dozen locations since 2015 – in Tennessee and beyond – with more expansion plans cooking.
Sylvia Ganier has always been enamored with fresh ingredients, which is what led her to leave the restaurant world to set up a farming operation on the west side of Nashville, where she could raise specific crops by request from other restaurateurs. That operation grew as fast as the produce in her fertile fields, expanding into a venture called Green Door Gourmet. Ganier now operates a 350-acre organic farm and agritourism destination where visitors will find farm products and other local purveyors’ wares. The whole family is invited to take part in weekly cooking demonstrations and tasting events in the market featuring items harvested from the surrounding fields.
Five Senses Restaurant, Bar & Catering has been a mainstay on the Murfreesboro dining scene since 2004, when the brother/sister team of Mitchell and Mollie Murphree opened the unique restaurant. Today, Mitchell is at the helm as the executive chef/sole owner, procuring food items from area farmers and specializing in seasonal fare. Inventive appetizers and entrées such as a lobster quesadilla with cheese, corn, green onion, red peppers and lime crème fraiche, and seed-crusted grouper with local baby chard, pea salad and fried cornbread dot the menu. Weekly specials on wine, raw oysters and date-night dinners make it easy to enjoy an evening out with someone you love.
Making the jump from pop-up restaurant and catering company to a bricks-and-mortar operation is often a difficult proposition, but City Farm Co.’s co-owners Shavone Browning-Davis and Lakendra Davis have done just that with their location in Nashville’s Marathon Village neighborhood. Their dedication to farm-fresh produce and pride in authenticity are the secret ingredients to their success in what they call a “farm-to-soul” scratch kitchen, where you’ll find dinners such as an herb and cauliflower rice bowl called “The Herban” and an ingenious combination of pork and cornbread tacos served on blue cornmeal griddlecakes with pulled pork, Tennessee whiskey barbecue sauce, slaw and pickled onions.
At Acre in Memphis, Chef Wally Joe showcases his soulful menu of dishes like a fried quail salad served with pickled strawberries, radish and buttermilk dressing or his duck confit fried rice featuring red rice grown in the Mississippi Delta. Born in Hong Kong, but raised deep in the delta in Cleveland, Mississippi, Joe’s culinary influences came more from the gardens and lakes of the region than from the country of his birth, but his precise and respectful treatment of his locally sourced ingredients is quite reflective of Asian cooking. The platter of whole red snapper fried until crispy and accented with a zesty chile-ponzu sauce is as dramatic as it is delicious.
Tamra Patterson has made quite an impact on Memphis since moving to the Bluff City in 2015. At Chef Tam’s Underground Cafe in the historic Cooper-Young neighborhood, she has earned legions of fans for her playful versions of recipes that frequently come to her in dreams. Savor dishes like collard green pizza, fried ribs or peach cobbler nachos, and you’ll understand the creative strokes of genius that have made Chef Tam a frequent contestant on television cooking shows.
Chef Kelly English moved to Memphis from New Orleans bringing his Crescent City culinary sensibilities with him. These elements are evident in his two dining spots next door to each other in Overton Square. Restaurant Iris is his idea of what a modern French Creole Restaurant should be with seasonal entrees like stewed chicken with sautéed shrimp over rice and herbs or redfish amandine with okra and tomatoes.
While Restaurant Iris represents the classic elegance of Big Easy dining, The Second Line exudes the grittier, more casual side of New Orleans cuisine with a simpler (and spicier) menu of stick-to-your-ribs dishes such as jambalaya, gumbo and barbecued shrimp.
Dining al fresco is always a delight and, in times of social distancing, it’s also a good idea to promote safety. Enjoy a meal with a view at popular spots like the front porch of Shenanigans in the quaint college town of Sewanee or under the twinkling lights of the outdoor oasis at Southern Tre Steakhouse in Columbia. Have an old-fashioned picnic of barbecue and savory sides at Helen’s Bar BQ in Brownsville where Helen Turner, a celebrated female pit master, smokes all meats on an open pit. The second-floor balcony at The Pickle Barrel in Chattanooga offers an entertaining view of passersby while you dine on burgers and their classic fried pickles.
While many of Tennessee’s big-city restaurants get the lion’s share of attention and awards, some of the state’s best dining can be found in small towns. Certainly, tour the Jack Daniel Distillery on any trip to Lynchburg, but don’t miss the old-time hospitality at Miss Mary Bobo’s Restaurant, serving fantastic family-style Southern fare. In Leiper’s Fork and Germantown, respectively, spots like 1892 Restaurant and Southern Social tickle palates with seasonal specialties. For a unique experience, dine at the Warden’s Table in the former Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Petros, open April through November.
For coffee and tea lovers, choosing a favorite spot for a cuppa is as important as a Brit discovering his “local,” i.e., his home pub. Options abound, but some favorites across the state include Rembrandt’s Coffee House, a cozy European-style cafe in Chattanooga’s Bluff View Art District. Locals in Cookeville start their mornings with the house roast and breakfast sandwiches at the airy and light-filled Poet’s Coffee, while West Tennessee residents get their caffeine fixes at Sweet Jordan’s in Paris or at UrbanHouse – The Venue, which crafts delicious coffee and provides a beautiful event space in Henderson.
There are few better things than walking into an old-school bakery and smelling the aromas of fresh-baked pastries and bread wafting out of the oven. Tennessee is replete with these experiences at beloved bakeries across the state, including the venerable small-town Dutch Maid Bakery in Tracy City, the punnily named Tellico Grains in, of course, Tellico Plains, Knoxville’s Mer Mer’s, Dumplin’s Bistro & Bakery that serves award-winning cakes, pies and dumplings in Jackson, Koch’s Bakery on Broad Street in Chattanooga and Merridee’s Breadbasket in Franklin’s quaint downtown.
Legend has it that Nashville hot chicken was invented by a spurned lover as a revenge dish for a boyfriend with a wandering eye, and that man’s descendants still run the prototypical hot chicken restaurant (now with two locations) at Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack. The infernally piquant poultry isn’t for everyone, but those who crave it can’t get enough from other iconic Nashville spots like Bolton’s Spicy Chicken And Fish, 400 Degrees, and Hattie B’s. Venture to Slow Burn in Madison and Big Shake’s Hot Chicken & Fish in Franklin. For something that’s spicy, but not quite as punishing, check out Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken’s original location in Mason (with locations in Memphis and Knoxville).
Wineries in Tennessee make excellent vino using imported fruit or heartier local grape varietals such as norton, seyval, chambourcin, concord and muscadine. Additionally, Tennessee wineries create delicious sweeter wines using local berries and fruits. Many vineyards offer open spaces for perfect socially distant picnicking in addition to wine tastings. Among the best places to lay your blanket are Crown Winery in Humboldt, Kix Brooks’ Arrington Vineyards in Arrington, Madisonville’s Tsali Notch Vineyard, Watauga Lake Winery in Butler and Chestnut Hill, DelMonaco and Stonehaus in the Upper Cumberland region.
The Tennessee Whiskey Trail launched in 2017 as a way to direct visitors to the many notable distilleries across the state. In addition to the big brands like Jack Daniel and George Dickel Tennessee Whisky at The Cascade Hollow Distilling Co., the trail includes smaller craft distilleries such as Old Dominick in Memphis and Chattanooga Whiskey, as well as Nashville favorites Corsair, Nelson’s Green Brier and Nashville Craft, an urban distillery manufacturing a novel spirit from sorghum. Use the trail’s app to find your way to other spots like H Clark, Uncle Nearest, Lost State, Old Glory and Prichard’s.
Leaders in the Memphis beer market include Ghost River, High Cotton and Wiseacre, while Knoxville craft beer fans frequent Hexagon, Alliance, Pretentious and the popular biergarten at Schulz Bräu. Chattanooga boasts several fine breweries, including Oddstory, Hutton & Smith and Five Wits. Nashville is “Brew-sic City” when it comes to craft beer, with more than a dozen excellent breweries like stalwarts Blackstone, Yazoo, Black Abbey, Jackalope and Tennessee Brew Works, along with newer favorites such as Southern Grist and Bearded Iris. In Kingsport, Gypsy Circus Cider Co. was the state’s first cidery. Outside of the big cities, Blackberry Farm Brewery in Walland, Sparta’s Calfkiller, Yee-Haw in Johnson City, Mayday Brewery and Hop Springs Beer Park in Murfreesboro and Red Silo in Cookeville number among breweries worth a road trip.
You won’t be hungry in Tennessee. Plan your foodie adventure to include these and more culinary establishments across the state.