Some say it’s the rich agricultural traditions of the fertile Tennessee Valley, which has provided Knoxville and greater East Tennessee with abundant produce since the Cherokee made up the majority of the population. Still others whisper of the “Blackberry Farm effect,” where talented chefs, that might have otherwise sought kitchens in some of America’s more traditionally culinary cities, came here instead.
Let the foodies and the chefs debate. Whatever the source, if you haven’t taken a seat at one of Knoxville’s many thriving restaurants, bakeries and otherwise outstanding eateries to sample what these chefs are serving up, you may have not heard: Knoxville is undergoing a culinary boom, and you need to be there.
Buttermilk Sky Pie Shop
Where better to start the story of a pie shop than with two Southern grandmothers? Buttermilk Sky’s owners, Scott and Meredith, each spent their youths learning the art of baking and dessert making from their family matriarchs, and the old-fashioned techniques and recipes that have inspired the offerings at their pie shop are a testament to their family traditions.
Buttermilk Sky is everything a sweet treat pie shop should be: quaint, inviting and filled with delicious handmade desserts. You may have seen them featured on the Cooking Channel’s Sugar Showdown. The original Buttermilk Sky location is at 5400 Kingston Pike in Knoxville, but they’ve branched out to franchise, so do not fret if you aren’t nearby. There’s a second Knoxville-area location in Turkey Creek/Farragut, as well as in Franklin and Johnson City, Tennessee, Sandy Springs, Georgia, and three locations in Texas.
In the kitchen at J.C. Holdway, the wood-fire grill takes center stage. You can see it burning behind the bar. Using it to create his Appalachian-inspired fare, Knoxville-native Chef Joseph Lenn converts comfort classic plates into an elevated culinary experience - his take on chicken and dumplings, for example, by substituting gnocchi for dumplings and adding a slow-cooked egg for you to break in the broth. Or the simple-yet-elegant smoked catfish-onion dip served with out-and-out barbecue chips that sit pleasantly on the bites menu.
Chef Lenn cooked alongside Sean Brock in Nashville’s Capitol Grill before becoming executive chef at the Barn Restaurant at Blackberry Farms, a position for which he won the incredibly prestigious James Beard Award for Best Chef Southeast in 2013. In 2015, Lenn resolved to open his own establishment, which he named in honor of his late uncle Joseph Charles Holdway, who (while no chef or cook himself) left an indelible mark on Lenn’s life.
French Market Crêperie
Knoxville may not be known for having a Parisian flare, but thanks to the French Market Crêperie, the city is beginning to be known for having world-class crêpes. These versatile pastries, which resemble incredibly thin pancakes, can be eaten for any meal, filled as they may be with bacon and eggs, smoked salmon, spinach and tomato, strawberries and cream, Nutella, caramel, cinnamon and sugar and just about any other ingredient.
They also offer croissant and baguette sandwiches, soups and brie, and to truly round out the French Market experience, they brew Europe’s most popular coffee and espresso, LaVazza. In addition to the menu, the French Market Crêperie is one of downtown Knoxville’s best spots to open up your laptop or a book and relax.
Wild Love Bakehouse
Wild Love Bakehouse is in North Knoxville, and the attention this bakery is garnishing has begun to go nationwide. Owned and operated by husband-and-wife duo Meg and Shaun Parrish, they previously baked at their coffee shop, Old City Java, but ultimately decided to open a dedicated bakery.
All over town, Knoxvillians rave about the croissants which take four days to make. The croissants, along with their other wildly popular items, often sell out during the breakfast rush, partly due to the meteoric popularity they’ve enjoyed since opening the doors in December 2015; but also due to the self-imposed quality control that comes along with meticulously sourcing ingredients locally - hand-picked and in-season berries from area farms, eggs from Tickiwoo Farms, dairy from Cruze Farms.
If you miss the breakfast rush, however, console yourself with scratch-made soups, potpies and breads – which are no compromise.
Kaizen is a Japanese word often translated literally “change for the better,” but most often interpreted as a philosophy summed up by the phrase “continual improvement,” applied here by Executive Chef and owner Jesse Newmister. To continue our crash-course in Japanese culinary tradition, Kaizen embraces the izakaya restaurant model, most easily described as a Japanese tapas-pub. But Kaizen isn’t simply a traditional Japanese-style restaurant. In fact, it’s anything but.
All manner and method of Asian cuisine makes up this oft-rotating menu - from Thai to Szechuan and all else that may inspire and inform Chef Newmister. There is the Nashville bun, the chef’s take on Nashville hot chicken, and the thai sausage bun, which has a delicate peanut sauce. Everything on the menu feels and tastes light, crisp and fresh, with a lot of fresh herbs - even the fried dishes, so that you never feel bogged down, even after a heavy meal.
The Plaid Apron
At the forefront of Knoxville’s meticulously and sustainably sourced menus, chef and owner Drew McDonald has painstakingly created an almost purely scratch-made kitchen. Recently remodeled and reopened, Plaid Apron is located in the beautiful Sequoyah Hills neighborhood, tucked away from a lot of the bustle of downtown and the Old City.
This may be Knoxville’s most gluten-free and ingredient-conscious dining experience. You may even see Chef McDonald at the Market Square Farmers Market, carefully selecting ingredients that inform the flavors of his kitchen. Cornmeal tempura chicken livers or a cheese and crackers appetizer featuring red wine chutney and Sequatchie Cove Cumberland Tomme, jowl bacon pizza, white sorghum and oyster mushroom “risotto,” sweet tea brined JEM Farm organic chicken or ramp chimichurri marinated lamb sirloin - and those are just samplings from the new dinner menu.
The Stock & Barrel
Knoxville’s favorite burger joint sits right on bustling Market Square. What in 2014 was Metro Pulse’s “Best New Restaurant” - it’s worth noting that that same year, they arrived on the scene to steal “Best Hamburger” and “Best French Fries,” as well - is today an undeniable staple upon Knoxville’s food scene. And in what is fast becoming the rule and not the exception, this otherwise unassuming burger joint joins in Knoxville’s commitment to embracing the farm-to-table philosophy.
All of Stock and Barrel’s beef is raised by Mitchell Family Farms of Blaine, Tennessee, a family-owned and operated beef enterprise raising all-natural, hormone-free Holstein cattle. But it doesn’t stop with the beef. Knoxville’s own Flour Head Bakery bakes the breads; the cheeses are selected from Sweetwater Valley Farm; and the perennially-loved Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams take care of their bacon needs.
Two University of Tennessee graduates have created a doughnut shop that, without a doubt, is receiving as much if not more buzz than any other new eatery in town. Taken with the fact that they’ve put together a donut menu that seasonally changes, making each dough, each batch, each tray a freshly glazed miracle. Status Dough covers all the doughnut bases: each morning they make fresh takes on classic raised doughnuts and cake doughnuts, yet also offer fresh fruit fritters, jelly-filled Paczkis and Long Johns. Coupled with the coffee and espresso bar, ask anywhere in town. Knoxvillians are lining up at Status Dough to get their favorites before they sell out.