Earlier this month, with the Vols out of town and squeaking out a win against the Dawgs on a last-minute Hail Mary – belated vengeance for our lovely Hobnail Boot pass in 2001, I suppose – we visited their city to walk around the terrific Gay Street corridor with East TN Tours to sample five of the neatest downtown restaurants.
East TN Tours started earlier this year to spotlight the wonderful restaurants in downtown Knoxville. I confess that as much as I enjoy the city, and as often as we have visited, we know very little about the downtown choices, and so this sounded like a great opportunity when they invited us to come and join them. We took a very lazy drive up there – the 90-minute trip can easily turn into almost three hours if you amble along the back roads of the I-75 corridor – and we arrived about an hour early, with plenty of time to enjoy the completely fabulous downtown farmers market.
At two, we met the group at the city visitor’s center on Gay Street, led by our guide Lauren, who had invited us to join the party. On most Saturdays, many of the downtown garages offer free parking, which is helpful. (That changes, of course, when the Vols are playing at home!)
Bring good walking shoes when you take this trip, and be prepared to eat. The first stop on our tour was a really terrific sandwich shop. It’s a bit of bad luck that it turned out to be our favorite of the five stops, but no matter! We’ve visited a lot of sandwich places and delis since moving to Tennessee, and Frussies, which opened in 1986, is better than every one of them. We got to sample the most popular sandwich on the menu, the regular Italian (aka “the Usual”) and just loved it to pieces. The bread, baked in house, is delicious, and it’s given a generous lashing of a really tasty Italian dressing.
Frussies was opened by a fellow named James Dick in 1986. James is no longer with us, but his old friend Jay owns the place today and it’s a really popular Knoxville tradition. This place is on the list for a longer revisit the next time we can linger in the city.
After that, we got to visit four other pretty promising restaurants and enjoyed some tasty food and good conversation at each of them, and also got a few great anecdotes about the history of the city, some of the public art, and some news about upcoming development and how it might affect some of the local businesses. We also caught a few snatches of the game, because if the Vols are out of town on game day, every single television in the city is still tuned to the event. They kicked off while we were in a pretty new Irish-themed pub and sports bar called Clancy’s, where we shared a crudité plate and bangers and mash topped with a puff pastry. Incidentally, Knoxville is known for an interesting little regional specialty, steamed sub sandwiches, as we discovered at Nixon’s Deli about six years ago. Clancy’s continues this tradition, and we hear that their steamed roast beef sub is a must-try.
The next stop on the tour was a place we were a little familiar with already. We visited one of Archer’s BBQ’s other locations earlier this year and learned about their new downtown storefront. We got a sampling of their meats, and I really enjoyed the pork here more than I did at the Kingston Pike store. I guess they were a little off on that first visit. The ribs are also very good. Definitely worth another stop sometime.
Just to mess with everybody’s numbering, stop number four is called Five. It’s a small chain that started in Alabama and has – wait for it – six locations. I really like the design and feel of Five, which also has a bar here in Chattanooga that we should probably visit. It’s all nice wood and antique chandeliers, very comfortable and friendly. The menu is deliberately quite small, one of the chef-driven “new Southern” places with locally-sourced meat and produce. We were each served a little sampler of chicken, deviled eggs and fried green tomatoes and really enjoyed it.
The last stop was at a tiny little bakery called Sugar Mama’s, but they do a lot more than just treats. We each got a basket of desserts to share, and learned how the business has grown and evolved over the last two years. They make pizza and breakfast and have a very nice selection of local beers. While most of their business is carry-out, they have some fun and silly servers to take care of anybody who wants to kick back and watch the game. We could see this place becoming a favorite hangout if we lived in the city.
Does it sound like a great three hour tour to you? We had a ball, learned a lot, and got to know Knoxville better than any of our previous trips by ourselves. We highly recommend East TN Tours and hope that you will check them out yourselves. No matter whose school colors you’re wearing, Knoxville is a great city and they do a super job showing it off. Wear good walking shoes, have fun and eat well!
(As noted, this was a media event and our meals were complimentary. It’s our policy to always note when we’ve received our meal without charge. If you would like to invite us to your restaurant’s media events, please drop Grant a line at firstname.lastname@example.org .)
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