Buddy’s Bar-B-Q, Athens TN

I’ve always felt that we should have a story about the Buddy’s chain here at our blog. It’s a very successful one, with a dozen stores around Knoxville. But whenever we’re in that city, there have been other priorities. Fortunately, there’s one outpost about halfway between Knoxville and us, and we had some shopping to do around lunchtime.

This is a very tenuous comparison, but Buddy’s is kind of the eastern Tennessee equivalent of the very good Tops Bar-B-Q in western Tennessee. Buddy’s is much newer – the first store opened in Knoxville in 1972 – but each chain has around a dozen locations (14 in the case of Buddy’s) centered around one of the state’s metro areas. Buddy and his wife LaMuriel Smothers had worked in the restaurant business for a few years, and the first store, which would occasionally feature live bluegrass, became a huge hit.

The restaurant chain is still in family hands, with the third generation taking various corporate positions. It is certainly successful, but it has never really caught the attention of barbecue hobbyists and loudmouths in the same way that, say, Gibson’s in Alabama has. I almost never see bloggers write about this place. One of the very few is this 2011 story by Buster Evans, who was pleasantly surprised by his visit to the Athens location.

Once upon a time, when I knew even less about barbecue than I know now, I took a day trip to Knoxville from Alpharetta GA, where I lived around the turn of the century. I didn’t know anything about the town, but I drove up the Kingston Pike corridor to see what I could find. That’s when I discovered Cats Music – there were, then, two locations and now there are none – and the Book Eddy – that was my all-time favorite used bookstore and it, too, is gone – and McKay – they, at least, have grown from the smaller store they had then – and Ijams Nature Center – mercifully still with us.

Back in those days, before being a hobbyist and loudmouth took over my food choices, I would eat at – gosh – only one place on a road trip. I asked the cashier at the Chapman Highway Cats where I could get some barbecue and he pointed me a little further down Chapman to a Buddy’s. I noticed on a later visit that I’d driven past one on Kingston without it registering. I think that must have been 2001.

Are you reading between the lines yet?

On Christmas Eve, we drove up to Athens to see the downtown, which is very charming, and see whether a restaurant that was had not been answering their telephone had shuttered. Mercifully, they were just taking a long Christmas vacation without updating their Facebook or paying for one of those new-fangled answering machine doohickeys. We also wanted to buy some boxes of chocolate from the Russell Stover outlet store and use some money, sent by Marie’s aunt and uncle for the express purpose of buying ice cream, at their little soda fountain. I love that. “Here’s $20. Buy ice cream.”

And so we got some lunch at the Buddy’s in Athens. Marie had a sandwich and I had a pork plate and our son had a hot dog. It did not taste like smoke. It did not taste like anything, really. Their mild sauce tastes like the sort of thing you peel open when you have some chicken nuggets. Do you remember when Wendy’s started advertising that they had barbecue? Some bigwig stopped at a Buddy’s and said “Man, I bet we could do this.”

I was saying how Buddy’s is kind of the Knoxville-area equivalent of Tops Bar-B-Q in Memphis. If we’re still around in fifteen years, check back with me. Ask me how many times between 2017 and 2032 I’ve eaten at a Tops. Travel permitting, it could be a large number. It will certainly be a larger number than how many more times I plan to eat at a Buddy’s.

Buddy’s Bar-B-Q
1718 Decatur Pike
Athens, TN 37303

Are you planning a barbecue road trip? You can see all the barbecue restaurants that we have visited for our blog (more than four hundred !) on this map, with links back to the original blog posts!

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