Our First Year in Chattanooga: Where to Go and What to Eat

Since we’ve moved here, we’ve often been asked by pals and acquaintances what they should do on a day trip. We’ve lived here for almost a year, and have an idea or two that we’d like to share.

All right, so while it isn’t technically true that we fell in love with the Scenic City, we fell enough in like with it to look into moving. It’s been a tough year in several regards, but a rewarding one in others. We’ve found lots to do and have never been bored. But what about you, dear reader? Might there be something or ten in our adopted town that you might enjoy as well?

Get active! – Urban landscape

Here’s what really sold me on Chattanooga: it’s got a great big pedestrian-friendly downtown where you can spend hours walking around. It’s really about equal to Asheville in having a big, walkable, safe-feeling downtown grid full of lovely old buildings, with the added bonus of a free shuttle that you can pick up if you get tired. Among the buildings worth seeing: the Read House and the Chattanooga Choo-Choo are both really famous for a reason, and the beautiful art deco interior of the Post Office and federal courthouse is something else.

Chattanooga’s downtown is roughly divided into four sections running south to north: the Southside, which is where most of the last decade’s development has come, with an eye on young urban twenty-somethings, the City Center, which is where all the attorneys work, Riverfront, which is the tourist core, and the North Shore, on the other side of the river. You can park in a pay lot by the Choo-Choo and easily spend three or four hours walking around taking in all there is to see. Be sure to cross the river using the pedestrian Walnut Street Bridge, because it’s just terrific.

But wait!, you may say. Isn’t Chattanooga that ugly-looking run of blight along I-24 that you rush through when driving from Atlanta to Nashville? Well… yes. In 1969, Walter Cronkite surprised nobody when he announced that Chattanooga had been named the “Dirtiest City in America,” and while much of our city is beautiful and wonderful, the I-24 corridor remains, bluntly, a complete catastrophe. Last month, I saw some news footage of what downtown looked like in 1990 while the Aquarium was being built, and the whole blasted area was, then, a messy eyesore. If you get into the town proper, you will see a much, much nicer city has been evolving over the last quarter century, and a more beautiful community coming together.

To be clear, there’s still a lot of work to be done. At least two huge abandoned factories or foundries, and even, madly, a high-rise across from the dang stadium all need to be torn down, along with two ugly miles of tire shops and car parts stores along E. 23rd that everybody wishes would be replaced by darn near anything. Anything except yet another car dealership, I guess. Even the unkempt, grassy shoulders along both sides of the interstate are screaming for an expensive – that’s the problematic word – beautification project and something done to make everybody’s first opinion of the Scenic City change. But please don’t judge the city for putting its worst side forward. Take Exit 178 onto US-27 and see how hard TDOT is working to improve this, and see the city close-up. Over the next decade, everybody’s going to get more and more proud of and pleased by Chattanooga.

The Scenic City is much prettier when viewed from a ridge on the north side anyway.

Get active! – In the trees

If you’re looking to spend a good, long time outdoors, this town’s beyond fantastic. One place to hike near us is Enterprise South Nature Park, off exit 9 of I-75. This used to be military land, but has been transformed into a pretty and idyllic getaway for hikers and cyclists. It’s 2800 acres, with more than thirty miles of trails. Two other fabulous local spots are Audubon Acres and Stringers Ridge Park. There’s a small fee at Audubon Acres and if you take the Woodlands Path, you are guaranteed to fight off a billion mosquitoes and come home caked in mud, but it’s completely beautiful and there’s a terrific bridge. Stringers Ridge is right above Nikki’s Drive-In, and it’s much smaller than ESNP – 92 acres – but there are nearly ten miles of moderate to steep trails in this urban wilderness park reclaimed from what had been a small community of isolated homes. The view is remarkable and you can explore the remains of a few long-abandoned home sites. Houses were tiny once upon a time!

Then there’s Lookout Mountain. There are miles and miles of trails up there, and fantastic places for sheer rock climbing. We just did the trail from Cravens House to Sunset Rock this past weekend and loved it. It’s really beautiful and we’re certainly going to be back many times in the future.

A teeny bit further out, there’s the Rainbow Lake trail atop Signal Mountain. A hundred years ago, there was a real fancy resort hotel up there, with streetcar tracks and everything. The Great Depression hit Signal Mountain crazy hard and it never recovered its brief Roaring ’20s luster. The resort has long been a retirement community run by Alexian Brothers, and as Signal Mountain evolved into a sleepy small town with an older population, the allegedly once-posh Rainbow Lake returned to nature. There’s not very much parking, so come early and enjoy about a mile hike – pretty easy – with a fun old swimming hole waiting for you on the other end.

The Prentice Cooper State Forest is just minutes from here, there’s the Laurel Snow area in Dayton about forty minutes’ north, and Fall Creek Falls is about an hour. Plus there’s whitewater rafting about forty-five minutes away in Ocoee, and dozens of other places to visit. You will not be wanting for places to hike and get outdoors.

So you need some lunch.

This is allegedly a food blog, so here are some ideas about what you might want to try to eat.

We’re big on the idea of local specialties. There are two dishes that we’ve found at several places around Chattanooga that aren’t at all common anywhere else. These are chop plates and hot slaw. Chop plates are kind of the drunk Tennessee cousin of middle Georgia’s scrambled dogs. It’s a couple of chopped-up hot dogs served in a thick brown sauce, and people usually pour a little hot sauce and mustard across the top of the mess and stir it all up. You can find chop plates at Memo’s Chopped Weiners, Chatt Smokehouse, Old Plantation Bar-Be-Que, and Miss Griffin’s Foot Long Hot Dogs. Hot slaw isn’t quite limited to the Chattanooga city limits; this occasionally-powerful vinegar-based slaw, a close cousin of chow-chow, can be found in a larger footprint around southeastern Tennessee. You can find it at Purple Daisy, Couch’s Barbecue, The Farmhouse in Etowah, Bear’s Den in Ocoee, and several places in Cleveland, including GDaddy’s, Bald Headed Bistro, and Deli Boys.

Otherwise, here are a few other ideas. Our favorite pizza in town is Lupi’s Pizza Pies. There are several locations of this local chain that uses mostly locally-sourced vegetables and has a funky, silly, family-friendly vibe with a very decent beer list. If you want an authentic New York slice, head to New York Pizza Department in Hixson. For Neapolitan pies like the one shown below, go to Fiamma on the North Shore.

Chattanooga’s a fantastic city for locally-owned sandwich shops and delis. River Street Deli is our favorite, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get really good sandwiches and great service from Flatiron, Steamboat, Figgy’s, Mindy B’s, or Nick’s. The best cheesesteak in town is from Mr. Philly, but Mimi’s also does a very good one. Many of these are only open Monday through Friday, though.

And burgers? Zarzour’s has been making one of the best you’ll ever have for ninety-nine years, and I guarantee you will not ever forget your conversation with the awesome Shannon Fuller, who owns the place and cooks these Motz-and-Roadfood-approved bad boys. It’s also a weekday-only lunch place, so if you come on a weekend, Merv’s, whose burger is shown below, isn’t a bad substitute. The burger is almost as good and they serve proper hand-cut fries. Tremont Tavern and Main Street Meats serve high-end, premium-priced burgers to really big crowds. Tremont’s is probably the consensus favorite in town.

There’s more to say about food, but we’ll come back to that after doing something other than eating.

Shopping

Marie and I have been deliberately avoiding shopping for a long time and trying to cut down on our material worlds, so we’re not going to be able to recommend much in the way of this. However, I can say that Warehouse Row has quite a few neat little shops with paper goods and neat clothes, and the North Shore has several trendy boutiques. If you’re looking for locally-produced art and knickknacks, I’d suggest you visit the Chattanooga Market, open most Sundays, where local artists will set up alongside all the farmers selling fresh veggies and honey. Bettieville is a pair of well-curated thrift stores that focus on vintage clothes and furniture. I could imagine decorating our house with things from Bettieville.

The exception to our shopping is for books and movies. If you are not familiar with McKay, then oh, heaven, you’re in for a treat. They employ more people to check in and price new arrivals than every used bookstore in Atlanta combined. About 80% of their prices are either competitive or so low that you’ll punch the air, but lately we’ve been spotting some prices higher than the same thing, new, on Amazon, so while you’re marveling at the selection, keep an eye on the price tags. Your best bet for new books is Star Line on Market, across from the Choo-Choo, and another very good used bookstore is Winder Binder on the North Shore. For vinyl collectors, both McKay and Winder Binder have extensive record collections, and there’s also For the Record in Northgate Mall. Prices seem a little high here, but the selection’s really good.

For comics and games, Epikos is the place to go. They have one store in Hixson and another opening sometime soon. It’s pretty focused on new things; you’re not going to find a dusty old box of beat-up Roy of the Rovers here, nor any thirty year-old mimeographed Thundercats fanzines, but their game selection is impressive and there are always tournaments going on. Good people, very friendly to female shoppers and children. If you’re going to be in town a few days, it’s worth looking over their events page to see whether there will be any Catan or CCGs happening when you’re free.

Chocolates fall under the shopping category. The Hot Chocolatier is world-class fantastic, with an amazing selection of delicious treats, a few doors down from Star Line. Get two or three truffles and a mug of the best hot cocoa you’ve ever had. If you prefer coffee, however, take your treasures to Mean Mug around the corner.

Sports

The Chattanooga Lookouts are the AA affiliate of the Twins. They play in the Southern League at downtown’s AT&T Field and have instate rivalries with teams in Jackson and Sevierville. Good fan experience, fireworks some evenings. Chattanooga FC is in its eighth year of play. There are men’s and women’s teams and their fans are really engaged and seem really fun-loving. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga has had a football program for more than a hundred years. Their Mocs and the soccer clubs play in the nice Finley Stadium. The Mocs usually have to go on the road to get clobbered by big schools – they’ll be LSU’s mooks in a couple of months – but they do host good FCS teams and you can catch a reasonably-priced game here in the fall without having to join an alumni association and make a gigantic donation for tickets.

But I have kids!

This is totally the right town to bring kids and some changes of clothes. If hiking isn’t your thing, we’ve got lots of suggestions. First off, there’s Coolidge Park on the North Shore. Parking’s agreeably cheap, and you can follow up a meal or some shopping by letting your kid run wild in the fountains with a hundred other kids. After you’ve changed into something dry, there’s a great old carousel right there which you can ride for a dollar.

Across the river, there’s the Creative Discovery Museum. I say this as a longtime and devoted former employee of the Children’s Museum of Atlanta: this is one of the museums we wanted to emulate. If your kid is between two and nine, they will love this place and want to spend at least two hours here. Across the street, if your kid is between maybe seven and twelve, there’s High Point, a climbing wall with a big room for kids to scale a cityscape like they’re Godzilla or something, and get practice for grown-up climbing. And across the street from that, there’s the Tennessee Aquarium, which will occupy you for hours. They also have some IMAX films on rotation. A couple of miles away, the Chattanooga Zoo is also really fun, and has some great animals in a well-designed facility.

The Incline Railway, Rock City and Ruby Falls are the big boys of tourism. Do bear in mind that neither walking attraction is really stroller-friendly, nor are they all that easy for guests who use wheelchairs. You can save money on a combo package with two or all three of the attractions. The Incline really should be experienced at least once. I was a little skeptical about the Incline – so it’s a slow train? wheee? – but it really is a curious experience and if your kid is between maybe five and ten, they’ll probably find it fascinating. Bear in mind that Ruby Falls is pretty deep underground; if your kid worries about anything remotely like this, I’d think about going someplace else. Ditto Lost Sea, which is an hour up I-75 in Sweetwater. I love the place, but I don’t think my son will for a while yet.

If you’d like to jump back in time to the days when concrete dinosaurs and mammoth lumberjacks loomed over mini-golf courses and go-kart tracks, then Sir Goony’s is a great throwback attraction. You can golf all day, year-round, at this silly place. There are grown-up golf courses in Chattanooga as well for some reason. I don’t know what kind of weirdo would rather play golf on a course without a Humpty Dumpty, but I think there are about five eighteen-hole places for those who insist.

There are playgrounds all over town. Our favorite is Pumpkin Patch on Signal Mountain. It really defies explanation. It’s incredibly non-traditional, a big and sprawling place designed by architects who didn’t come from making identikit playgrounds like everybody else. Even grown-ups line up for the thirty-foot straight slide. I doubt your child will be bored inside ninety minutes, but do bear in mind that the park is open to a large wooded area. At least one of the grown-ups in your party should be keeping a close eye on your kids and joining them if they want to explore the large patch of forest. Second place goes to Kid’s Corner in Red Bank, behind the churches on Dayton Boulevard. This is one of those identikit playgrounds, but one of the really good ones, dense with places to hide and explore. It’s well-fenced with heavy gates, so it’s pretty easy to keep an eye on kids from a distance without worrying they’ll get out.

So you need some supper.

If you’re looking for something a little nicer for dinner, Chattanooga has dozens of trendy, modern eateries, especially in the Southside neighborhood, that we haven’t quite gotten to yet. There may not be quite as many small chef-driven places as Atlanta or Nashville, but Flying Squirrel, St. John’s, Alleia, Terminal Brewhouse, and Feed are all worth looking into, as are FoodWorks and Beast & Barrel on the North Shore. In Warehouse Row, the regional Tupelo Honey Cafe chain has an outpost, and they’re always reliable.

For a more simple set of options from a traditional southern comfort menu, Bea’s Restaurant opened in 1950 and will usually seat guests at tables with other customers around a lazy susan that’s loaded dense with fried chicken, dumplings, and veggies like you see above. There’s also Southern Restaurant in Red Bank and Hixson, and one of our new “why haven’t we been eating here for years” discoveries, Southern Star, with a constantly changing menu and locations downtown and on Signal Mountain. Look for a story about this place next month.

Other favorites include Mojo Burrito, with three very silly and colorful locations serving up fabulously tasty Cal-Mex food with vegetarians in mind, Uncle Larry’s, which offers better fried fish than anybody else in town, and Champy’s, with two locations offering excellent fried chicken and the best tenders for at least a hundred miles. Bolton’s can’t quite compete with the regular chicken or fish from those other two, but it’s a unique and mindblowing experience all the same for those of you unfamiliar with Nashville-style hot chicken. You will never, ever forget what will happen when you eat an extra hot catfish sandwich here. There may be hallucinations. There will definitely be pain.

Deficiencies? Well, longtime readers probably know that I’ve not been very satisfied with the barbecue in this area. Most of it is what I’d call “halfhearted Memphis-style.” Quite a lot of it is perfectly fine, but if you’re making a day trip here from Nashville or Atlanta or Birmingham, you have better barbecue at home. By far the best around town, in part because they don’t follow that Memphis-ish style, is Old Plantation, which we’ve visited several times.

The biggest black eyes in this city come from the Chinese and Indian categories. I’d honestly not recommend anything whatsoever here. There is nothing even remotely like Buford Highway in Chattanooga. Generally, food from other cultures tends to be very, very Americanized and shopping mall-approved here. A few exceptions can be found with authentic Mexican, at Carnitas Carmelita or Las Morelianas, and Ecuadorian, at Fresh Pot Cafe, and, though I haven’t yet tried it, I hear consistently good things about the Peruvian dishes at Aji in Ooltewah.

Other deficiencies include a few roads, like Hamm, that badly need repaving, a pothole that has reopened seventeen times since we’ve been here (on 27 South at the 4th Street exit), that damn traffic light at 4th and Chestnut that gives maybe two cars a left turn arrow, and a maddening lack of high-paying jobs in the non-profit sector for the gigantic pool of people who want them. I just know my competition are all twenty-two years old and have somehow worked sixteen intern jobs and have better local connections than me, too, blasted kids.

But I think the good outweighs the bad and you should come see us. Even if you don’t want to see us necessarily, come see Chattanooga. It’s great!

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7 thoughts on “Our First Year in Chattanooga: Where to Go and What to Eat

  1. Great list! Have you tried Thai Esan in East Ridge yet? It is a new favorite of ours, and much better than any of the mediocre Japanese or downright terrible Chinese places that we’ve tried in Chattanooga.

  2. I’m glad that you are enjoying Chattanooga and hope that you find that perfect job that you desire soon.

  3. If we weren’t in Athens, we’d probably want to be in Chattanooga too. We were caught off-guard by how many great spots were there when we first visited and it’s continued to charm us ever since. Great list. Can’t wait to check some of these places out!

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