Once upon a time, Gatlinburg was a quiet and unassuming mountain getaway. There’s very little of those days left for tourists to see, but there’s one tiny little sandwich counter that serves as the most relaxing throwback room in the entire city.
I thought about writing a short story about Parton’s Deli when we were in town in the spring of 2021. Then, we parked nearby, started our day with some delicious sandwiches, and then proceeded to spend unnecessary money elsewhere. I was brought here by a completely terrific story about the steamed sandwiches common to the region written by Chelsey Mae Johnson for Bitter Southerner, but this was one of those cases where I was feeling especially lazy and restless, knew I would be unable to better Johnson’s story – I am still unable to – and didn’t feel like trying. Just read her work; it’s much better than mine.
But we’re here in Gatlinburg again today because our son is on an outing with the Scouts and Marie and I came back here for lunch, and I really do want to share what a pleasant and delightful experience this old shop is. Gatlinburg is pretty hideous; the kindest thing I can say about it is that it’s an amusement park for people who really, really like CBD and knives. It’s a world of intense sensory overload, noise, smells, a million signs, and two million people in cars.
Gatlinburg was always a little ridiculous, but the chaos came later. In the summer of 1974, Henry Parton and his son Dennis opened their sandwich shop in a little room across the two-lane from a hotel that has nice little balconies overlooking the fast-moving creek. Henry passed away in 2010. Dennis has been running the place by himself, for five days a week with occasional vacations, ever since.
More than almost any other restaurant we have visited, this place feels like stepping in to somebody’s kitchen. The menu never changes; there are a variety of cold cut sandwiches available on white or pumpernickel, along with deviled eggs, potato salad, and hot dogs. The bread, meat, and cheese are prepped in a Fresh-O-Matic steamer with a pump handle until they’re soft and pillowy and perfect. It didn’t really occur to me just how vastly I prefer soft bread like this until one day in 2020. We were in Nashville, meeting Marie’s sister, who was in town for a conference. We tried out a French cafe and bakery in Green Hills. The bread was crusty and hard and hideous. I should’ve asked for a croissant. I should’ve asked them to stick it in a Fresh-O-Matic.
Parton’s won’t be here forever. It’s been here 48 years, an eternity in restaurant time, but this little oasis will most likely shutter when Dennis retires. There’s little of old Gatlinburg left. Our hotel, a good, bracing walk of a mile and a half away, seems to have been built around the time that the deli opened. I’m sure it was a fine hotel in its day, but five decades of humidity from the indoor pool have done a number on all the doors. Nothing closes flush in the entire building as far as we can tell.
I can easily imagine less and less of old Gatlinburg five years from now, maybe nothing in ten. Make your way to Parton’s before that happens. It’s quiet and relaxing and you’ll be in no rush and the food is good. There’s probably good food in many other places here. Quiet and relaxing and unrushed, though, I don’t believe.
Gatlinburg, TN 37738