From outstanding Thai to Irish, Italian, vegan, Japanese, Barbecue, Mediterranean, Southern, and everything in between, Knoxville has something to please every palate. And it’s not just the locals boasting (or bursting, if you’re talking about your waistline!) with pride. A-List media like the Food Network and the Travel Channel have sung the city’s epicurean praises as well.
One of the best places to get a sampling of what the city has to offer on foot is at Market Square, located just a stone’s throw away from historic Gay Street downtown. A central city hub since the mid-1800s, Market Square has always provided amazing eats and drinks for residents and travelers, as well as places to play, shop, live, and work. Day and night people wander from one delicious spot to another: Soccer Taco, Tommy Trent's Sports Saloon, Café 4, The Lost Tavern, Tupelo Honey Southern Kitchen & Bar, Preservation Pub, and Myrtle's Chicken + Beer, just to name a scrumptious and vivacious few.
Elsewhere in the downtown area and further afield honorable mentions go to places like:
The Sunspot—"Where tie-dyes & neckties unite”—is popular with carnivores, vegetarians, and vegans for their fresh, unique takes on Latin American, Southwestern, and Caribbean fare, the establishment also consistently voted Best Lunch Spot, Best Vegetarian, Best Wine List, and Best Brunch in the city.
For lunch, brunch, and dinner The Tomato Head (two locations) serves a wide array of outstanding appetizers, soups, salads, sandwiches, pizzas and calzones, and sweets. Of note is the creative kids’ menu – not your average chicken fingers or bland pizzas!
Good Golly Tamale – (with a storefront in the Old City as well as a cart at the Market Square Farmers’ Market) – serves delicious homemade tamales prepared with organic non-GMO corn masa, locally farmed produce, and locally sourced free-range meats, for vegetarians, vegans, and meat eaters, all either ready to eat, in frozen two packs, and/or bulk frozen tamales by the dozen or half-dozen.
For sweet and savory crepes The French Market is the place. Here at Knoxville’s first and only authentic French crêpe restaurant, everything has been meticulously created in the classic French style, including using traditional and buckwheat flour imported from France, authentic cast iron griddles and rozells, (little wooden crêpe spreaders), and European Lavazza coffee and espresso.
The menu is extensive (and includes numerous gluten-free options)—the sweet options encompassing Bavarian Cream, Blueberries and Lemon Curd, Cinnamon and Banana with Caramel, Cherry Cheesecake, and Classic Crêpe Suzettes; The Savories titillating with Roast Beef and Swiss Cheese, Mushroom Spinach and Bacon, Dutch Style Ham or Turkey Breast, a Spicy Vegetarian and Hummus, and Grilled Cheese and Tomato with Caramelized Onions. Yummy breakfast crepes, baguettes, croissants, salads, and soups are also on the menu. The ambiance, décor, and music evoking the French experience earn honorable mentions as well.
Dishes made with fresh and local ingredients and a lot of love are on the seasonal breakfast menu at OliBea, like the Veg Out Monster Burrito made with collards, Crooked Road Farm sweet potato, Carolina gold rice, cashew queso, avo purée, chili oil, and scrambled egg; the Tennessee Benedict, a biscuit, Hen+Hoc (see below) ham, poached egg, smashed potatoes, and Rushy Springs Farm hollandaise; “The Problem” Biscuit, a cheddar biscuit, Hen+Hoc sausage patty, scrambled egg, serrano jam, and cheese; and the Carnita Tostada - confit Cheshire pork shoulder, frijoles, queso fresco, eggs, and salsa roja or verde.
Part of the deliciousness comes from the skillfully and ethically produced meats including smoked pork belly and sage sausage, plus options for vegans like tempeh bacon and tofu chorizo, that come from the owner’s sister entity down the street— Hen + Hoc Deli and Butcher. Imaginative daily specials and homemade juices are also part of the dining experience here.
If you're in the mood for some really good Mediterranean fare, KoPita offers two wonderful options—situated next door to each other downtown—to satisfy everyone in your family or group. The menus at both are inspired by the Moroccan/Israeli heritage of the owner and chef, the recipes derived from his family who has prepared them for generations.
For the carnivores among you there’s KoPita Meat, where the plates encompass eye-catching creations like the Seniya - ground beef in a bowl of tahini, topped with pomegranate, cilantro, and sea salt and served with a roll or pita; and the Shakshuka – eggs poached in a sauce of tomatoes, olive oil, peppers, onion, garlic, and spices. For pita bread fans there are about a half dozen options, all served with tahini inside and a side of fries, like the Classic Kebab – a juicy lamb and beef kebab with sumac onion, eggplant, and white cabbage; the Spicy Sausage – a spicy Merguez sausage with sumac onion and eggplant; and the “Schnitzel” fried chicken with beets, and sumac onion, just to name a few, plus a variety of daily specials.
Next door at KoPita Vegan there’s the Bourikas – a vegan filo dough pastry stuffed with either potato, spinach, or mushroom and served as one large pastry or three small ones; the Babaganoush - smoked eggplant with tahini, olive oil, and zaatar (it’s absolutely outstanding!), and served with pita bread and seasonal vegetables; the Fennel Salad - sliced fennel, onions, olives, cannellini beans, tomatoes, sunflower seeds, feta, seasonings, and their special vinaigrette; the Vegan Shwarma Pita - vegan “Shwarma” served in a pita with Arabic salad (tomato, cucumber, and parsley), sauerkraut, and pickles, and the Cauliflower Bowl – a whole roasted cauliflower prepared with olive oil and sumac onion.
No matter which “side” you choose, you’ll also find a number of sides, desserts, and beverages (including a beautiful silver teapot at the bar for complimentary hot Mediterranean tea), all menu items are created fresh daily from scratch and loaded with flavor. Customers are also encouraged to purchase their meals at either establishment and bring them over to the other one or onto the outdoor patio so they can still dine together with their group.
Can’t decide what to try first? No problem! Just opt for the award-winning Knoxville Food Tours and discover the flavors of Knoxville at the best iconic and new restaurants and shops. Unlike other tours that showcase just the food, these are led by local historian and author of Lost Restaurants of Knoxville, Paula Johnson. Private and custom tours and special event bookings are also available.
If you’d prefer to just park yourself in one location, then hop on over to the Central Filling Station, Tennessee's first full-service food truck park and one of Knoxville’s most unique outdoor dining experiences.
Pour Me One, Bartender!
As far as beer and spirits, Knoxville’s got it going on! Whether you are a connoisseur, avid imbiber, or only dabble now and again, there is a wealth of options sure to satisfy.
A great place to start for great beer drinking opportunities is Knox Brew Hub. Their motto, “Local Beers. Best Friends,” is an apt way to describe what they do – educating people about beer in general and pointing them in the direction of the many fantastic breweries the area.
The enterprise began almost a decade ago as Knox Brew Tours, growing into the Hub which opened in October 2020, offering 23 tap draft beers in Tasters, Half Pours, and Full Pours, and single, cider/seltzer, and non-alcoholic coolers. A visit here also includes information about Knoxville’s Ale Trail, catering to locals and visitors alike by highlighting almost 20 different breweries and tap rooms around the area (you can also get a Ale Trail Passport at any of them and get stamped along the way!).
Fun things to do here besides imbibe include board games, theme night fun, and food: think five different types of all beef hot dogs, and Popcorn Flights (Cheddar, Ranch, and Carmel), plus their Marketplace area offering daily-made Grab-N-Go Subs, steamed sandwiches, Adult Lunchables, 6-packs, single and cider/seltzer, and non-alcoholic coolers.
Over at Pretentious Beer & Glass Co the vibe is decidedly different, offering a unique combination of 16 curated craft beer, sodas, and to-go crawler selections, everything made in-house with the offerings changing daily. Think outside-of-the-box flavors (and names) like the Strawberry Watermelon Lemon Sour, Candi Shop – Starburst, Diamond Grillz IPA, Pretentious Car Camper Stout, and Chug Life Pilsner. They also have a very cool outdoor beer patio and garden where they grow some of the hops and herbs used in their creations.
But where the experience here takes an unexpected but wonderful turn is at Pretentious Glass—their glass blowing entity and demonstration room next door. Here they create all things glass for sale and for the taproom side: pitchers, bowls, plates, light fixtures, etc. The demonstrations are exciting, educational, and fun, particularly knowing that your choice of beverage is resting in a specially crafted container lovingly made at the same place.
Set to open sometime in 2021 is Ebony Ivory Brewing, whose mission is to “create a safe, comfortable, inclusive atmosphere where all can find common ground through our beer.” The owners—yes, one is “Ebony” and the other is “Ivory”—who both shared a love of craft beer and the brewing process wanted to not just share that love, but also work to remedy the lack of diversity found within the industry by fostering inclusion, diversity, and collective growth—one sip at a time.
If spirits are your thing, Knoxville’s got you covered as well along the Tennessee Whiskey Trail. The trail actually runs through the entire state, offering suggested itineraries for distilleries where you can enjoy tours, tasting rooms, and themed gift shops no matter where you may be traveling. On the trail website you can also learn about the History of Tennessee Whiskey, Whiskey Making 101, influential Industry Voices, and memorable Cocktail Recipes.
Trail maps and downloads are available online, including Tips and Trail Routes, Upcoming Events, and a list of “Spirited Women of Tennessee” murals and distinctive locations celebrating female creativity and accomplishments in the industry throughout the state.
Among the Knoxville stops is PostModern Spirits whose mission is to “Redefine tradition by challenging the status quo.” Located in the Historic Old City, PostModern began with an original lineup of spirits: Kore Vodka, Giniferous Gin, Empirical Gin, Chamomile Liqueur, and Elderberry Gin Liqueur, over the years widening their amazing selection—all made on-site and using flavors and hues from real ingredients and botanicals.
For example, their Straight Malt Whiskey is made from 100% malted barley, a portion of the malt smoked with cherry wood, while the (Up)Root Gin is a unique, spicy botanical blend of Szechuan peppercorn, galangal root, and juniper aged in toasted, new oak barrels. Liqueur fans will enjoy the Subrosa, crafted with iris flower roots and steeped on hibiscus flowers. The Amaro Arancia is a bitter orange liqueur made with fresh orange zest, gentian root, licorice root, and cardamom.
Their Distillery tours provide visitors with a sense and appreciation of all that goes into their various processes, the inviting tasting room and lounge space offering the perfect backdrop to enjoy any of their seasonally influenced artisan cocktails utilizing only the freshest ingredients. PostModern also has a distillery shop and an array of tasty cocktail recipes for creating your own at home.
Before or after a busy night out on the town, or for a quiet, relaxing sipping and/or dining experience, you’ll find several sophisticated yet relaxed rooftop bars in town, some offering spectacular views of the city and river.
Scruffy City Hall—featuring 3 rooftops entities, over 500 libation options, 300-plus kinds of beers, 12 bars, and 4 dining kitchens, and has been called “Knoxville’s Cathedral of Entertainment and Libations.”
There are so many great places to eat and drink here, you could base your entire visit upon your gastronomic needs, wants, and desires! However you wouldn’t want to miss out on these other fantastic aspects about Knoxville: