Volunteer City Weekend
Immerse yourself in Knoxville’s food, cocktail, literary and outdoor scene this summer.
WWE professional wrestling’s “Monday Night Raw” held its grueling spandex spectacle, and a Dolly Parton concert beckoned thousands who longed to hear “The Backwoods Barbie” croon “Jolene” at the University of Tennessee’s Thompson-Boling Arena in May. While I managed to miss both of those big happenings, I found my few days’ stay in Knoxville a refreshing mixture of adventure, relaxation and — most importantly — good food and drink.
Most people know Knoxville as home to the University of Tennessee: the Volunteers, Rocky Top and staple of the SEC. Like any major college town in America, the university is inseparable from the sights, smells and sounds of the city of Knoxville, and even if you wander far from UT’s campus and its towering Neyland Stadium on the river, you’ll never forget you’re in Volunteer country by the sea of Tennessee orange and plethora of college gear folks wear on the streets.
Knoxville is more than a college town, though. While the university did educate famous folks like Peyton Manning, Cormac McCarthy and NPR’s Ann Taylor, Knoxville has a deep history apart from the university, a heritage rich with the Civil War, marble production, bluegrass music, women’s basketball and, famously, the 1982 World’s Fair, which is commemorated by the 75-foot tall Sunsphere, a towering hexagon of gold-colored glass that makes Knoxville’s skyline unmistakably unique.
The following are some of my suggestions for a trip to Knoxville — an underrated city with much to see, eat, drink and experience, if you look for it.
Where to Stay
The Oliver Hotel is located right on Market Square in the heart of Knoxville’s shopping and eating district. Part of Southern Living Magazine’s Hotel Collection, The Oliver is a beautiful boutique hotel originally built in 1876 as a bakery and candy store. It was renovated in 2011 and features handcrafted furniture inspired by Southern design, local artwork on the walls and a charming, intimate feel. With only 28 rooms, The Oliver is cozy but luxurious. Amenities include free wifi, flat-screen TVs in every room and complementary Linus bikes you can check out to cruise the streets or paths interspersed throughout the city’s “Urban Wilderness.” Tupelo Honey Café is in the bottom floor of the hotel, which makes for real convenient mornings of biscuits and coffee or a late night drink on the patio. The Peter Kern Library, a speakeasy, is also located off the hotel’s lobby.
Where to Eat
Stock & Barrel on Market Square is all about burgers and bourbon. They’re good at both, too. With a bourbon selection that takes longer to read than it does for your burger to be cooked well-done and a selection of sandwiches like The Farmhouse (barrel-aged cheddar, fried egg, Benton’s bacon, tomatoes, onion and garlic aioli) and The Chicken & Waffle (with, of course, fried chicken, waffle, Tennessee honey and maple bourbon mustard), Stock & Barrel has a fun western feel and a great bar atmosphere where you can wet your whistle with something tasty and fill your stomach with finely cooked, deliciously topped meat.
When Van Morrison sang “She’s as sweet as Tupleo honey,” he might as well have been talking about the blueberry jam served with the complimentary biscuits at Tupelo Honey Café. Located on the first floor of The Oliver Hotel and right on Market Square, the Southern restaurant with several locations in Tennessee and North Carolina delivers with tasty, filling food and a fun, relaxed atmosphere. My go-to is the Southern Fried Chicken BLT with fried okra that THC calls “Southern Popcorn” as a side. They’re also open for breakfast, and the patio serves as a great space to drink coffee (or sweet mint iced tea, if that’s your thing) and eat biscuits (or the Famous Sweet Potato Pancake with whipped peach butter and spiced pecans) and watch the morning bustle of Knoxville.
Buttermilk Sky Pie Shop is about a 15-minute drive from downtown Knoxville and Market Square, but it’s well worth the jaunt if you’re in the mood for good pie. One of the bakery’s tag lines is “Making Grandma Proud!” and while I’m not sure how hard their Grandma is to please, I’d be surprised if these pies didn’t do the trick. Buttermilk Sky offers fresh homemade treats made with rich buttermilk as 4-inch mini or 9-inch pies — or single slices that come in flavors like Granny’s Apple, Chocolate Meringue and the classic Southern Buttermilk. Their summer seasonal pies are a Summer Peach and Edisto Key Lime, and the shop also sells homemade biscuits and ice cream.
Where to Sip
The Public House promotes itself as “a neighborhood bar with no TVs, no live music, and no smoking inside.” It’s the place in Knoxville for tasty and creative Southern-inspired snacks, cocktails and conversation. It’s a bit away from the hub, but well worth it for unique food offerings like specialty hot dogs (the Collard Kimchi has collard green kimchi, cilantro and sriracha-honey dressing), Pork Rind popcorn and Preserved Hummus made with black-eyed peas. The Public House’s cocktails include their version of Whiskey and Coke (made with Old Charter 8, Coke syrup and ginger syrup) and The Kid Curry (made with Buffalo Trace, lavender syrup and fresh lemon juice). They also serve delicious non-alcoholic sodas, like the Rugged Westerner (berry shrub, orange juice, celery bitters and soda water) if you’re looking for something without liquor.
The only thing better than a library or a speakeasy is a library that is a speakeasy, which is exactly what the Peter Kern Library is. A speakeasy hidden behind a heavy, white, sliding door in the lobby of The Oliver Hotel pays homage to Peter Kern, a German-born, American businessman and Knoxville politician who owned the bakery and ice cream saloon that now houses the hotel. Drink menus are concealed in old World Book encyclopedias and feature custom cocktails that pay respect to characters from classic literature in three genres: American, European and Science Fiction and Fantasy. I had the Cosette, a tribute to the “Les Miserables” character who gets rescued by Jean Valjean. Other drinks include the Atticus Finch, Mr. Darcy and Grendel. All of the library’s custom cocktails are $9, and the bar also offers more conventional drinks (Old Fashioneds, Moscow Mules, etc.) as well as beer and wine. There’s no secret knock you have to rattle off to get in the door. Just enter The Oliver Hotel lobby, pull back the huge, white sliding door, and find a seat.
Billing itself as a “craft beer market,” The Casual Pint is a kind of heaven for the beer aficionado. Featuring a bar with 20 or so taps of craft beer as well as refrigerators of single bottles and shelves of six packs for sale, The Casual Pint is perfect if you want to have a drink, build your own six pack or buy a new case of craft beer. It’s both market and bar, so you can sip in-house or buy beer to take home. The downtown Knoxville location is on Union Avenue just off Market Square. It’s a great place to cool off with a cold pint of local beer (Saw Works Brewery is a tasty and local maker) or find a unique beer you might not be able to get at your local supermarket.
See and Play
A real Knoxville gem is Market Square Farmers Market, which you can hit up whether you come for a weekend (it’s open Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. ) or during the week (Wednesdays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.). Running through November 22, the market is open-air and takes up almost the entirety of Market Square. Vendors sell fruits, vegetables, meat, craft goods, flowers, and food carts also show up. I suggest checking out Dale’s Fried Pies, Good Golly Tamale, Cruze Dairy Farm and Three Bears Coffee Co, Knoxville’s go-to for micro-roasted coffee beans.
Mead’s Quarry was once a working marble quarry and then an illegal dump, but now is a 25-acre lake with clear, clean water and beautiful woods and cliffs surrounding it. Just about 10 minutes outside of downtown Knoxville, Mead’s is part of Ijam’s Nature Center (pronounced like the dog food brand Iams), which contains over 300 acres of wildlife and nature habitat and features trails, ponds, places to picnic, bike ride, etc. While swimming and private boating aren’t technically allowed, there’s a 1.1-mile trail called Tharp’s Trace that offers a stunning view of the quarry lake if you’re willing to burn your calves for a rise in elevation. River Sports Outfitters does rent canoes and stand-up paddle boards on certain afternoons (check their website for pricing and times).
Market Square is the best place to be in Knoxville. You can spend hours shopping in the boutiques, sipping coffee or a cocktail on a patio or, if you have kids (or are a kid at heart), playing in the fountains. Make sure to check the Market Square events calendar to see if there are concerts, festivals, etc. going on. Union Ave Books, Bliss Home and Coldstream Market are all great stores to browse.
Gatlinburg is about an hour’s drive from Knoxville, which makes it the perfect afternoon getaway if you want a break from the town in exchange for some moonshine. The three moonshine distilleries in Gatlinburg — Ole Smoky, Sugarlands Distilling Company and Davy Crocketts Tennessee Whiskey — are all within walking distance of each other and offer free tastings.
Knoxville may not have the bustle, number of James Beard Award-winning restaurants or seemingly endless historical monuments that other Southern cities have, but for a weekend getaway, it’s flush with good things. Like a poem, Knoxville doesn’t totally immerse a visitor or require a traveler’s complete, dedicated attention. Rather, the city gives freely and with sweetness, offering a revival and refreshment that only finely and purposefully chosen words in brevity — or a small college town on the Tennessee River — can give.
Photos by Micah Conkling, except for Peter Kerns Library, which comes from The Oliver Hotel’s Facebook page.