As a university town (Rocky Top) with a science-and-technology epicenter nearby (Oak Ridge) and the nation’s most-visited national park just up the highway (the Great Smoky Mountains), Knoxville, Tenn., more than earns its destination-city rep. And as the community has grown, so have its culinary options spanning diverse styles and specialties. Favorites around town include the Thunder Road burger at Litton’s, deep-dish pizza at Stefanos, Fat Elvis Burrito at Sunspot, panko-fried pork at Nama Sushi Bar, biscuits at Tupelo Honey and pulled smoked chicken at Dead End BBQ. Within its burgeoning dining scene, here are five of Knoxville’s best overall restaurants.
As part of the brand family that includes Stefanos, Sunspot, Drink and Barley’s, Aubrey’s serves up consistently lauded soups, salads and grilled favorites at eight Knoxville-area locations. “I’ve opened many business doors and closed many deals at Aubrey’s,” says Steven Friedlander, CEO of A3 Creative Group. “The relaxed setting and fine food make for a great business lunch.” Fellow regular Bryan Campbell favors the Ragin’ Cajun sandwich, sided with the city’s top sweet-potato fries. The salmon, he says, is “as good as I’ve had at higher-end restaurants, but for half the price.”
2. Barley’s Taproom & Pizzeria
Nestled in Knoxville’s artisan-vibe Old City neighborhood, Barley’s specializes in pizza, pasta and burgers, but its expansive menu also boasts grilled fish and chicken. The even more expansive beer selection was voted Knoxville’s best in 2014. Local Penny Brooks can’t get enough of Barley’s pizza (whole or by the slice); she prefers Italian sausage, roasted red peppers, mushrooms, banana peppers and jalapenos. “It’s my favorite pizza in Knoxville,” she says. “And the pool room upstairs and the patio on warm evenings are great places to gather with friends.”
3. Calhoun’s On The River
The hickory-smoked ribs are justifiably renowned at Calhoun’s on the Tennessee River (and just as succulent at its six other locations). But the waterfront eatery also draws raves for equally coveted menu items ranging from pork chops and smoked chicken to entree salads and Spinach Maria - a must-try side - along with the restaurant's famously upbeat ambiance. “Everything on the menu is good, and the service is always stellar,” Brooks says. Dessert options include Calhoun’s acclaimed Macadamia Nut Banana Pudding.
4. Stock & Barrel
For gourmet craft burgers, it’s tough to top Stock & Barrel on Market Square in downtown Knoxville. This casual, farm-to-table eatery is a newcomer to town, but it captured enough appetites to garner nods for Best New Restaurant, Best Hamburger and Best French Fries in 2014. Speaking of potatoes, the parmesan-laden Duck Confit Fries get especially high marks from Brooks. And when it comes to liquidity, S&B is known for its lengthy list of bourbon and scotch varieties (along with craft beers, wine and cocktails).
5. Ye Olde Steakhouse
An east Tennessee staple since 1968, Ye Olde Steakhouse offers seafood (stuffed flounder, swordfish) and chicken. Naturally, though, it’s best known for succulent tenderloin filets and ribeye steaks. Prices are on the steep side at this rustic, family-owned eatery, but regulars like Charlene Allison don’t mind. “They still have the best steaks and baked potatoes in town, hands down,” she says. Because it’s located outside the city limits in a dry county, Ye Olde serves beer but not wine or liquor; however, guests are permitted to bring their own spirits.