I have been a long fan of Austin’s mission to keep it weird- a movement meant to preserve local arts and happenings that can only be experienced in Austin, Texas. I was intrigued as I wandered around Knoxville, TN and noticed the abundance of “Keep Knoxville Scruffy” memorabilia. I wanted the story. Turns out the phrase was birthed out of a reaction to a negative comment by a journalist in 1980 on the eve of the World’s Fair held in Knoxville. The journalist dismissed Knoxville as a,”…scruffy little city on the Tennessee River.” Knoxvillians, particularly Preservation Pub owners Scott and Bernadette West, adopted the critical comment to promote their own city’s local artisans and shops, as well as the city’s history. Meandering through Knoxville’s neighborhoods, I found a city that embraces its laid back attitude while still being funky and friendly. It was not dirty as journalists over the years have implied. The vibe is smooth and alluring as music from street musicians filters into the air and the windows of eclectic shops capture attention with their unique displays and shop names. The reclaimed spaces and old Southern architecture invites exploration and that is just what I did.
One of the lesser known but hip attractions is a graffiti wall we happened on by accident. We finished our breakfast on the Market and were checking out the shops when I noticed a woman taking photographs of a family at the top of a narrow alley. After they finished, we made our way over to see what was going on in the alley. The first image I saw was the one at the top of the post. There were a number of different graffiti styles covering the walls and I could not look away. The story these local artists told through paint on old walls drew me in. Just another piece of Knoxville’s scruffiness.
We stayed at the Marriott Knoxville on East Hill Avenue. It was an older-looking building, but staff was very friendly, rooms were clean and the location could not have been better. We were close to Old City, downtown, as well as the university. Even with all the people staying here for the UT Softball camp, we had no trouble parking right outside the hotel. We will stay here again!
Tupelo Honey– Located right downtown, this small-chain restaurant was exactly what we were looking for. The wait was very short considering its ranking among other local restaurants. The interior was Southern eclectic with old barn doors as wall dividers, old windows used as decor and restored antiques scattered around the dining room. The menu is not extensive, but what was on there made the breakfast decision difficult. We decided we would come for breakfast two days so we could truly test the place out. Especially since the before breakfast accoutrement was homemade buttermilk biscuits with fresh blueberry preserves and tupelo honey….
The first breakfast included a delicious bowl of layered black-eyed peas, goat cheese grits, cucumber salsa, peppered bacon and fried eggs. The bacon was smokey and the grits were some of the creamiest I have ever tasted. Definite win! We also had the Shoo Mercy omelet, a blend of smoked ham, maple peppered bacon, fried green tomatoes, pickled jalapeno and pimento cheese. I normally do not jump on the pimento cheese boat but I was intrigued. It proved to be a smart choice. The fried green tomato was chunky and blended well with the light pimento cheese and spicy jalapenos. Again, a winner.
Day two saw sweet potato pancake with whipped peach butter and caramelized pecans and fried chicken and biscuits. I will say I like our local Wildflour cafe sweet potato and blueberry pancakes better. the pancake had shredded sweet potato in it rather than as a base for the batter. It was still delicious, just not as good as Wildflour’s. The chicken and biscuit sandwich though was another story. The layering of buttermilk fried chicken, country ham, fresh basil over buttermilk biscuit was inspired. The crowning achievement of this morning was the Bloody Mary. The Queen Mary is made with roasted golden yellow tomatoes, Demitri’s Bloody Mary seasoning, fresh lemon juice and moonshine. The garnish was a lemon, lime, pickled okra, pimento-cheese-stuffed olives, grilled shrimp, maple pepper bacon, celery, asparagus, pickled jalapeno and cherry tomato with a lime-salt rim. It is quiet a production. If you want something simpler, their house Bloody Mary garnished with pickled okra is yummy as well.
As an added bonus it was the Festival of Lights weekend and there was an enormous ice skating rink set up right outside the restaurant. We enjoyed some ice skating, some local shopping and some of the best of what Knoxville has to offer. If you are in town, don’t miss Tupelo Honey!
Tomato Head– Love, love the interior of this place. The walls are filled with local art. The floors were gorgeous. The windows and view were exactly what you would be looking for in Knoxville’s hip downtown market area.
We started with a hummus plate and bread and pesto. Both were gobbled up quickly. We followed that with Lamb Sausage & Sundried Tomato with herbed tomato, black olive and capers pizza, as well as a Roasted Portabello with roma tomatoes on a pesto base. The ingredients were bursting with freshness and the lamb sausage was divine. The lamb sausage pizza had a nice balance of brininess and earthiness. I thought the pesto base would be too much with the portabellos but I was wrong. The freshness of the basil combined with the smooth pine nuts in the pesto were the perfect accompaniment to the meaty portabellos.
We ended with some homemade sweets from the bakery case. My daughter and I split the black forest cupcake. Sometimes with black forest, the cherry can be sickeningly sweet, but it was not this time. the cherries were tart and a nice cut to the rich chocolate cake. It was another delicious Knoxville experience!
Cru Bistro and Wine Bar– Extensive wine list with lots of unusual choices. Enormous cheese board that boasts one of the best cheese selections I have ever had in a restaurant. Cool atmosphere with exposed brick, beautiful floors and Old City architecture. We also had the perfect view of all the bicycles decorated with Christmas lights riding around town after the parade.
In addition to the great food, Knoxville boasts some fun shopping. Make sure to stop by Earth to Old City for eclectic gifts and decor and my personal favorite store, Bliss Home. I spent two hours just wandering around like a child through their space. Whatever you are looking for, you can find it on the market and be sure to go on a Farmer’s Market day so you can get the full experience of local artisans and food purveyors. Knoxville has a great deal to offer and I will be back to do more sampling!