In one three-hour span, you can tour downtown Knoxville, learn a bit of history, meet new friends and sample East Tennessee fare. It’s all part of the Chef’s Table Tour, one of the offerings from East TN Tours combining food and fun in this ever-evolving Southern downtown destination.
Organizer and tour leader Lauren Quinn offers the Chef’s Table Tour several times a week for groups of 2 to 12 with the opportunity to sample regional food from five local restaurants. Coupons to area attractions are often part of the deal, and larger groups (parties, etc.) can be accommodated with advanced notice. Even though we’re long-time residents of Knoxville, we dined at five new-to-us restaurants selected for the tour that day and welcomed newcomers to our revitalized city.
We walked about a mile on the tour all totaled, but movement energized us. Lauren’s website posted the warning — “Don’t eat too much at any one stop” — but good food is hard to pass up. So, if you take the tour, know that the 1.2 miles you walk will be an asset.
Lauren carries vintage photographs with her to show you the “way it was” in Knoxville. It was fun looking at old photos and then the urban renewal in front of us. At strategic spots, Lauren shared interesting tidbits — like what these stairs positioned high up on the side of the Bijou were once used for. (The stairs led to the entrance used by the hired help who were required to climb up to get into the building.)
Lauren included a brief stop at one of our favorite architectural renovations — Maple Hall. It’s home to Knoxville’s boutique bowling alley as well as a full-service bar where you can order drinks and small plates. On some nights, live music fills the air. Floors above the bowling alley and restaurant offer residential space.
The real stars of the Chef’s Table Tour, of course, were the owners/chefs/managers who partnered with Lauren to share the history of their restaurants and samples of what’s made them so popular.
Frussie’s Deli & Bakery
Owner Jay Brandon says, “It takes a special kind of crazy person to come make bread every morning,” but he is just that crazy person. Jay, who eats half a Frussie’s sub every day, served us his best-selling Italian Sub (AKA The Usual) with homemade dressing. And with one bite of that fresh bread (They have 11 kinds!), house-cured meats, and flavorful dressing, all of us were hooked.
Lauren took time to show us a grid of downtown Knoxville, and we looked over the Frussie’s menu for what we’d like to order next time we stop by. No surprise to me, husband Bert had his eye on the Three Little Pigs sub: pork loin, ham, bacon, Archer’s barbecue sauce (local), coleslaw, and cheddar cheese. But I’m coming back for the Dirty Bird: house-cured pastrami, Thanksgiving turkey, mayo, mustard, and Swiss Cheese.
Clancy’s Tavern & Whiskey House
Clancy’s Tavern had us at the front door: an Irish tavern in a beautifully renovated historic building. Owned by Danny Clancy and Josh Turbyville, Clancy’s Tavern has been a bank, brokerage, restaurant, and optical shop (Clancy’s Optical, owned by Danny’s family). But this is not your ordinary pub. After noting the craftsmanship of the carpentry — coffered ceilings and all — we focused on the equally noteworthy food.
Emily, our server, gushed (and well she should) over shepherd’s pie, panko breaded and fried mozzarella (table fave) and chicken wings. We really had to weigh in on what to eat and what to bag up to go. Clancy’s Tavern may sound like a pub food place, but it’s so much more: Old World recipes mixed with creative flavors and textures.
The Tomato Head
We were familiar with this Market Square establishment, but who in Knoxville isn’t? Owner Mahasti Vafai was one of the first to use locally sourced foods in her restaurant, a place where she once made her own bread (and maybe she still does) from scratch each day. We’ve loved her pizzas for years with fresh combinations and interesting blends of flavors (Fresh Spinach & Black Bean with Andouille Sausage; Chicken, Roasted Portabello & Mushroom; Smoked Salmon & Pesto White Pizza), but we were here to try soup. Oh, my.
With two choices, we couldn’t go wrong: Cream of Cauliflower or Tomato Chipotle. And so we made our choices, took closer looks at the fresh, light decor of our surroundings, and vowed to return soon. After all, Tomato Head also does chocolate cookies! Big ones!
The words “Prepare to be amazed” should have preceded our entrance to FIVE. With its ceiling of several dozen chandeliers and an eclectic wall of paintings, the word “dazzling” seemed an understatement. With only five offerings per menu category, life does get a little simpler here — and quality takes center stage.
Our sampler came from the Dinner Menu under the category of Snacks: Southern style Deviled Eggs topped with cayenne candied bacon, Fried Green Tomatoes with tomato jam, and sweet and spicy Asian Shrimp. All good. All gone. In a heartbeat.
If you were wondering if vegetarians are welcome on the Chef’s Table Tour, wonder no more. With an advanced request, Mapsy received vegetarian alternatives at every stop. “Very nice” seemed to be her rating du jour.
Sugar Mama’s Knox
With bellies and to-go boxes bulging, we sidled down the 100 Block of Gay Street to Sugar Mama’s Knox, the newest restaurant for owner Hannah McConnell who’s known for her fresh-baked breads and cookies. It was dessert for us tourists, but it looked more like a basket of goodies at the end of a rainbow.
Filled with signature pastries and samples of sweet treats like Hannah’s Amaretti Almond Cookies, we ate what we could and took home the rest. This tiny but busy little restaurant offers a sizable breakfast (now serving Quail Egg & Cheese Biscuits!) , sandwiches made with locally baked bread and cookies — even gluten-free ones — that round out their cold brewed coffee quite well.
With one last tour stop to see Knoxville’s Underground — trust me, there is one — under the 100 Block of Gay Street, Lauren bid us all farewell.
We had had that taste of Knoxville as promised — a feast, when it was all said and done. And a glimpse of what’s putting Knoxville on the map. If you want to be a part of Lauren’s Chef’s Table Tour, go online to register or call her. (For more FAQs, click here.)
So, come hungry. And come to be impressed. The lineup of restaurants as well as the food may change, but the quality will stay the same. After all, you’re touring Knoxville, one of the South’s newest foodie towns.
For more information:
Click on any of these links to find out more about the tours and restaurants featured in this post: East TN Tours, Navitat Canopy Adventures, Maple Hall, Frussie’s Deli & Bakery, Clancy’s Tavern & Whiskey House, The Tomato Head, FIVE Knoxville and Sugar Mama’s Knox.
— Rusha Sams