If there’s anything that Southerners care about more than their regional cuisine, it’s gotta be SEC football! To celebrate the 2015-16 college football season, Food Republic is launching a new series, SEC FoodBall. Each week, we’ll profile a Southeastern Conference town, and more importantly tell you where you should eat and drink if you’re fortunate enough to attend a game there. We’ll also solicit advice from some locals to make sure you have the benefit of home team advantage.
Week 10: South Carolina at Tennessee, Lexington, Kentucky; Nov. 7
While the University of Tennessee’s football team has been mired in relative mediocrity over the past few years, the team’s rabid fan base has not lost its enthusiasm. When the marching band forms the block “T” and the team runs across the checkerboard end zone through the formation, some 100,000 Volunteer fans respond with a vigor that is seismic in proportions. (And the crowd sings “Rocky Top” incessantly, despite the fact that it is a fight song with a verse about killing federal revenuers. Go figure.)
Vol fans definitely love their team through thick and slightly less thick, and they also know how to party. Pre- and post-game, the restaurants and bars along the Strip and across Knoxville are filled with a sea of PMS 151 orange on Saturdays, which (despite jokes to the contrary among fans of other SEC teams) is not the same shade as the blaze orange that UT fans wear to go hunting on Sunday or the vests that they wear to pick up trash along the interstate on Monday.
One notable proud University of Tennessee fan is Joseph Lenn, the James Beard Award–winning chef who earned a vaunted reputation running the kitchen at the Barn at Blackberry Farm. This luxurious resort is in Walland, Tennessee, just about 30 miles from the stadium, so Lenn made frequent trips to Knoxville while he was working there. He is in the process of opening his own restaurant in downtown Knoxville, which will put him less than a mile from the home of his beloved Vols.
So Lenn is the obvious choice to ask for advice on where to eat and drink in Big Orange Country. Here’s where Lenn sends his friends in search of an authentic Knoxville experience:
It comes as no surprise that Lenn recommends making the drive to Blackberry Farm for a truly outstanding dining and lodging experience. “From the award-winning service to the amazing wine list and cellar, it is hard not to have a good time here,” he says. “If you want to go all out, stay the night and have an awesome breakfast, too.” The esteemed James Beard Foundation agrees, awarding Lenn with Best Chef-South in 2013, honoring sommelier Andy Chabot for Outstanding Wine Program in 2014 and recognizing the entire operation for Best Service last year. The staff will even pack you an outstanding fried chicken box lunch for your short drive to the game. Blackberry Farm, 1471 W. Millers Cove Rd., Walland, TN 37886; 865-984-8166
If you have to ask what something costs at Blackberry Farm, you’re probably better off heading somewhere else. Bistro by the Tracks is still a special treat that doesn’t require a credit check before making a reservation. Lenn describes it as “local restaurant serving up tasty food with a great wine list that will surely satisfy a splurge.” Bistro by the Tracks, 215 Brookview Centre Way, Suite 109, Knoxville, TN 37919; 865-558-9500
Chandler’s Deli is a popular spot for fans on a budget looking for down-home eats, but its name is a bit of a misnomer. Lenn explains, “It’s not a deli; it’s really more like an awesome soul-food meat and three.” True to the requirements of a bona fide soul-food joint, Lenn points out that “they even have Kool-Aid in a tea urn.” Getcha some red drink! Chandler’s Deli, 3101 E. Magnolia Ave., Knoxville, TN 37914; 865-595-0212
When Lenn is seeking a casual spot for simple food and drink, he heads to Knoxville Public House. “Yes, it’s a bar; however, you can find great food here, and most items are under six bucks, like a variety of hot dogs with different toppings made in-house. Bonus: They make great cocktails, too!” Knoxville Public House, 212 W. Magnolia Ave., Knoxville, TN 37917; 865-247-4344
Eat Like a Local
Knoxville is located in the middle of a bit of an agricultural breadbasket, so farm-to-table is a hot trend in town. Locals like Lenn suggest Knox Mason, “a nice little independent restaurant that focuses on local, regional ingredients and is a bargain for the quality of food.” Knox Mason, 101-131 S. Gay St., Knoxville, TN 37902; 865-544-2004
To meet the farmers who grow all that great produce, Market Square Farmers’ Market is the place to go. The market is open on Saturdays from May through November (including game days), and Lenn is a huge fan for both shopping and eating. “You can grab lunch from multiple food vendors, such as Cruze Farm and Dale’s fried pies, and also buy local veggies and meats to take home and cook for dinner.” Market Square Farmers’ Market, Market Square, Knoxville, TN 37902; 865-405-3135
Knoxville has quite a few barbecue options, but Lenn is partial to Sweet P’s Barbecue and Soul House. There are two locations of this locally owned operation that evolved from a catering company. The Maryville Pike Sweet P’s is on the water, making it convenient for members of the “Vol Navy,” a flotilla of fans who arrive at the stadium via boat each weekend. The other outlet is nicknamed the Downtown Dive and is better for Vol fans who might not have access to nautical transportation. At either option, Sweet P’s serves up barbecue that hits the spot for Lenn. “They’ve got good barbecue with great sides such as mac and cheese and ‘greens n’ things.’ Plus good tunes are always playing.” Just as long as it’s not “Rocky Top!” Sweet P’s Barbecue and Soul House, 3725 Maryville Pike, Knoxville, TN 37920; 865-247-7748, and 410 W. Jackson Ave., Knoxville, TN 37902; 865-281-1738