Knoxville Food Tour
January 14, 2019
How much food can you pack into one afternoon?
We recently set out to answer that question with a trip through downtown Knoxville's culinary scene thanks to Knoxville Food Tours and our tourguide Paula Johnson. And we definitely ate until our belts tightened, filling up on Marble City food, desserts, and a bit of history.
The tour involves a rotating cast of restaurants centered around Knoxville's downtown (Gay Street and Market Square). For our tour, we met Ms. Johnson at Mast General Store on an overcast Saturday afternoon and four restaurants were on our agenda: Oliver Royale, Bistro at the Bijou, Dazzo's Pizzeria, and the Phoenix Pharmacy and Fountain for dessert.
As it turned out, we were the only ones on the tour for the afternoon, which turned out to be a blessing. We got to sample as much food as we wanted, got a personal history tour from Johnson, and enjoyed an up-close audience with several of the chefs along the way.
The fanciest of our stops, Oliver Royale, is located on the southwest corner of Market Square on the bottom floor of the Oliver Hotel--which we learned was a converted bakery built by Peter Kern, the namesake of Kern's Bakery, which still exists in East Tennessee.
Known as the Mall Building, the location once served as a confectionary and ice cream parlor, which seems appropriate for our brunch selections. We were brought three dishes, including a new addition to the menu: milk chocolate french toast.
Oliver Royale was the only one of our four stops that we'd been to before, and we had banana bread french toast on our previous visit. The chocolate french toast was richer, with a creamy milk chocolate mousse on top of crispy pieces of brioche with a slightly custardy center. Decadent and chocolatey, the french toast was like starting the day with dessert, and we didn't mind.
We also sampled the hot chicken and grits, which may have been one of the best dishes we had all day. The fried chicken was crusted with cornflakes and served with Shelton Farms stoneground grits and hot sauce with an over easy egg on top. It was on the spicy side, but the chicken was fried perfectly, moist on the inside and crispy and salty on the outside.
The third dish was a short rib and hash served with mixed peppers and onions and a smoked paprika hollandaise--also with an over-easy egg on top. The short rib was fall off the bone tender and its saltiness was a perfect complement to the hollandaise.
Bistro at the Bijou
After all that food, we needed a long-ish walk to digest, and we strolled through Market Square on our way south toward the Bijou Theatre and the restaurant that's been tucked in its basement since 1980. The theater has been there even longer, since 1909, and has seen the likes of the Marx Brothers, John Philip Sousa, and Cheryl Crow. During the 1970s, it served as a XXX theater, but it's since been revived.
Along the way to the Bijou, we learned about Knoxville's place in the Suffragette Movement as well as the history behind Market Square's sculpture garden.
Bistro at the Bijou is a cozy spot with low ceilings, a long wooden bear, leather seats, and old portraits adorning the walls. We were served a handful of dishes by chef Martha Boggs, who spent several minutes explaining her menu.
The highlight was probably the fried brussel sprouts. They're not breaded, but they're fried in their normal state, resulting in a very delicate flavor--and they're more blossomed than roasted brussel sprouts.
Shrimp and grits is also a staple of the bistro's menu, and the locally sourced grits served as a perfect bed for plump shrimp, and gave the grits at Oliver Royale a run for their money. Also don't miss the blackberry jam, which is served with hot biscuits.
The Bistro offers daily specials that attract a crowd througout the week. If you're ever looking for some delicous home cooked items that you can't necessarily find in your area, give them a call and find out what they're offering. We can assure you, it will be scrumptous.
Boggs also owns Dazzo's, which is several blocks north on Gay Street. Dazzo's has a variety of pizza options, and the Grandma's is its specialty: a New Jersey-style rectangular thin crust pizza baked in olive oil, with the tomato sauce on top of the mozzarella cheese.
We tried a pizza with mushrooms, kalamata olives, pepperoni, and banana peppers, but the star was the dough, which was cripsy and chewy, just like a New York-style pizza should taste like. We also tried the pasta carbonara, but the pizza was definitely more craveable.
Phoenix Pharmacy and Fountain
No food tour is complete without dessert, and the Phoenix Pharmacy and Fountain didn't disappoint. The retro soda fountain is located alongside a working pharmacy, and owner Nolan Sherrill took the time to make us three custom ice cream creations.
The soda fountain is more than just a retro novelty: the ice cream concoctions are unique.
A donut from Status Dough was drenched in Honeybee Coffee and topped with a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream and drizzled with chocolate and whipped cream (named the May 16 for Sherrill's mother).
A simple ice cream float was taken to the next level with homemade strawberry ice cream drenched in cream soda.
Lemon ice cream was brought to life with sorghum crumbles, blackberry sauce, and torched marshmallow fluff. It was probably the highlight of the menu.
By the time we were done with dessert, we couldn't have eaten any more--but that's a testament to the amazing dishes we were able to sample and the rich Knoxville history we were able to experience.