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Where to eat, drink in Knoxville

Heading to Knoxville? Here are a couple of must-hit restaurants near the University of Tennessee. 

Heading to Knoxville soon? Trying to figure out the best places to eat? Whether you’re looking for a muffaletta that can live up to those in New Orleans or a Hint of Orange iced tea that can lift your spirits, we’ve got you covered right here with a list of the tastiest destinations to hit while you’re in town. 

The Stock and Barrel

 35 Market Square, Knoxville, TN 37902

When I lived in Knoxville from 2000-02, best burger in town was at Litton’s. It was a quaint little eatery in the Fountain City neighborhood where diners wrote their name on a chalkboard and waited their turn for a divinely prepared burger that made up in execution what it lacked in creativity. The only thing that could knock Litton’s from its perch was a burger joint that executed the bun-burger-cheese-bun part as well as Litton’s—but with a little flair. That place is The Stock & Barrel.

Stock & Barrel was always going to do well because it tapped into America’s rekindled love of whiskey—the menu claims 137 different varieties, and the back wall of the bar seems to confirm that claim—and because it set up shop in the trendy Market Square complex. But what makes the place special are those burgers, which are sourced carefully and cooked perfectly.

I ordered the Big Nasty, which includes two beef patties from Mitchell Family Farms in Blaine, Tenn., two slabs of barrel-aged cheddar cheese, a double order of Benton’s bacon, a sweet tomato jam and mayonnaise that I declined because SI could never pay me enough to eat a condiment that tastes like despair feels. All of that flavor is wedged between two halves of a bun from Knoxville’s Flour Head bakery. This is important. Great bread can seriously upgrade any sandwich, and the Flour Head buns are soft and slightly sweet but strong enough to stand up to all the juice pouring from the two patties. Stock & Barrel puts serious effort into finding every ingredient, and the result is one of the best burgers in the country.  The Benton’s bacon is heavenly, thick and smoky with a hint of sweetness that works in concert with the grease from the beef. That tomato jam is a classed-up version of ketchup. The cheese is a notch above ordinary. Most importantly, the burger is cooked perfectly. I order my steaks rare but my ground beef items medium, and Stock & Barrel cooked the burger precisely as I ordered it without losing any of the juice.

The place also understands the importance of fries. Bad fries can ruin a good burger. This is why I don’t share the prevailing opinion of In-N-Out Burger. In-N-Out has terrible fries, which devalues the entire experience. Five Guys makes a lesser burger, but Five Guys makes excellent fries. So, after performing a burger-fry-cost-benefit analysis, I usually choose Five Guys. Stock & Barrel does not force anyone to make that choice. The regular hand-cut fries are plenty good, but the place offers an option that raises those humble potatoes into a work of art. For $2, diners can upgrade their fries to duck fat fries. While the fat from peanuts, soybeans, rapeseeds and sunflower seeds does a fine job of frying potatoes, something about the molten flesh of Donald and Daisy renders them irresistible.

The burger and fries stretched my stomach so thoroughly that only dessert could fill the void. Fortunately, Stock & Barrel has a limited edition Thin Mint shake. Thin Mints are the finest Girl Scout cookies. Thin Mints from the freezer are the reason why. Crushing Thin Mints into ice cream and then blending with milk is the equivalent of putting the freezer and its most precious contents into the Thin Mints box. No Friday afternoon outside of football season should be as joyous as the one I spent at Stock & Barrel, but the place just kept delivering excellence directly to my seat at the bar.

Sweet P's Barbecue

3725 Maryville Pike, Knoxville, TN 37920

My eating and drinking odyssey through the greater Knoxville, Tenn., area never would have happened if Sweet P’s Barbecue hadn’t had all its desserts gobbled by hungry diners early one Saturday afternoon. After a half-rack of succulent ribs crusted with a sweet-and-salty rub and a muffuletta that combined smoked turkey with Genoa salami and a homemade olive dressing, I wanted something sweet to cap off the meal. I figured a piece of Sweet P’s chocolate chess pie would satisfy that craving.

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Unfortunately, plenty of other diners had already tamed the same hunger with that pie. I drooped after the man behind the counter delivered the bad news. But I shouldn’t have. By inhaling all the pieces of chess pie, those hungry Sweet P’s diners set me on the path to the best pie I’ve ever eaten.

But before we get there, let’s talk about the main course. If you aren’t looking for the original Sweet P’s, you’ll never find it. The owners have opened a second location in downtown Knoxville that is much easier to stumble across, but a visitor must be tipped off to find the original tucked away next to a small marina in nearby Maryville. The gorgeous drive across the Tennessee River from Knoxville and the in-on-a-secret location wouldn’t mean much if Sweet P’s didn’t get the barbecue right. But since Sweet P’s takes such care with its smoked meats, it all melts together into a glorious dining experience. I wouldn’t have ordered that muffuletta if the barbecue wasn’t excellent. Why would I trust anyone to do a great New Orleans sandwich correctly if they couldn’t handle their core business? But after tasting those ribs, I knew the people in the kitchen at Sweet P’s loved food enough to put the same care into everything they made. So after the ribs, I bit into a sandwich every bit as good as the ones I’d eaten in Louisiana. The smoky meat and the soft ciabatta provided the foundation. (The restaurant provided a recipe to the local NBC affiliate that uses ham along with the salami. On the day I visited, Sweet P’s used its juicy turkey.) The olive dressing, with its mix of green and kalamata, provided the fireworks. 

Buttermilk Sky Pie

5400 Kingston Pike, Knoxville, Tennessee, 37919

With Sweet P’s out of desserts, I decided to visit the other place I’d read about when I was scouting dishes the way Nick Saban scouts opposing offenses. A place called Buttermilk Sky Pie Shop had set up on Kingston Pike in Knoxville in 2012. I walked in and immediately knew what I needed. The featured pie at Buttermilk Sky is called the I-40 in honor of the perpetually-under-construction interstate that runs east and west through Knoxville. It mixes traditional pecan pie filling with chocolate chips and coconut shavings atop a shortbread crust.

The featured pie at Buttermilk Sky, the I-40.

The featured pie at Buttermilk Sky, the I-40.

Precious little in this world can enhance the standard pecan pie, but the coconut and chocolate chips do. Only adding coconut wouldn’t work. Only adding chocolate chips would make it too sweet. Adding both does the trick. But that isn’t why the I-40 is the best pie I’ve ever eaten. That perfect shortbread crust is why.  It’s tough to make a light crust that can handle the weight of a heavier filling such as pecan. Buttermilk sky has found a way. The crust didn’t disintegrate with each swipe of the fork. Instead, it came apart in huge hunks that held a commensurate amount of filling. But it didn’t do this because it was overly thick or burned. It remained light and buttery soft at the same time. It was a remarkable feat of pie physics, and I’m not sure I’ll ever meet another pie that measures up.​

Petro's Chili and Chips

7005 Kingston Pike, Knoxville, TN 37919

From 2000-02, I lived in Knoxville. My first real job was covering Tennessee for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. What should have been an ideal first job was complicated by the fact that my fiancé—who in 2001 became my wife—was eight hours away in Gainesville, Fla., finishing her undergraduate degree. Her next step was a physician assistant graduate program, and there weren’t any of those in Knoxville. So I spent most of my time in Knoxville lonely and frustrated that I’d eventually have to give up this great job to move back to Florida, where no one had been particularly interested in hiring me in the first place. But one thing that always made me feel better in those days was a giant Hint of Orange iced tea from Petro’s Chili and Chips.

This may sound silly, but I get very sentimental about iced tea. Great tea always brightens my mood, and there is very little brewed that comes close to the Hint of Orange tea at Petro’s. For the uninitiated, Petro’s is a small chain that sells what Texans call Frito Pie, except it comes in a cup. Diners can replace their Fritos with pasta, and that dish essentially mimics the business model of Cincinnati staple Skyline Chili. Petro’s probably should have made one of my Chains That Should Go National lists, but the edibles, while good, pale in comparison to the potables. That’s why I pulled into a Petro’s further west on Kingston Pike that afternoon. I was stuffed with ribs and sandwich and pie, but I needed that tea. In my younger days, I ordered it sweet. Now, I order unsweet and break out the yellow packets. Neither option is particularly healthy, but we pick our battles.

I sat in that little Petro’s that day let that beautiful brew wash down my throat and into my soul. I finished one cup. Then I refilled it and drank another. Then I got another refill for the drive to the hotel. And as I drove toward the sunset, I thought back to those days when a cup of Hint of Orange was a bright spot to be cherished. Those days helped get me here, and I wouldn’t trade them for all the tea in Knoxville.