The first glimpse of the towering golden ball known as the Sunsphere serves as historic Knoxville, Tennessee’s beacon, signaling to hungry drivers on I-40 East they’re headed to the right place. Home of the Tennessee Volunteers, Knoxville is home to more than 90 restaurants, most locally-owned, within a square mile of downtown Knoxville and nearly 25 breweries throughout the city. The intense 24-hour itinerary below focuses on areas downtown (or within a very short drive of downtown) and strives to help diners get the most out of the city. It’s easy to learn why Knox really rocks, starting with these restaurants and bars.
Breakfast at OliBea
Start your day off right with this favorite in the Old City, a historic downtown neighborhood that was once a hub of shops, markets, and street vendors. Among the neighborhood’s bars, restaurants, and live music spots, OliBea shows off the best of Knoxville ingredients for breakfast, like the Tennessee biscuit with ham from chef Jeff’s HenHoc Butcher and Deli; a veggie monster burrito with collards; and a Japanese-style sando stuffed with a queso omelet and fried pickle-brined tofu.
Coffee at Old City Java
Keep exploring the Old City with this quintessentially quirky neighborhood coffee shop that’s as approachable as it gets (the same can’t be said for all of the city’s coffee houses). Settle in the cozy alleyway with an okolu blend or matcha and croissant before heading on to lunch.
Soul food lunch at Jackie’s Dream
This comforting soul food restaurant is worth the slight trek to North Knoxville for a true locals lunch. Jackie’s Dream was the lifelong dream of owner Jackie Griffin, who has translated her family recipes for the restaurant’s menu, from Nanny Mary’s fried green tomatoes and Aunt Maimie’s candied yams to Grandaddy C.D.’s collard green and Mama’s mac and cheese.
Beers and barbecue at Sweet P’s Barbecue and Downtown Dive
Head back downtown to the arts district for a drink at Sweet P’s, Knoxville’s perfect union of American dive bar and barbecue joint. The spacious beer garden makes for a relaxed afternoon destination for drinks and snacks like pimiento cheese, and if you’re still full from lunch, just enjoy the delicious smoky scent that surrounds (or have a slice of chocolate chess pie — there’s always room for dessert, right?). Fun fact: this spot owns the World’s Fair logo and is full of kitchy collectibles.
Cocktails and charcuterie at The Drawing Room
After a down-home day of comfort food, barbecue, and beers, it might be time to class it up at the Drawing Room. Located inside The Tennessean Hotel, diners can sit and gaze from the floor-to-ceiling windows at the infamous golden Sunsphere towering above World’s Fair Park just across the street. Daily charcuterie and the daily seasonal menus are paired with craft cocktails aplenty. Note: The Drawing Room offers high tea service, one of the only in town, for holidays and other special dates.
Dinner at J.C. Holdway
If you only have one meal in Knoxville, this should be the one. Chef Joseph Lenn, who was awarded by the James Beard Foundation for Best Chef Southeast, focuses on wood-fired Appalachian flavors for Southern favorites like hushpuppies, pimento cheese, and chicken wings topped with Alabama white sauce. Paired with an impressive beverage list, J.C. Holdway’s sun-soaked destination in downtown Knoxville is simple, familiar food done incredibly well.
After-dinner drinks at Tern Club
Finish off the night with a drink from Tern Club, the hip downtown oasis for tropical food and drink. While the idea is to get turned up at this tiki joint (customers can only order one Zombie, if that offers perspective), there are also excellent non-alcoholic drinks, made with as much care as a regular cocktail. If that Zombie hits too hard, there’s a short list of bites to help sop it up, like cheesy Cuban mulitas (kitchen closes at 10 p.m.).
Live music and whiskey at Boyd’s Jig and Reel
Nearly 1000 whiskies grace the bar at this Scottish haunt, where catching live music is a given, may it be a big show or a pub session. The latter is part of what makes this spot so special; when the pub opens up various types of jam sessions to all lovers and players of music (Irish music, Bluegrass, string instruments, etc.). Work up an appetite jamming? Savor traditional Scottish dishes like Scotch eggs, fish and chips, or haggis, neeps, and tatties, just to say you tried it.