The award-winning food at one of the country's most unusual theme parks is worth a road trip from anywhere.
The thing that had me the most excited, I'll admit, was that the restaurant was empty. I was about to order enough food for a family of four, and the fact that the only people inside Granny Ogle's Ham 'N' Beans to judge me were the friendly servers, a crew of ladies decked out in lace bonnets and floral print aprons, was going to make this exercise a whole lot less embarrassing.
My first visit to Dollywood, after all, was no pleasure cruise; I had not stepped into Granny Ogle's for a bite between roller coaster rides. I was here to eat everything on the menu, or at least close to it, in an attempt to understand why a theme park—a theme park owned by Dolly Parton, the larger-than-life country music superstar who is said to weigh roughly one hundred pounds soaking wet—could have become so well-known for its home cooking.
Granny Ogle's, which pays tribute to an important character from Parton's earlier years, sits inside one of the oldest buildings in the park, a yellow single-family (at least in appearance), set up against the steep banks of the hollow known as Craftsman's Valley, not far from a working blacksmith's and a chapel that holds Sunday evening services.
The restaurant feels more like a roadside meat and three joint, rather than a theme park fueling station—the prices, I couldn't help but notice, were extremely reasonable. I figured that for $15.99, I might go ahead and splash out on the sampler platter, which paired beef pot roast and smoked pit ham, serving them with mashed potatoes, gravy, pinto beans, turnip greens and a helping of fruit cobbler. Doing my best not to fill up before the whole exercise began, I admired but opted not to eat the warm, crusty cornbread that showed up in a cast iron skillet.
Within minutes, Shana, my efficient server, brought out a piled-high plate, offering up a side of chowchow, that delightful pickled condiment that you don’t see enough of, outside of the South. I gladly accepted, wondering aloud if she might also ask the kitchen for a small piece of the meatloaf, which the menu described as famous, which of course meant I had to try it.
Shana didn't blink, returning almost immediately with yet another cast iron skillet, this one containing what the restaurant calls the Meatloaf Stacker. Sold for $13.99, it's the largest slab of meatloaf I've seen in a restaurant in a long time, sitting on top of cornbread and pillows of mashed potatoes in a lake of pinto beans, all drowned in brown gravy.
I'm ruined, I thought—and I hadn't even taken a bite. Digging in only made me worry more. I'd actually showed up hungry, hardly daring to touch my breakfast—there was no chance I wasn't going to show up to this assignment ravenous. I'd figured I'd pick through everything and then move on to the next meal. Problem was, the food in front of me right now wasn't just good—I'd go as far as calling much of it exceptional.
The pot roast was pulled, tender, doused in rich gravy. The pit ham was also pulled, gorgeous in its not-too-salty, naked simplicity. I wiped both of them out, and quickly; the ham, I felt, went exceptionally well with the chowchow, which also quickly disappeared. Turnip greens had been cooked within an inch of their life, as is the local custom. Gone was much of the customary bitterness—they weren't overly seasoned or terribly distinctive, but once again, I couldn't help but eat them all. The pinto beans were beautifully straightforward, perfectly cooked, classic, a total throwback.
A healthy portion of coleslaw, which I was not expecting, provided a cooling break from the rest of the plate. Flecked with scallions and boasting just the right balance of cream and vinegar, it was the kind of coleslaw you always want, but seldom get. Only the mashed potato, which, if it was real, sure was doing a good job of covering that fact up, was a miss—frankly, I was relieved to have found somewhere to stop. Except that I had barely touched my meatloaf. A few bites in, even though it was pretty tasty, I figured I might just call it quits. (The pot roast and ham were better.)
"Don't forget cobbler comes with that," said Shana. I groaned, inwardly. My choices that day were apple and blackberry, and I went for the latter. A healthy portion of what tasted more like a slice of pie crumbled into a cup and warmed up (and topped with a bit of vanilla bean ice cream) was brought to the table—I liked it a lot, but it tasted more like a commercially baked pie than I'd have expected. After a few bites, I pushed it aside and contemplated the untouched skillet of cornbread, because you can't come South and not try the cornbread. I dutifully cut a piece the size of a quarter. Southern to the core, without a whisper of sugar, salty, crunchy with cornmeal and baked just right, it was a thing of stark beauty. I think I ate about a third of the skillet, while waiting for my check.
I stumbled out into the late fall sunshine, "Noel, Noel" blasting from the overhead speakers a reminder that Christmas was just around the corner. I felt good, happy even, the way you should feel after a good meal, but clueless as to how I was going to eat anything else that afternoon. Clearly, I was going to have to learn how to pace myself better.
It really took just the one meal to see why Dollywood's food so easily snaps up those Golden Ticket Awards—these are sort of like the Oscars of the theme park industry. You or I may not read the magazine Amusement Today, which created the awards, but the industry does, and Dollywood is very proud of its standings; out of the last seven years, their food has placed first four times. This makes a great deal of sense—the lunch I'd just eaten (well, the better part of two lunches, actually) didn't feel like theme park food. It felt real, it was something I'd love to eat anywhere—quite often, actually, at those prices. (Affordability is a recurring theme here—day admission is $69 for adults, and an annual pass is just a little more than $100.)
In hopes of regaining any kind of appetite, I set out on foot to explore the entirety of the park. I knew enough about Dollywood and about Pigeon Forge, Tenn., where the park is located, to know that this was no mere roadside attraction—the town, just a few miles from Gatlinburg and the gates to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is one of the most popular travel destinations in North America; as a result, Dollywood has grown significantly over the years, particularly in the thrills department—at its core now, besides all the other things that it does very well, Dollywood is a roller coaster park. The Wild Eagle, located at the park's highest point, is the world's first wing coaster, soaring 21 stories up and, from the sound of it, scaring the hell out of a lot of the people riding the thing.
Doing a full loop through Dollywood's 150 acres, through the ten different themed areas, turned out to be about a 2.5 mile walk, according to my pedometer—wandering through the park's rather magnificent Southern Gospel Museum & Hall of Fame, which featured an animatronic quartet soulfully singing "He's The Lily of The Valley," I realized that I might actually be ready to eat again. You know, just a little nibble of something.
Beating visitors over the head with edible offerings right as they walk into your park is nothing new to the theme park business—there's such a charm, however, an authenticity, to the food here, it's awfully difficult to say no to many of the offerings. Entering through the front gates, you're confronted on one hand with the Sweet Shoppe, where they make fudge and pull taffy and exciting things like potato candy; across the way is the Spotlight Bakery, where a 25 lb. apple pie sits in a cast iron skillet behind glass—the thing is so big, a slice is $18.99. Cinnamon rolls are fluffy, drowned in proper glaze. Being Christmas, there are cookies galore.
But there are bigger prizes to claim—nearby, next to the Dolly's Closet boutique ("Her Style, Your Size!"), Frannie's Food Truck serves up one of the park's most popular items, a fried chicken sandwich. The secret, as I'd heard Dolly say on TV once, is that they marinate the chicken in pickle brine for six to eight hours. Whatever they're doing, it works. I was more excited, however, for the funnel cake.
Sold at Crossroads, most likely named for its location at the heart of the rather uniquely-shaped park, Dollywood's funnel cakes are considered some of the best in the industry, and I couldn't wait to try one. You can get them topped with all sorts of sweet stuff, Reese's cups, cream cheese icing, what have you, but I was interested in the core cake experience—I even asked for no powdered sugar, which the cashier found rather perplexing at first. Mine came made to order, well-drained and crisp. Given what most people put on top of their cakes, it made sense that there was almost no detectable sugar in the cake batter—this was a beautiful specimen of fried dough like I'd never seen. I might have known what to expect after the mishap with the extremely tasty cornbread; one bite turned into two, into three, into four; before I knew it, the thing was half gone, and I regretted nothing. I'd paid only $6.99 and it could have fed two people, easily.
Even more famous than the funnel cake, however, is the park's cinnamon bread, baked fresh daily and sold at the fully operating Grist Mill, back up Craftsman's Valley. It comes as a pull-apart loaf, kind of like monkey bread, but even simpler, drenched in butter and topped with a cinnamon sugar blend. Again, it's just $6.99 for a loaf, which could serve more than two people this time, depending on their level of hunger; for 75 cents, you can get a cup of the park's famous apple butter. The bread was very good—my loaf was ever so slightly underbaked, but crispy around the outside with the cinnamon sugar. The bread itself was the real deal, properly handmade. You have to really enjoy sugar to eat the whole thing, but that's only a minor quibble.
At this point, I could have walked out of the park happy, but there was so much more to consider; I decided to visit the park's two buffets without eating; luckily, the hosts were kind enough to let me walk through and take a look. The flagship is Aunt Granny's, a nod to Dolly's family nickname; I can see how it would be a hit with kids, what with its taco bar, soft serve machine and macaroni and cheese; even as an adult I loved the vegetables on offer—roasted squash and Brussels sprouts, for starters.
I was more impressed by Miss Lillian's, not only because Miss Lillian herself, a long-time Dollywood fixture, was serenading a young customer with her trademark banjo-uke and her lovely singing voice, but also because of the whole carvery set-up over at the buffet—sausage links, roast beef, ham, the works. Both buffets, I felt, were extraordinary value for $16.99. While I did eat a pile of the slow-smoked smoked pork butt (so simple, so good) from the take-out window around the corner, I was doing my best to save what little space I had left for the park's newest, and most talked about restaurant—the new-for-2017 Front Porch Café.
The menu, I'd already seen on the way in—there was a burger, a country fried steak, a Reuben; while it all sounded nice enough, I wasn't sure if it was essential; it looked like a competent Southern café menu. And then I saw—or, if I'm being honest, I was alerted to—the Cornish game hen. There it was, buried down at the bottom, between the grilled pork chop and ham dinners. Herb-roasted and served with a cornbread dressing, green beans, sweet potato casserole and a garlic cheddar biscuit. A whole Cornish game hen, mind you. The entire dinner was going for $14.99. This, I had to see.
The Front Porch Café occupies the space that used to be home to the prominent Backstage Restaurant. Converted to a bright, relatively spare and modern space, they're proud of their provisioning here. There's Benton's ham and bacon on top of the Smoky Mountain Salad, because we're in Tennessee, and why not; breads are largely baked in-house, there's local cheddar on the burger.
The more I studied the menu, and upon further deliberation with Koke, my hospitable server, it seemed wise to be brave and order more. The restaurant was busy, unlike where I'd eaten lunch, but at this point, I was too far gone to care what anyone thought of me. There would be, as well, pimento cheese, hand-cut and battered onion rings, fried green tomatoes served with homemade buttermilk ranch dip. And, once again, because there was meatloaf (and, I was assured, an entirely different meatloaf from the one I'd tried hours earlier), I ordered that, too.
It all came out—once again—at lightning speed; the game hen was one of the biggest I'd ever seen, cooked just right, a great-tasting bird that needed no real dressing up. The sweet potato casserole was studded with pecans and shot through with ample amounts of cinnamon, sugar and butter. (Not only was I eating my vegetables, I was getting a very good pecan roll for dessert.)
The pimento cheese was cleverly deconstructed, a pile of shaved cheddar on top allowed you to regulate the levels to your liking; a mound of garlic toasts turned this into a dish that'd be the star of any party, anywhere. The fried green tomatoes and onion rings were nice, but not as distinguished as I'd hoped, given the way they were talked up; the tomato itself was a slippery sliver under too much breading—the ratios needed work.
But then, the meatloaf. Not just any meatloaf, but Dolly's favorite thing on the menu here, apparently, along with the pimento cheese, but let's be serious, if Dolly's eating any of this stuff, it's maybe a bite or two. Which is what I thought I'd be able to manage with the meatloaf. Once again—false. Crusty around the outside, rich with meat but almost pillowy on the inside, with just a hint of mustard in the mix, it was, by far, the most distinguished meatloaf I've had in years. I pressed the creamy horseradish sauce that came with the onion rings into service, resulting in one of the best accidental pairings you could ever possibly hope for. And, once again, I ate too much.
"How about some banana pudding," said Koke, as I tried pushing everything away from me, in my mind sending it as far as it would go without landing on the floor. "It's Dolly's recipe, you know."
I wanted to. I still want to. In that moment, however, I could do no more. I walked out of the park, drove up into the mountains, far from civilization, got out of the car and headed toward the sunset. At that point, I bet I could have walked clear over the Smokies and out to the Atlantic Ocean before being hungry again.