If Everybody Could Stop Pretending Knoxville Doesn't Exist, That Would Be Great

It's the big city in Tennessee almost nobody is talking about, but Knoxville's tastiest shops and restaurants are sure to spark some delicious conversation.

Wild Love Bakehouse
Photo: Tara Kneiser

Driving along North Central Street in Knoxville, away from the heart of Tennessee's third-largest city, reassurances that you will eventually end up somewhere good are few and far between. The farther you go, the less glamorous your surroundings, not that there was much to write home about in the first place. Save for the occasional proof of life — a busy food co-op, an intriguing vintage store, an appealing old drive-in called The Original Freezo — the strip is pretty bleak. It's mostly windowless light industrial buildings, vacant lots, garish billboards on big poles, and the occasional single-family home, some in advanced states of disrepair, looking a bit like Virginia Lee Burton's Little House and certainly just as bewildered by their surroundings.

The first time I made the trek, after a morning of exploring the heart of the city on foot, I found myself slightly bewildered as well. Apparently there was a very good bakery up here somewhere, and I'd drive pretty much anywhere for a decent croissant, even Knoxville. But as blocks turned into what felt like miles, it seemed a near certainty I was headed in the wrong direction. Then, quite suddenly, there was the Wild Love Bakehouse. The place was full of people hanging around in the middle of the afternoon, nibbling at pastries and downing cappuccinos like they had no place else to be. I was curious, to say the least.

After visiting countless bakeries and coffee shops over the years (the things we do to earn a living!), I knew I hadn't been steered wrong when I entered this one. On this grayest of days, the place was practically glowing. It was bright and elegant, its clean lines quite obviously designed to make everyone who walks through the door look and feel that much prettier. The atmosphere was welcoming and cheerful, and the carefully curated selection of baked goods could not have been more up-to-the-minute. The croissant was exactly as it should have been, better than many you might try in more fashionable cities that are supposed to know better. The people working the counter were clearly not only passionate about their work, but also extremely friendly. I'd traveled to and through this city for 20 years without warming to it, but I knew right then that I would never drive past Knoxville in a hurry ever again. At the very least, I would stop long enough to buy all of the viennoiserie in sight. Sometimes, the only thing standing between ambivalence and true love is a good croissant.

Wild Love Bakehouse
Tara Kneiser

There are plenty of exceedingly popular destinations in Tennessee; Knoxville is not one of them. This is entirely understandable, because if you've traveled from another part of the country, you're likely here with a long list of things to do. Why would you waste a minute on a town with almost zero name recognition? In just under an hour from here, you can be in the Smoky Mountains, home to the country's most visited national park, or riding the roller coasters and eating all of the cinnamon bread at Dollywood. Nashville, that shameless attention-seeker, is less than three hours down the highway; Chattanooga, by now a well-oiled tourism machine, is roughly half that. Knoxville has a lot to compete against, and most of the time it feels like the city doesn't even try. Southerners are more likely aware of the city's status as a university town, but for many Americans, Knoxville remains a blank.

This is unfortunate. Knoxville is a charming place, if in years past somewhat forlorn. Walking the narrow streets, alleys, squares, and parks of the downtown, you'll quickly gather that you're in a city that's been around a pretty long time. A city that was designed rather well, actually, and then sort of left to twist in the wind during much of the last century. Even at times when much of the country was doing just fine, Knoxville seemed to be taking it on the chin, economically. With the exception of its big moment back in the '80s, when the city hosted the World's Fair (yes, the Sunsphere still stands, that ancient Simpsons episode was a lie), you probably didn't need to pay a ton of attention to a town like this. And really, when you look at the way the city tends to sprawl away from itself — quite far, actually, for a region where real estate doesn't cost all that much — it would appear that Knoxville has not always been too much in love with Knoxville. So why are the rest of us supposed to care?

Wild Love Bakehouse
Tara Kneiser

Never mind all that, really. It's time to leave the past in the past. Walk around downtown Knoxville today and you'll find yourself impressed by its classic scale. By the handsome architecture, the look and feel of the streets. By Market Square, lined European-style with bars and restaurants. While there is still plenty of room for downtown to grow, there have been small tweaks over time, little upgrades alerting you to the fact that the city is clearly making an effort. A back alley has become a canvas for an evolving collection of street art. There's a food truck park, new housing right in the middle of town, and a sparkling, modern coffee shop. This place is looking toward the future. Never mind the other, more famous cities and places in the region for a minute: Knoxville's understated cool is a welcome diversion, something slightly different from what you will find anywhere else in these parts.

With the city in such close proximity to so much else, and its strategic location directly along the busy north-south route that ferries so many I-95-avoiding travelers to points beyond, there's no reason — not anymore — why Knoxville should escape the attention of anyone entering this part of the world. Slow down, at least for a while, at least for as long as it takes to eat one of those croissants. They're extremely good. Once you arrive, there's plenty more to see, eat, and drink. Here's something of a blueprint for one very memorable day in town.

Brynn Coffee
Courtesy of Brynn Coffee

Start with a bang-up breakfast at OliBea

Knoxville has a long history, but most of it doesn't go back as far as the Old City district where OliBea is nestled. Come acquaint yourself with Jeff DeAlejandro's compelling Mexican-Southern morning menu, which is supported by particularly good local and regional ingredients.

Buy all of the whiskey-infused canelés at Paysan

Knoxville has room for more than one amazing bakery. Blake Sallie's Paysan Bread & Bagels has become so popular for baguettes and bagels, you won't want to delay your visit, because they'll sell out and close up. Part of the draw is the rather fine canelés, made with whiskey instead of rum, because Tennessee. (It works!)

Go hunting for the best coffee in town

There are plenty of coffee shops in Knoxville, but one of the best is Brynn Coffee Co. The shop roasts its own beans and operates out of a 1970s Winnebago, which you can track through its Instagram. If you're not so much into chasing and prefer your coffee shops to stand still, there's Remedy Coffee, on the same downtown-adjacent street where you'll find Paysan.

Do lunch with the nicest guy in Knoxville

Yassin Terou came to the United States from Syria in 2011, and in almost no time at all, he went from asylum seeker to one of the city's favorite restaurateurs. Yassin's Falafel House now serves out of two locations; this is easily one of Knoxville's most beloved lunch destinations.

Stop for a beer or three

One thing Knoxville isn't short on is breweries. If you're pressed for time, it's best to seek out the services of a talented curator. The Bearden Beer Market, a short drive from downtown, is one of those excellent shops that encourages drinking on-premises. This is one of the nicest beer gardens in the city.

Enjoy drinks and snacks with a pedigree

On top of all the other area distractions, Knoxville isn't far from one of the South's most exclusive small resorts, Blackberry Farm. In 2015, executive chef and Knoxville native Joseph Lenn packed up his knives to start his own restaurant, J.C. Holdway. There's no formal restaurant in Knoxville quite so up-to-date as this downtown dinner destination, where a mod-Southern menu of snacks and small plates makes a great case for an extended cocktail and wine hour. Note: Visiting hopheads in search of Blackberry Farm-brewed beers will easily find them here.

Have a an unforgettable pizza for dinner

Brian Strutz is another Blackberry Farm graduate bringing his considerable talents to the city. A Dopo is his simple spot for wood-fired sourdough pies with honest sides of local vegetables and an assortment of house-made gelatos. It may not give off the most elegant vibe (the industrial surroundings and the roar of I-40 overhead may have something to do with this), but a visit here will definitely make for a dinner to remember.

Line up for the best ice cream in town

After a day of eating and drinking your way around Knoxville, you'll likely have heard mention of Cruze Farm, which supplies the region with some of the finest dairy products around. This includes ice cream, and there's no leaving town until you try some of the best (and most creatively flavored) soft-serve in the country. If you can't make it out to the East Knoxville flagship, grab a cone at its downtown location.

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