My first experiences in East Tennessee years ago included a full day at Dolly Parton's Southern-style theme park, Dollywood, my introduction to sweet tea, and a traffic jam in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park because of a bear climbing a tree. So, on a recent trip to Knoxville, I was surprised to find a city with fabulous restaurants and a thriving arts community ... and not a bear in sight.
On the first day, my boyfriend Eric and I ate at La Costa, a cozy restaurant located on Market Square. The menu featured lots of vegetarian options, so I ordered a delectable oven-roasted sweet-potato burrito with roasted eggplant, blackened tofu, goat cheese, and toasted pecan vinaigrette, with an incredible cilantro cabbage slaw. My boyfriend chose a smoked duck-breast salad over field greens with honey-chipotle vinaigrette, Granny Smith apples, goat cheese, and toasted almonds. Our waiter was really cool and gave us some inside tips on the music scene in the city.
After lunch, we discovered Yee-Haw Industries, a letterpress art print shop and creative studio. A poster from a concert at Young Avenue Deli pasted on the ceiling caught my eye, and we chatted for a minute with Adam Hickman Ewing. The artists' process is done almost completely by hand. They start by sketching on paper (gasp!) and then hand-carve the design into wood or linoleum blocks.
Walking into the Magpies Bakery was like a trip to Disneyland for cake lovers. In the colorful baking area, several decorators worked feverishly and intently. A sample tray offered up mini cupcakes for the tasting. When I stopped chewing long enough to ask owner Peggy Hambright about her business, she told me that the bakery is "going green" by using Green Car & Courier, a bio-fueled fleet service, to make all deliveries. I decided to help out their sustainability efforts and eat another cupcake, so they wouldn't waste any at the end of the day.
The next morning, we slept in and decided against the hotel coffee, especially since Old City Java, a funky coffeehouse on South Central Avenue, was just a couple of blocks away. Around the corner was Gay Street, with several art galleries and boutique shops, many in restored, turn-of-the century warehouses. On our way to lunch, we stopped by Art in Public Places, a large-scale outdoor sculpture exhibit, and my boyfriend convinced me to climb onto a giant metal chair. Luckily, the cop parked right behind us didn't even notice.
The Knoxville Visitor Center isn't just a spot to pick up souvenirs and a city map. It houses a café, the WDVX radio station, and, on Fridays, live music. We ate chopped salads to the music of Christabel and the Jons, a hip young jazz band with vintage outfits and lots of soul.
While there, we visited DJ Grace Leach in the announcer's booth. "I've been with the radio station since the days when it was housed in a trailer," she said. "I pretty much come with the woodwork."
Dinner was at Nama Sushi Bar, a swanky restaurant on South Gay Street. We started with wasabi hummus with pine nuts. Our tongues survived, and we ordered sushi. Eric decided to try the chef's special.
"The chef loves it when customers order the special, because she gets to create something completely one-of-a-kind," our waitress said.
The menu was loaded with vegetarian options, so I decided to try the veggie futo roll, with asparagus, snow peas, carrots, tomatoes, spring mix, pickled gourd, cucumber, zucchini, gobo, daikon radish, sprouts, and wakame wrapped with mame nori. I didn't understand half of what I was eating, but it tasted great, and I didn't miss the fish.
For dessert, we visited Schakolad Chocolate Factory, owned by Gus Paredes and his family. He and his two teenage daughters welcomed us graciously with cool, bubbling champagne in chocolate-lined glasses and let us go behind the counter, pull on gloves, and try making some chocolate candies. It turned out chocolate is easier to eat than make, and we decided to purchase Paredes' skillful concoctions and left the candies we made to cool on the counter.
Our last meal of the trip was lunch at Litton's Market, Restaurant and Bakery. We were told to save room for their desserts, which was an easy tip to remember, since the dessert cases hypnotized us the moment we walked in. The co-owner, Lynda Jones, was back in the kitchen, making everything — salad dressing, hamburger buns, mashed potatoes — from scratch.
"We use real butter, real sugar," she said. "Don't ask me about calories. That's not my job!"
We followed her advice and in blissful ignorance devoured a slice of chocolate malt cheesecake.
Thank goodness the airlines haven't gotten to the point of weighing passengers and charging more for people who take a weekend trip and come back with a few extra pounds. We wouldn't have been able to afford to get on the plane, which might have not been such a bad thing. I think Magpies was open late that day.