To find the best restaurants in Knoxville, it’s best to ask the locals, and all the locals are typically hanging out at this iconic cafe where the country breakfasts—think biscuits, sausage gravy, chicken-fried steak, and hashbrowns—are the stuff of legend. You’ll likely encounter a line when you get there, but isn’t that a sign that you’ve come to the right place? If, by some miracle, you manage to save room for dessert, the coconut pie is an excellent choice. Of course, the famously friendly waitresses will probably just tell you what to order, and if you’re smart, you’ll let them.
Reading the online reviews for Emilia, you might think the restaurant’s chefs are nothing short of miracle workers. They’re routinely turning beet-haters into beet-lovers and making pork-abstainers reconsider after one bite of the house bolognese. But in reality, the magic lies in the kitchen’s simple, seasonal approach that lets ingredients shine and values freshness above all else. As such, seafood is an excellent option here, whether you go with the Genovese fisherman’s stew or the grilled Spanish octopus with cannellini bean puree, but the house-made pastas are the real stars of the menu and the dishes most likely to make an appearance in your dreams.
Leave it to Knoxville restaurants to take a time-honored tradition like Neapolitan pizza and completely reform it . . . for the better! The pizza here is authentically Italian in almost every way, from the wood-burning oven to the imported flour and olive oil. But it differs in one very important respect: the addition of a sourdough starter as a natural leavening agent makes these pies unbelievably light and airy, and puts them in a class all their own. Try yours topped with melty ‘nduja sausage and mushrooms or dressed simply with roma tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, purple and green basil, and a mascarpone cream sauce, and then get ready to tell all your Chicago and New York friends that their pies have nothing over the pies down in Knoxville.
At just $1.29 a pop, Taqueria El Herradero’s tacos are some of the cheapest in town, which is why it’s so astounding that they also happen to be some of the best. The operation first gained a loyal following as a food truck, but has now expanded to include a sit-down restaurant where visitors are treated to a salsa bar they can use to dress up their chicken, carne asada, or spicy al pastor tacos. The smoky red and green salsas are a longtime favorite, but the pickled carrots add a crunch that provides a nice complement to the perfectly seasoned and tender meat, especially when the whole thing is finished with a bright squeeze of lime juice and washed down with a creamy horchata.
You’ll find an excellent number of steakhouse restaurants in Knoxville, TN, ranging from expensive national chains like Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse to enduring local spots like the aptly named Ye Olde Steakhouse. But for an experience that strikes a perfect balance between high-end and down-home, look no further than Connors Steak & Seafood, where the steaks are always perfectly cooked and the lobster bisque has a cult following. Here, you’ll find all the classic steakhouse accoutrements, from creamed spinach to jumbo shrimp cocktail, but the menu is also peppered with Southern touches such as fried green tomatoes and creamy cheese grits so that you never forget where you are. Of course, with the staff doling out Southern hospitality at its finest, that would be pretty hard to do.
While the craft burgers trend seemingly has run its course across the rest of the country, it holds strong at Stock & Barrel, thanks in part to the quality of the ingredients, which include beef sourced from Mitchell Family Farms in Blaine, TN. Of course, it also helps that the burgers come in mouth-watering varieties like the Black & Blue (buttermilk bleu cheese fondue, Benton’s bacon, crispy onions, blackening spice) or the Hurt Locker (pimento cheese, bourbon onion, fried green tomatoes, more Benton’s bacon). But if you really want to go whole hog on your Southern burger, we’d go with the Elvis, which comes topped with fried bananas (yep), peanut butter (uh-huh), and—yes, you guessed it—some more Benton’s bacon. Outrageous? Sure, but if it was good enough for the King . . . Oh, and don’t forget to order a side of fried pickles—they’re a crowd favorite.