It's easy to forget that good food isn't always about lauded ingredients of the moment, complex combinations, and architectural presentations gilded by elegant puddles, drops, and drizzles. The framers of the current good-food movement and its ideology—folks like James Beard and M.F.K. Fischer—were, of course, appreciative of aesthetics and rarity; but that appreciation also extended to the glories of simplicity, the joy of unadorned flavor, and food that wasn't always stacked in a tower to be besieged and made level before eating.
These notions of the straightforward are part of what makes Maryville's Miss Olivia's Table worth a visit. "If I give you some fresh Brussels sprouts, perfectly steamed—not cooked to death in boiling water—and some potatoes that are well cooked and seasoned," Miss Olivia asks, "and I present them in two separate bowls on your plate, is that not attractive enough for you to eat?" The answer, as you learn quickly, is "Yes, Miss Olivia." And that's one of the finest things about this place: There is a real, live Miss Olivia, and she's something of a character.
Still, her focus is food in the real Southern style, which she quickly defends against some incorrect assumptions: "There's a lot of misconception about Southern food—especially the idea of cooking everything all day long. My momma didn't cook green beans for 10 hours—soup beans, yes, but not green beans. Common sense tells you that you'll get mush."
Of course, for many the mere idea of well-executed Southern home-style food warrants giving the place a try—that was true enough for celebrity chef Bobby Flay, who named Miss Olivia's fried okra the best he's ever had and included the recipe in his Food Nation Cookbook.
The restaurant is located in Maryville's historic district in a beautifully restored house. There's a feel of old but comfortable grandeur in the place, and there's also a side room, bright with dappled sunlight and polished blond wood, that's an inviting and warm space to break bread.
The menu is a straightforward blend of soups, salads, and sandwiches, all of which can be served with absolutely fantastic homemade potato chips. Daily specials fill the bill with hot and hearty options that change daily, favorites like meatloaf, fried catfish, and a meltingly tender pot roast. Miss Olivia describes herself as a hearty eater, so she makes sure that her offerings—even if they're not stacked sky high—always include enough to satisfy both the eye and the appetite.
Potato Chips: It's true that mass-market potato chips are scientifically designed to make you want to eat handfuls. Miss Olivia's homemade version generates no less a craving, but you'll want to savor each one of these beautiful, crisp, and deftly seasoned chips that are made fresh daily and feature no ingredients, preservatives, or whatnots that you wouldn't have in your own kitchen. The flavor is pure potato as designed by the Almighty.
Chicken Salad: Don't roll your eyes just yet; this incarnation of the ubiquitous mix of chicken and stuff is unique, fresh, and tasty. It almost tastes deviled owing to the inclusion of pickle and a winning trifecta of peppers: green, yellow, and red. Otherwise it's a beautifully uncomplicated and refreshingly light lunch option that's served on a croissant.
Chocolate Trifle: Miss Olivia's twist on this old dessert staple is legend in Blount County, and rightfully so. The restaurant serves an excellent classic trifle, but the chocolate version, born of a very young visitor's request, will merit an OMG text message to fellow cocoa heads. Chocolate custard and chocolate syrup surround layers of dense, rich, and moist chocolate cake topped with toffee bits. If you're comfortable doing it, Miss Olivia probably won't mind if you lick the bowl.