YE OLDE STEAKHOUSE
An eternal favorite among Knoxvillians, Ye Olde Steakhouse maintains its popularity despite a slightly awkward, out-of-the-way location, placed as it is a ways down Chapman Highway just off the side of the road. Says one wistful MP staffer: "The whole place smells like burnt grease; not old, musty grease-trap grease, but delicious, smoky, just-dripped-fresh-off-the-steak kinda grease. And it's rustic to a flaw; hardly a hint inside, except for the Vol wall-hangings and the putrid plastic flowers, that you're in the 20th century, much less the 21st." Also renowned for preparing your slab 'o moo at perfect temperature. We'd advise staying away on fall UT game nights and prom nights in April, however, 'cause Ye Olde Steakhouse gets Mightye Busye Thenne.
(Runners Up: Outback, The Chop House)
Best Seafood Restaurant
When people talk about downtown restaurants, they often forget to mention Chesapeake's. It's not on the riverfront, or in the Old City, or on Market Square or Gay Street. It's off on its own, tucked discreetly out of the way (its address is Henley Street—it actually faces a little alley that appears to be an extension of Summer Place—but the easiest way to get there is from Locust). But when folks want a big fancy seafood dinner of lobster or salmon or trout, they don't forget to go there. Chesapeake's has never seemed to flag in quality or popularity since it opened about 25 years ago, thanks to good food and a bright, attentive staff. It's a big place, but even on a weeknight you may need a reservation.
(Runners Up: Red Lobster, Regas Riverside)
Well, uh, they certainly are popular, folks. Buddy's sweeps the barbecue category by a considerable margin, as it has done many times before. Service is quick, and you always know what you're getting. The side items are particularly fresh and appetizing, especially the hushpuppies, which boast of Buddy's own distinctive flavorings.
(Runners Up: Calhoun's Restaurant, Corky's Ribs and BBQ)
Another instance where the second place winner was so far behind, it could scarcely see the tail-end of first. The Mike Chase-owned emporium boasts that it has the best ribs in the whole known entire civilized universe, or some such thing, and while I don't know whether I would quite go that far, I will testify that them's some purty tasty bones. My own fave's the combo platter, with a greasy red slab nestled up against a tangy piece of bird, complemented by an over-sized baker or a salty passel of fries. Ask for extra wet-naps, and wear an old shirt.
(Runners Up: Corky's Ribs and BBQ, Tony Roma's Famous for Ribs)
Fell in love with a girl that worked at Nixon's once. She used to smile and make me free sandwiches. Then she spurned me and broke my heart (sob!). Time heals all wounds, however, and I don't really remember the girl all that much now. But I do remember the sandwiches, and they were so good that I still pop by one of its locations for a pizza sub now and again. The ingredients are all fresh, and the seasonings tasty. But be warned: If a pretty girl behind the counter smiles as she hands you your sandwich, just turn and walk away.
(Runners Up: Harold's Kosher Style Food Center, Sam & Andy's)
The indomitable Tomato Head has had a lock on this category since we started asking y'all this question, and even today no one else comes close for imaginative pizza. We haven't done the math because we're mostly English majors and don't remember how to calculate permutations, but we can safely say that Tomato Head's two-dozen toppings make for at least a jillion different combinations. The 11-year-old Market Square restaurant is one of only a few Knoxville restaurants that have a reputation outside of the nine-county area, which isn't surprising, because there's no place just like it in the world. Since the last time it won (last year, of course), Tomato Head has been renovated at city expense, after an earth-moving project next door undermined a wall and threatened to doom the building. Now with big southern windows, it's even sunny.
(Runners Up: Mellow Mushroom, Pizza Hut)
Rapidly rising to top rank amongst delivery pizzas since its inception just a few years back, Papa John's serves a thick 'n' tasty pie with a gentle, tangy sauce and a particularly flavorful crust. Delivery is always reasonably quick, but what really sets Papa's apart is its inclusion of that delicious garlic butter sauce in its pizza boxes, which makes for compulsive dipping. (I always ask for extra.) In the years since, several competitors have tried to follow suit, but there's still nothing like the original. 'Nuff said.
(Runners Up: Pizza Hut, Domino's)
They're bigger than most, for one thing—full, bountiful appendages of succulent flesh, glistening with droplets of delectable moisture, ripe for...Hey! Pay attention! We're talking about the chicken wings here, not the nubile, scantily-clad waitresses. Keep your mind out of the gutter.
OK, so Hooters is just as well-known for the skimpy tank-tops-and-hot-pants uniform its waitresses wear as it is for its wings. But that doesn't mean the wings don't deserve attention. All jokes aside, they are bigger than any other hot wings anywhere, and they're prepared with a full load of tangy, orange-tinted wing sauce and deep-fry batter that other wing joints could learn a thing or two about.
Just remember: the waitresses are friendly because it's their job.
(Runners Up: Spicy's, Bull Feathers)
Their eyes met over a table heaped high with salads from O'Charley's. "Which shall we choose?" he asked, while images of dripping dressing soaked his hungry mind. "I crave a southern fried chicken," she replied, voice husky from thoughts of deep-fried chicken tenders, cheese, tomatoes, mushroom and crisp lettuce, topped by the scrumptious honey mustard. "Black and bleu. Always black and bleu," he muttered. "I need to stick my fork into romaine and sliced blackened sirloin, tomatoes, bacon and bleu cheese. Now."
And so they ate, with abandon.
(Runners Up: Aubrey's, Ruby Tuesday)
With three locations to serve you—in Farragut, Bearden, and, now, on the Strip—El Charro offers mucho Mexican in all parts of town. From salsas rated by heat level (ranging from fiery habanero to mild jalapeno) to fried ice cream and sopapillas, El Charro's treats are muy bueno. Try their Speedy Gonzales lunch specials or their traditional home-cooked entrees like Mole Do–a Juanita, a chicken stewed in red chile sauce served with rice beans and tortillas. Or the carnitas in salsa verde. Or the veggie burritos. And wash it down with an ice cold Tecate. It's almost like being south of the border.
(Runners Up: Cozymel, Cancun)
Best Middle Eastern
Where else but Knoxville (South Knoxville, to be specific) could you eat authentic Egyptian food, listen to owner Mo Girgis crack corny jokes, watch his magic tricks, and then wind down the evening with a little karaoke? King Tut's is technically only a Middle Eastern restaurant on Wednesday evenings (the rest of the week it serves more American fare). The food is great, there's no doubt about it. But what keeps people coming back is the owner. You must meet Mo for yourself to understand. He is the floor show.
(Runners Up: Falafel Hut, Ali Baba's Time Out Deli)
Unfortunately, Chinese restaurants have become something of a cliché in this country—all of them serving up bland variations of moo goo gai pan, chow mein, sweet-and-sour, and egg rolls. Stir Fry isn't your traditional Chinese or Thai restaurant. Owner Kenny Siao puts ingenious twists on his dishes (try one of his Asian burritos for lunch sometime). All of it is superb.
(Runners Up: Mandarin House, Miyabi)
Best Italian, Best Romantic Atmosphere
Ahh, the rich, tomato-drenched smells of Italian cooking, the sensual textures of the food, the dim, flickering candlelight, a glass of wine...It seems shameless to talk openly about the pleasures of a romantic dinner for two at Naples, Knoxville's favorite for both Italian cuisine and atmosphere d'amor. But talk openly we shall, for Naples has won both categories yet again, and it's just not fair to let priggish inhibitions keep the world from knowing just how sexy dining out can be.
(Best Italian Runners Up: Italian Market and Grill, Carrabbas Italian Grill; Best Romantic Atmosphere Runners Up: The Orangery, the Melting Pot)
Best Coffee House
Coffee Houses: Despite the proliferation of this late 20th century phenomenon, it's pretty tough to get a decent cup of joe here. You'd think places that specialize in coffee would have good coffee, but brewing a java is a complicated matter, with the bean, the roast, the grind, brewing method, water, filtration and many other factors all playing an intricate role. On top of that, there's the atmosphere, which can wreck the enjoyment of your brew. Java comes out on top perhaps because they're one of the veterans of the scene. They start with the basics—a good cup of joe, offering several varieties. And they create a nice, friendly atmosphere where people feel free to read or chat for hours. Java survived the demise of its old neighbor, the Terrace art movie house, which must have drawn lots of pre- and post-movie customers. They must be doing something right.
(Runners Up: Cup-A-Joe, Golden Roast)
HAM 'N' GOODIES
Ham 'n' Goodies knocked out all other contenders with a mighty blow from its ham-fists, doubling the numbers that both of the runners up received. It's no wonder—where else can you get a honeybaked wonder and a box full of tender, tasty sweets? Nowhere. It's one-stop shopping when you need to get a satisfying dinner on the table with minimum fuss.
(Runners Up: Panera, Rita's)
Best Sunday Brunch
ITALIAN MARKET AND GRILL
If every meal were a Sunday brunch, we'd all be too stuffed to actually get anything done. Not that that's a bad thing—especially when you're talking about the Italian Market and Grill's Sunday brunch, a mile-long buffet full of all of the good eats you crave. From a carving station to warmer after warmer full of any number of delights, such as a seafood pasta delicately seasoned with dill, to home fries, to four kinds of scrambled eggs, to tiramisœ, to....we're drooling just thinking about it...
(Runners Up: Copper Cellar, Hyatt)
Another perennial landslide winner, Mandarin House had nearly four times as many votes as the runner up in this category. How to explain such complete and absolute dominion over other buffets? Well, there's the sheer scope of the offerings: Start with a plate of steamed rice and vegetables, and then there's a little bit—well, a lot, actually—of everything to go with it. Beef, chicken, vegetables, teriyaki, stir-fry, soup, spicy, mild. If you want it, Mandarin House has it. All you want of it. And more.
(Runners Up: Great American Buffet, Number One China Buffet)
Best Sandwich, Best Bakery
They can really make them. Those in-house baked breads are scrumptious, and the soup in a bread bowl is practically a sandwich itself. Now with three locations, Panera has made a mark up there in two-slab heaven that's going to be tough to reach. And besides the breads, which they call "our passion, soul and expertise," they put together a passel of mouth-watering pastries and firm, flavorful bagels. What's more, the flagship location is only two doors down from the Marb...oh, sorry, see the next category.
(Best Sandwich Runners Up: Subway, Sam & Andy's; Best Bakery Runners Up: Old Mill, Hogan's)
Best Ice Cream
If you haven't taken a number and stood in line for Marble Slab's ice cream treats, put together before your bugged-out eyes from their huge assortment of flavors and extra-fresh ingredients, you probably wouldn't believe there is any sweet in the world worth the wait. Just try to give up and leave once you've had an eyeful of the delights behind the counter. There's a reason for those lines of eager people. Ice cream just doesn't get any better than this. If this is really a chain, chain me in.
(Runners Up: Baskin Robbins, Smoothie King)
Best Burger, Best Diner
You can argue this 'til the cows come home, but Litton's "10" Burger is beyond compare, and it has been since those days of yore when the venue was a butcher shop with a couple of tables. Now the culinary anchor of Fountain City, the reputation of Barry Litton's place is more than secure. How anybody ever got the idea it's a diner is another matter entirely. But by any description, it's got the best hamburgers you're likely to find anywhere. That's A-N-Y-W-H-E-R-E.
(Best Burger Runners Up: Back Yard, Bel Air; Best Diner Runners Up: Pete's, Chop's Grill)
Best Lunch Spot, Best Vegetarian Menu
Sunspot on the Strip cleans up in two big categories this year, a testament to its hip but relaxed ambiance (ask for the Elvis table), and especially its varied and unfailingly delicious offerings. From your basic burgers through exotic fish platters to the Orion's Belt blackened tofu sandwich, all available with curly fries, Sunspot literally has something for everyone. Add in fast, friendly service, and you've got an ideal lunch break. And the daily vegetarian specials, combined with a half-vegetarian menu (including the vegan Ceasar dressing), make it a favorite for the non-carnivorous as well. Oh, and don't forget the beer selection—although you may want to hold off at lunchtime, unless you're dining with the boss...
(Best Lunch Spot Runners Up: Panera, Tomato Head; Best Vegetarian Menu Runners Up: Tomato Head, Crescent Moon)
Best Gourmet, Best Wine List
Even if your idea of a gourmet meal is some Kraft mac and cheese washed down with a PBR, the Orangery can show you the joy of eating real food well-prepared. While this Bearden restaurant may intimidate the uninitiated, its dishes are truly sublime, with subtle variations in flavor and texture even a non-gourmand could discern and enjoy. The wine list is to die for; paired with these well-crafted dishes, a bottle of the grape will simply sing. Get over any lingering fears of fine food, toss on a jacket and tie, and step over to a place that cooks up some great victuals.
(Best Gourmet Runners Up: Mango, Bistro by the Tracks; Best Wine List Runners Up: Naples, Copper Cellar)
Best Beer Selection
Well, of course. If it's got barley in it, chances are Barley's has it. Barley's serves 40 varieties of beer; the place needs an extra-long bar just to have space for the taps. Nothing goes better with lagers and ales than generous servings of pizza and lots of live acoustic, most of it bluegrass, with high-class pool tables upstairs. (They're open nearly all the time; they didn't get the memo that Old City joints are supposed to close on Sunday nights.)
(Runners Up: City Brew, Union Jack's)
Best New Restaurant
Randy Burleson—restaurateur behind two other best-of winners, Aubrey's and Sunspot—has hit our reader's tummies with his latest eatery, Little City. Located just across the street from Farragut's Aubrey's, this new place has
earned its reputation for innovative combinations that please the palate. Try the tender tilapia with some white cheddar grits. Dip into some red pepper hummus. Finish off with a cool slice of white chocolate banana cream pie. You just can't miss when his skilled staff step behind the stove and heat up.
(Runners Up: Tennessee Grill, Sitar)