Best Post-Bar Food
ROCKY TOP MARKET, 2001 CUMBERLAND AVENUE
I confess, I've stumbled dazed and bleary-eyed into most every local eating establishment that serves any kind of chow after 3 a.m. And I'm here to tell you—the choices mostly suck. If I have to eat one more limp Krystal dime-burger off the dashboard of my car, suffer through even one more plate of charred, soggy breakfast remains at the carnival freak-show of humanity that is the Waffle House circa the wee morning hours, I'm gonna hurl. And then there's Taco Bell, which always seems like such a good idea when you're on the way there, and like such a bad idea when you leave.
For truly appetizing late-night food—and this is not a put-on—try the Rocky Top Market on Cumberland Ave. That's right, the same Rocky Top that is the Strip's favorite gathering spot for beat-the-beer-deadliners. The Rocky Top folks are quasi-famous for their "Rooster" sandwich, a fried chicken patty with various trimmings. Do yourself a favor and order yours Cajun-style, with a slice o' cheese. The hoagie sandwich is a tasty, messy treat, and the chicken wings are nothing short of fab. (I was a doubter, too, until a friend busted my proverbial cherry and bought my first dozen 'n' fries for me.) If there are no buttermilk ranch dressing packets available behind the counter, ask for blue cheese for proper dousing.
Nothing on the menu sucks; you'll not only thank me when you've polished off your late-night treats, you'll thank me even more when you wake up the next morning and spend less than half your day perched on the porcelain throne.
(Runners Up: Vic 'n' Bills deli, the Old City hot-dog man.)
Best Place to Spend Any Evening
I thought about calling this Best Widely Believed Lie. When people tell it, they use a very odd metaphor: that we "roll up the sidewalks after 5 p.m." As much as I'd like to witness that process, just for the spectacle of it, I have to say I'm glad they don't do it on a regular basis. Because I, and a few thousand other people, regularly use those sidewalks at night.
Downtown, in fact, is my favorite place at night, whether I'm wandering alone with a paperback in my hip pocket, or taking the kids out for a special dinner, or meeting friends for beer, or showing rowdy college chums a good time. A good time's never hard to find; no place in town has more live music, drama, and professional sports in Knox County than downtown, home of the Tennessee, the Bijou, Theatre Central, and the Civic Auditorium/Coliseum, small music joints like the Pilot Light or the Platinum Lounge, dance clubs like the Lord Lindsey and Fiction. There's live music somewhere downtown nearly every night of the year. If you have any interest in music, whether it's jazz, bluegrass, opera, punk, or techno, and you never come downtown at night, well, you're missing a lot.
But beyond performances, not counting the luncheonettes, from Volunteer Landing to the Old City there are also about 25 restaurants and bars that are open most nights of the week. Downtown does need a lot of things: a grocery, a bookstore, a pharmacy, a good newsstand. But name another place in East Tennessee that has so many dining and entertainment establishments within walking distance of each other. And a meal or a beer isn't just a meal or a beer when it's downtown. Genuine conversation with both friends and strangers is easier to find here than anywhere else. I eat out at a lot of other places, too, but I rarely end up talking with people I didn't come in with. Downtown, I almost always do.
That sidewalk-rolling-up truism has puzzled me for years, and I've always wondered what sustains it. It may be that 20 years ago, when I was working graveyard shift at a downtown newspaper office, it was almost true. Or it may be just that it's not nearly as easy to buy underwear or fan belts downtown as it was in the '50s and '60s, and I'm sure a lot of folks are still grumpy about that.
But I suspect some people don't want to believe how much there is going on downtown at night. I don't blame them. See, it's tiring to think of all of it, and I don't blame folks for preferring to believe that it just doesn't exist. It's cheaper and easier to stay home, and more comforting to believe you're not missing anything.
I'm grateful that lazy people stay home; it's one of the things that keeps downtown people dependably interesting.
Best Convenience Store
SAM'S PARTY STORE, THE 13TH STREET GROCERY, THE 18TH STREET IGA MARKET (Tie)
One of my old college girlfriends was a hardcore Anglophile, and she was always raving about how great England is, and how dreadful America is. I shared a lot of her disgust, but eventually she started to wear me down, and I realized no place could be as fine as she portrayed the mother country. So I asked her, "Is there anything you don't like about the U.K.?" She thought seriously, and after a long pause, gave me this answer: "There's no convenience stores." And even this was a slight against the States, but she was dead serious, because she said it was a pain to buy things in England after hours or on Sundays, even just a simple carton of milk. We Americans do love our convenience. They used to be called corner grocery stores, but after zoning ordinances and cars took over our society, they were bred with gas stations, and then you started seeing them everywhere. Surrounded by blacktop, they're on the busy commercial strips, and you almost always drive to them, whether it be for a bag of Doritos, a packet of cornnuts or a leathery hot dog. Usually, a tiny pack of aspirin will cost you $1.09. And since we're always buying gas, we spend a lot of time going to convenience stores.
What I really like about Fort Sanders is that you can step out your door and walk to a restaurant, pub, library or a coffeeshop. Or you can walk down to the corner grocery store and buy a six-pack of beer, or some really cheap pasta sauce, sugar, milk or maybe a can of soup. Every neighborhood so clearly needs a corner grocery store but so few have them. Fort Sanders is blessed with three (not counting those convenience stores on the Cumberland Strip) and they all survive without parking. Of all grocery stores in Knox County, the 13th Street Grocery and the 18th Street IGA Market have the best looking facades, which probably haven't changed in 80 years or so (some of their products appear about that old as well). The biggest is Sam's, which has a great selection of beer, and sells a small bit of produce as well. One of my favorite rituals is walking to Sam's on a Sunday morning to get a New York Times, along with maybe some eggs and orange juice. In these modern times, I suppose it's hard to call these places corner grocery stores. Their stock isn't much different from your cookie cutter convenience store. And since they're up before I am and open until midnight, their main selling point probably is their convenience. If only every convenience store looked like these.
Best Place to Chow Down Downtown
While there are lots of fine restaurants in the central city, The Bistro, which is conveniently located next to The Bijou Theatre, consistently rises above most of them. Couple of reasons: 1) they are almost always open after 5 p.m., a plus if you aren't fleeing from the downtown like a roach flees light; 2) you'll consistently enjoy some of the best-prepared, highly-innovative eats you'll find in Knoxville, period; 3) their onion rings rock; and 4) a painting of a naked, rather Rubenesque lady hangs above the bar, which indicates a certain sense of high spirits, not to mention an admiration for zaftig women.
Its cozy atmosphere makes it the perfect hideaway, but The Bistro can also meet any dining needs—even if you're just dashing in before a show at the Tennessee or Bijou or on Market Square. The menu ranges from simple sandwiches to filet mignon, supplemented with eclectic and delish daily specials. Enjoy the chicken and dumplings. Snarf down the pork chops with Jack Daniel's barbecue sauce. Savor the spicy chicken enchiladas. And finish up with a homemade dessert from Rita's Bakery—maybe a slice of Key Lime chess pie. Or just stop in for a beer. You won't be disappointed.
Best Reason to Leave Work Early
UNIVERSITY OF TENNESSEE BASEBALL
Forget about the Smokies. Let Sevierville have its new park and its ever-changing roster of major-league prima donnas in the making; Knoxville still has baseball, and I'll take a good college game over the minor leagues any day. I can't say I actually approve of the aluminum bat, but there is something special about the clink of metal on rawhide that can only be found in college baseball.
Go to one of the early-season matinee games at Lindsey Nelson Stadium and you can watch UT manhandle Carson-Newman or MTSU while the sun goes down behind the outfield wall in the late innings. Go to the SEC games in the middle of the season, and you can see some of the top teams in college baseball—LSU, Alabama, South Carolina—go head-to-head with the Vols.
And with ticket prices starting at about $3, you can do it all for practically nothing. Just make sure you have a good excuse the next day for the sunburn.
—Matthew T. Everett
(Runners Up: A nap, the NCAA men's basketball tournament)
Best Labor of Love
MODERN WORLD RECORDS
I was skeptical when I saw someone was trying to open up a record shop—a real record shop, with vinyl an' all that—in the Old City. Now that's it's been there for a fair number of months, I'm not so much skeptical as just trying to enjoy it while it's here.
Modern World, on Central Avenue across from Big Don's, is one of those places that feels constructed from top to bottom of sheer will and passion. The rock posters on the walls, advertising bands and venues long since vanished, the selection of new and used books and 'zines, and the racks of 12-inch platters by everyone from Louis Armstrong to Bedhead are all evidence of a belief in the potential and even the necessity of music, well beyond anything a reasonable person could credit. This is, really, a store for music fetishists, the kind of people who refuse to replace their old vinyl with shiny CDs because, well, it just wouldn't sound the same. And while, convenience-minded as I am, I most often find myself scanning the impressive used CD selection (best prices on indie rock in town), I still appreciate the thought and care behind all the rest of it.
Everyone who works (or volunteers, as the case often is) there looks like they're either in a band or should be, and a lot of them are. But there's none of that forced hipness you feel in some bigger-city record stores. They're hanging out in a place they like, and if you like it, you're welcome to hang out too. I don't know where Modern World came from, exactly, or how long it'll stay. But it makes me happy.
—Jesse Fox Mayshark