You don’t have to be sophisticated if you’re the best. Look at Joe Louis, or Gary Cooper. Or Verdi.
Ye Olde Steakhouse (6838 Chapman Highway) is unrefined enough to have plastic-wrapped crackers on its tables. But don’t confuse lowbrow with low quality; the restaurant’s straightforward but perfectly prepared food reaches heights of excellence Knoxville’s more urbane destinations can only dream of. This exceptionally—perhaps uniquely—good steak house doesn’t just have patrons. It has fans, and remaining non-partisan is a challenge in the face of such sumptuous, beautiful cooking.
Barring a brief exodus downtown following a fire, the restaurant has been going strong in the same log barn, with its walls of bric-a-brac and its subtle whiff of Christmas, for 40 years. That’s pretty old for a restaurant (although pretty young for something Olde), and if you throw a warmed, homemade bread roll in here it’s likely to hit a member of the founding King family. King of Kings and host of hosts is David, a cheerful, ruddy man whose team of chefs includes men who have been slaving over the same grill for 30 years.
Such experience brings an inevitable, reflex brilliance that cannot be faked. One can only hope that such repetition hasn’t deadened the soul, and happily here at Ye Olde the passion seems to burn brightly still. Generally using grain-fed choice-grade beef rather than the more fatty prime, the kitchen turns out consistently tender and astonishingly flavorsome cuts with effortless sangfroid.
One highlight is the 20 oz. porterhouse. The necessity—indeed the possibility—of consuming such a weight of meat in a single sitting is surely in doubt, yet the menu provides blithe assurances only in the other direction, promising that still larger cuts are available. The meat proves sinuous yet delicate and has the comforting taste of luxury.
The rib-eye is deliciously juicy, hearty without being heavy, with touches of marbling that lend the meat a rousing, indulgent piquancy.
Sides are generous and fresh: crisp, pungent fries; wet, smoky onions; earthy, rather bouncy mushrooms; and a cozy mess of woodshed potatoes.
The best item on the menu, however, is also the cheapest. The cheeseburger is a flawless masterpiece of epic loveliness. The softness of the meat, the subtle sweetness of the bun, the gentle, peppery aroma, and the satisfying heft of the thing make it one of the most perfect gastronomic experiences a human can have. Avoiding the endemic dryness of the majority of today’s burgers, this is a triumphantly moist creation that usurps the traditional culinary pecking order and proves that our seemingly modest national contribution to global cuisine can hold its own on the world stage.
But your meal must not end there, friend. Since President Carter’s time, Ye Olde’s desserts have been made by Ethel Brown, diligent wizard of the sweeter arts. Each creation is a classic. Her red velvet cake is huge, springy, and light; bosomy consolation for the end of dinner. The peanut butter pie uses a brittle, buttery pastry to hold in the thick, squelchy reservoir of chocolatey ganache, just on the right side of too sweet.
The service, ranging from the doting to the brusque, doesn’t match the consistency of the fare, but it’s difficult to hold a grudge against such a place as this.
I love what Ye Olde Steakhouse is: a snug restaurant offering simple dishes made from high-quality ingredients. And I love what it represents: a family-owned business providing an experience beyond the ability and even the imagination of any corporation. The restaurant is not just Knoxville at its best, but Tennessee at its best. Indeed, emerging into the quiet, forested night with the tremendous sense of well-being that comes from so completely satisfying a meal, one senses this could be not just Tennessee at its best, but life at its best.