Best of Knoxville 2011: Food and Drink

Best New Restaurant

The Night Owl Café

The Night Owl Café is so tiny that even some longtime locals have been surprised to discover it exists, crammed in a storefront in the Old City just past the Crown & Goose. But owners (and chef/baker) Dwain and Jodie Marchant have been making waves in the Knoxville restaurant scene since opening in the spring of 2010. Some discerning diners swear they have the best burger in the city; others appreciate their tasty vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free menu items. As with any new restaurant, the Marchants are still figuring out which hours and menus are best suited to their customer base. But even though they stopped selling the crackers (which were seriously the best thing ever!), the Night Owl is proving itself to be one of the most exciting new faces of Knoxville cuisine. (C.W.G.)

Runners Up: Brazeiros Churrascaria, Cru Bistro & Wine Bar, Gosh Ethiopian Restaurant

Best Breakfast

& Best Biscuits

Pete's Coffee Shop

Pete's on Union Avenue is hard to beat for a quick, full breakfast. Bacon and eggs, pancakes and sausage, biscuits and sawmill gravy. Booth, table, or counter. The award comes at a serendipitous moment, as Pete's celebrates its silver anniversary—it's been 25 years this month since Pete Natour and his family opened his original diner on Union Avenue, a block away in the old Sprankle Building. When Pete's was forced out and moved into this parking garage near Locust, a block farther away from Gay Street and Market Square, some worried that it seemed too remote from the active parts of downtown. Now, the once-bleak block is filling up with residents and businesses. Proximity to Pete's seems like a good idea to everybody. Most of the staff has been there since the old days, but the clientele is a mixture of hipsters, tourists, students, and power brokers. You never know whom you might run into there; all the smarter politicians, of course, recall that our governor launched his very successful statewide campaign a couple of years ago over breakfast at Pete's. But it may also be nurturing a literary reputation: Pete's made an appearance in the current issue of Appalachian Heritage magazine, as the scene of a breakfast conversation between a couple of Cormac McCarthy scholars. (J.N.)

Best Breakfast Runners Up: Cosmo's Caffe (at Gourmet's Market), the French Market, Long's

Best Biscuit Runners Up: Bistro at the Bijou, Calhoun's, Rankin Restaurant

Best Brunch, Best Lunch Spot, Best Pizza, & Best Vegetarian

Tomato Head

See Tomato Head's "Best of the Best" win for overall restaurant.

Best Brunch Runners-Up: Bistro at the Bijou, Copper Cellar, Sunspot

Best Lunch Spot Runners-Up: Café 4, Sunspot, Trio Café

Best Pizza Runners-Up: Barley's Taproom & Pizzeria, Harby's Pizza & Deli, Hard Knox Pizza

Best Vegetarian Runners-Up: Night Owl Café, Sunspot, Veg-O-Rama

Best Coffeehouse

Old City Java

Our oldest coffee house, Java (officially known as Old City Java; we think it's complicated) predates Knoxville's first Starbucks by a decade or so, and it has weathered the ups and downs of the Old City with elan and daily shots of espresso. Java is a downtown constant, oblivious to all the collapses and revivals going on right outside. If you're awake, chances are Java is open for business and making good coffee. It's also the only place we know of downtown to get a good bagel and lox. People like Java so much they spend lots of time there; some take laptops, some take books. (See also: Best Free Wi-Fi) (J.N.)

Runners Up: Coffee and Chocolate, Golden Roast, Remedy

Best Bakery

& Best Cupcakes


Magpies, which is best known for its cakes and pies, rules this category without obvious rivals. The remarkable Peggy Hambright played keyboards and violin for the Judybats, who were a national alt-rock sensation in the post-punk era, and was featured on the Food Network's Cupcake Challenge. She's been baking for 20 years, most recently in the building with the magpies surveying Central Street skeptically from the awning. Their motto is "All Butter, All the Time." If you ever doubt whether diet and exercise are worth it, remember that you do it so you can enjoy more Magpies delicacies. (J.N.)

Best Bakery Runners Up: Rita's Bakery, VG's Bakery, Village Bakery

Best Cupcakes Runners Up: Cities Cupcake Boutique, The Cup (Cupcakery), Gigi's Cupcakes

Best Frozen Treats Shop

Coolato Gelato

Coolato offers creamy delicacies in a storybook variety of flavors: tiramisu, pistachio, spicy Aztec. There's a crazy combination of choices that seems different every time you walk in. The gelato is so delectable they serve it with tiny spoons, to encourage you to savor it properly. It's a favorite date spot, and a handy post-movie or post-symphony option. You'd never guess it of any gelato place, but Coolato's also known for their astonishingly good soups. Next time you go in for a cone, get some lobster bisque on the side. Maybe they figure after you have some well-spiced soup or a panini, you'll want some more gelato. (J.N.)

Runners Up: Bruster's Real Ice Cream, Marble Slab Creamery, Rita's

Best Deli

Nixon's Deli

Runners Up: Frussie's Deli, Lenny's Sub Shop, Steamboat Sandwiches

Best Salads

Trio Cafe

Runners Up: Aubrey's, Calhoun's, Tomato Head

Best Steaks

Ye Olde Steakhouse

Allow us to quote MP's former Gourmet Nose on the subject of Ye Olde Steakhouse's beefy brilliance: "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 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." Sure, he wrote that in 2008, but it's still all true—just as it's been for 43 years. Sometimes, consistency really is a virtue. (R.K.)

Runners Up: The Chop House, Connor's Steak & Seafood, Copper Cellar

Best Ribs


Runners Up: Chandler's, Dead End BBQ, Sweet P's BBQ

Best Wings

Wild Wing Cafe

Runners Up: Dead End BBQ, Roosters, Spicy's

Best Hamburger

& Best Desserts


Hamburger Runners Up: Bistro at the Bijou, Copper Cellar, Night Owl Café

Dessert Runners Up: Café 4, Coffee & Chocolate, Magpies

Best Barbecue

Dead End BBQ

These guys took their sweet time moving from being "dead end" neighborhood barbecuers and competition stalwarts to opening a restaurant last year. It's kind of a motto. They unapologetically take all day to dry rub, slow-smoke, and complete "other secret procedures" that result in smoky, savory ribs, pulled pork, and chicken. Let's pause to pay a little extra tribute to their warm, tender, smoky-but-not dry beef brisket, especially atop some greens for a salad of sorts, with a chunky bleu cheese/onion ring thing on top of that. And howzabout the Bacon Wrapped BBQ Shrimp and the swell stuff they do with sausage? Stay in the slow lane, Dead End, we'll wait. (R.K.)

Runners Up: Buddy's BBQ, Calhoun's, Sweet P's BBQ

Best Seafood


The atmosphere is perfect, the service fantastic, the selections bountiful. But for some, it's always about the lobster bisque. Each spoonful is ultimate, decadent bliss from the sea. (C.T.)

Runners Up: Bayou Bay, Nama Sushi, the Shrimp Dock

Best Sushi

Nama Sushi

Nama has been Knoxville's sushi landmark since almost the day it opened, and its steadfast growth has only expanded its reputation outside our borders. Whenever travelers query locals on where to go for sushi here, Nama is inevitably the first reply. Its recent move from its original 100 Block location downtown to swanky new digs near the Riviera Theater hasn't diminished its allure—the creative rolls are still amazing, and the new menu of "hot" food items just gives us more reasons to go there. Plus, lunch at Nama is actually a total bargain. (C.T.)

Runners Up: Stir Fry Cafe, Tomo Japanese Restaurant, Wasabi Japanese Steakhouse & Sushi Bar

Best Cheese Selection

The Crown & Goose

Americans sometimes forget that it's not just the French who are cheese-eaters. The United Kingdom has a long, proud dairy tradition, from Red Leicester to Stilton Blue. And Cheddar is a real place, if you didn't know—a village in Somerset, full of caves where the cheese was first aged to perfection. The Old City's friendly gastropub recognizes this tradition with its excellent selection of British cheeses, which not coincidentally tend to go very well with its excellent selection of British (and other) beers. (They also have French cheese, if you're one of those kind ...) (J.F.M.)

Runners Up: Chez Liberty, Oodles Uncorked, the Public House

Best Meat and Three

Chandler's Deli

The classic meat-and-three is a Southern lunch staple, yet in these health-conscious times, plates piled high with meatloaf, fried okra, mashed potatoes, and green beans have fallen out of favor. Still, everyone needs their soul food fix sometimes, and Chandler's Deli is the place to get it. The tiny former fast food joint in East Knoxville may not be much to look at, but once you've stuffed your belly with macaroni and cheese or a pulled pork sandwich, you'll be in a food coma so deep not even the sugar rush from a slice of caramel cake will pull you out. It's a good thing the sweet tea flows freely at Chandler's, because without that caffeine rush, you might just never leave. (C.W.G.)

Runners Up: Big Fatty's, Pete's Coffee Shop, Wright's Cafeteria

Best Italian


Runners Up: Altruda's, Louis' Restaurant, Savelli's Italian Restaurant

Best Asian

Taste of Thai

The online debates among foodies over which restaurant is best at what are eternal—consensus is never reached since every new opinion defies the previous one. But Taste of Thai is a constant. No matter which Asian or Thai restaurant is being lauded or decried in online forums for Knoxville dining, it is the ultimate point of comparison: Are they better than Taste of Thai? Not likely, according to our readers. The reason why is Taste of Thai's uncompromising attention to sophisticated, authentic flavors. While you can certainly order your food on the low end of the heat spectrum, that doesn't mean Taste of Thai will be dumbing down their recipes. Each curry and noodle dish deftly exhibits the hallmarks of Thai cuisine: multi-layered spices that arrive in sweet and savory waves. Add speedy service and nice prices, and you have the kind of destination restaurant that foodies in other cities yearn for. (C.T.)

Runners Up: Stir Fry Café, Wasabi Japanese Steakhouse & Sushi, Wok Hay

Best Mexican

& Best Margarita

Soccer Taco

Mexican Runners Up: Chez Guevara, Palancho's Mexican Restaurant, Señor Taco

Margarita Runners Up: La Costa, Pelancho's Mexican Restaurant, Señor Taco

Best Middle-Eastern


Okay, technically, Sitar isn't Middle Eastern; it's Indian, Indian cuisine being a culinary genre unto itself, the country solidly situated on continental Asia. But that's how our readers voted, and here at Metro Pulse, we aim to please. And Sitar is certainly worthy of some sort of recognition, especially given that there aren't enough Indian restaurants in town to compete for a Best Indian category. With exquisite buffet and menu selections at both lunch and dinner—a fine array of spices and curries and herbs, yams and millets and peppers and lamb and fish and chicken, exotic teas and India spirits, feasts for vegetarians and carnivores alike—Sitar is always an excellent choice, even if baba ghanoush isn't on the menu. (M.G.)

Runners Up: Ali Baba Time Out Delicatessen, Holy Land Market and Deli, King Tut's Grill

Best Appetizers

Downtown Grill & Brewery

Runners Up: Aubrey's, Café 4, Nama

Best Chef

Bruce Bogartz

A salad of wilted greens and wild mushrooms seems simple enough, but in Bruce Bogartz's hands (or tongs, one assumes), it becomes sheer bliss. Bogartz keeps winning Best Chef—this is his fourth year in a row—because nobody else in Knoxville seems to have quite perfected upscale inventive Southern food the way he has. His intimate Bearden establishment, RouXbarb, is one of only a few Knoxville restaurants that genuinely has a seasonal menu. One can only hope Bogartz's continuing dominance in this category inspires more local restaurateurs to step up their game and seriously embrace farm-to-table and inventive cuisine. Competition can only inspire excellence all around. (C.W.G.)

Runners Up: Chip Meyer, Gary Nicely, David Pinckney

Best Beer Selection

Barley's Tap Room

Runners Up: Bearden Beer Garden, Downtown Grill & Brewery, Preservation Pub

Best Wine List

Oodles Uncorked

Runners Up: Bistro by the Tracks, Chez Liberty, Cru Bistro & Wine Bar

Best Bloody Mary

& Best Neighborhood Bar/Pub

Preservation Pub

Anyone can make a Bloody Mary, it's true, and when one is facing a hangover the size of Neyland Stadium, any Bloody Mary is better than none. But the challenge of making an excellent Bloody, one that people actively seek out? That's a difficult task indeed. Yet bartender Charles Ellis has mastered his own special recipe—one involving vodka, Guinness, sriracha, and tomato, orange, lime, and olive juices—down at the Preservation Pub. His fans line up every Sunday (and the occasional weekday afternoon), seeking to ease the pain of the night before with a concoction that has exactly the right blend of savory spiciness, with just a hint of sweetness. (C.W.G.)

Bloody Mary Runners Up: Bistro at the Bijou, Sapphire, Sunspot

Neighborhood Bar/Pub Runners Up: Downtown Grill & Brewery, Public House, Roosters

Best Happy Hour

Downtown Grill & Brewery

Runners Up: Preservation Pub, the Roaming Gnome, Sapphire

Best Patio

Urban Bar and Corner Café

Location, location, location. The real estate professional's mantra applies equally to alfresco eating and drinking joints, and the patio at the Urban Bar and Corner Café ("The Urban") in the Old City has the best such location in town. The big draw is people-watching, which can be exquisite on a beautiful evening. From prom dates strolling to the Melting Pot, to fresh-off-the-bus homeless vagabonds, to thrilling near-misses when drivers people-watch instead of stop-sign-watch, free entertainment is always available. You can see arrests, car wrecks, photo shoots, drug deals, zombie mobs, swarms of bridesmaids, or septuagenarians burning rubber in their arrested-development Camaros. And that's just the sober folks. The corner of Central and Jackson is the best variety show in town, and the Urban Bar's patio has all the best seats. (Fred Sahms)

Runners Up: Barley's Tap Room, Crown & Goose, Preservation Pub

Best Sports Bar

Latitude 35 & Rooster's Bar & Grill (tie)

If you want big fancy flat-screen high-definition TVs, and lots of them, all showing as many sporting events as might possibly be on at one time, and you want your food hot and your drinks cold and both served by attractive young women showing a little cleavage, you can't go wrong with either Latitude 35 or Rooster's. You just have to decide: Downtown or Rocky Hill? Upscale bar food or traditional bar food? Whiskey cocktails or shots of whiskey? All non-smoking or partially non-smoking? Once those challenging decisions are made, sit back and enjoy the game—just remember to not throw your beer bottle at the television if your team loses. (C.W.G.)

Runners Up: Ray's ESG, Soccer Taco, Wild Wing Cafe

Best Bartender

& Best Martini

Amie Snyder, Sapphire

It could be the secret to Amie Snyder's win is her versatility: While she says she's not really a "cry on your shoulder" bartender, she is both "sweet and smartass, all in one package." She's been at the posh spot almost five years now and toiling amidst highball glasses more like 13, ever since learning the trade in Johnson City. More evidence of her internal diversity: She's often the author of Sapphire's drink list, including those many sophisticated, sassy martinis that scored the Best Martini award for her employer. But the drink that bears her name is Snyder Sangria. And maybe she's mostly sweet after all, 'cause she shared the recipe: 1/2 oz. vodka, 1 oz. Malibu (coconut) rum, a splash each of cranberry, fresh squeezed OJ, and pineapple juice, served in a wine glass over ice and topped with red wine. Cheers, Amie! (R.K.)

Bartender Runners Up: Ashley Caruso, Urban Bar; Charles Ellis, Preservation Pub; Emily, Urban Bar

Martini Runners Up: Baker Peters Jazz Club, Bistro at the Bijou, Latitude 35