Best of Knoxville 2011: Metro Pulse Staff Picks

Best National Store We Wish Was From Knoxville

Blue Ridge Mountain Sports

While the Best of Knoxville focuses on locally owned businesses, that does exclude some nationally owned stores and restaurants that nevertheless get deeply involved in the Knoxville community. One such business is Blue Ridge Mountain Sports, a sporting goods store that doesn't just sell stuff to Knoxvillians—its staff actively makes Knoxville a better place to enjoy the outdoors. They routinely participate in community events with local institutions like Ijams Nature Center, the Fort Loudoun Lake Association, Friends of the Smokies, and the Knoxville Track Club, and they have helped support local clubs, including the Smoky Mountain Hiking Club, Chota Canoe and Kayak Club, Knoxville Ski and Outing Club, and the East Tennessee Climbers Coalition. If that wasn't enough, Blue Ridge regularly brings fund-raising events to the Bijou Theatre, such as the North Face Speaker Series and the Banff Mountain Film Festival (which benefitted the Friends of the Smokies). Plus, owner Jeff Smith is a former University of Tennessee student and Knoxville ex-pat. Blue Ridge Mountain Sports can justifiably claim it's more Knoxvillian in spirit than a lot of Knoxville-based businesses. (Coury Turczyn)

Best Slice of Brooklyn on Magnolia Avenue

The Public House

Since November, this hip, casual watering hole on the otherwise desolate stretch of Magnolia Avenue between Gay Street and Hall of Fame Drive has become an oasis for imbibers and foodies alike, and a point of connection between downtown and the neighborhoods to its north. The decor and design—it's built out of an old garage, complete with a converted bay door, and decked out in a style somewhere between functional minimalism and big-city decadence—make the Public House feel cozy and just a little bit upscale. (It's also the third notable joint in town with a large painting of a naked woman above the bar, joining the Bistro at the Bijou and Pilot Light. The severed head in the lower left corner of the frame suggests we're looking at Salomé, but it could be any siren with a decapitation fetish.)

The service is the best kind, so good that you won't really notice it, and the carefully crafted beer, wine, and cocktail selections are balanced by a rotating seasonal menu of small plates and snacks. Special events, like a bourbon tasting or a cheese sampler, take place periodically, but most evenings (the bar opens at 4 p.m.) it's just drinks, a little food, and conversation. Plus, they welcome kids along with their parents at Saturday's new Family Happy Hour, featuring drink specials and a toddlers-welcome ambiance in the gravel-scaped back courtyard. If you've been to Park Slope, this will all feel familiar. If you haven't, well, this is what it's like. (Matthew Everett)

Best Christian Doom Metal Band

Place of Skulls

The big local news among Victor Griffin fans the last few months was the local guitarist's recent reunion with his longtime musical partner Bobby Liebling in Pentagram, the obscure but enormously influential cult band Griffin starred in from 1981 to 1996. And it is big news—Liebling, at the age of 57, finally appears to have gained some control over the addictions that scuttled the Virginia-based Pentagram's ambitions for 40 years. The band's new album, Last Rites, has received considerable critical acclaim and the kind of notice that escaped the band for much of its history. But the Pentagram news shouldn't completely overshadow Griffin's other band, Place of Skulls, which has been his main musical outlet since 2000. A mid-life religious conversion pushed Griffin in a different spiritual direction (the band's name is a hint), but his music stayed slow, heavy, lumbering, and foreboding. (It's no accident that Lee Abney, who joined Pentagram with Griffin back in 1981 but left after just a few months, plays bass in the new trio, which also briefly included the legendary guitarist and singer Wino from St. Vitus.) Around the time Griffin rejoined Pentagram, Place of Skulls released its fourth album, As a Dog Returns, another potent slab of thick, downtuned guitar abuse. (Matthew Everett)

Best Skyline

From Mechanicsville, along Western between Deaderick and Dale Avenues, Looking East by Southeast

In depicting Knoxville, many civic promoters consider it essential to include the river, and perhaps the great arenas of campus, in any Knoxville skyline. I understand the sentiment, but the fact is Knoxville offers little variety or appeal from its south side. We've amputated or waylaid several of the roads that once led to the river, and except for the bridges, which are strong images, we've rarely built any striking river-facing architecture.

My favorite vantage has no river in it. Approaching from Western, at Deaderick Avenue on the edge of Mechanicsville, Knoxville appears at the crest of a hill—compact, various, sudden; a forest of brick and concrete and steel; a place of opportunity and risk and perhaps serious trouble. Connected to the ordinary world by viaducts and highway overpasses, it's a complex study of tans and grays and burnt orange, offering some mystery and dimension. From here you can see the contours of the hills the city is built on. You can also see a range of the city's history, with at least one building built every 15 or 20 years since 1848.

In this view, the Second Creek valley and World's Fair Park are in the foreground. The Sunsphere puzzles as effectively as it should but does not dominate the scene. Closer are the steep clay-tile roof of the L&N Station's late-Victorian station and LMU's antebellum law school building. They contrast with each other and with the concrete of TVA and Kimberly Clark and our three early-'80s concrete hotels. At this distance those off-white megaliths are not oppressively blank and modernist. Up close they might suggest a shortage of imagination or funds, but from here they're small parts of a patchwork whole, remnants of modernist ideals you have to be middle-aged to remember. From this view, no building or era dominates.

In the center of the urban thicket stand the Holston and the Burwell and the Farragut and the General Building, each a champion of altitude in its day. The two modernist glass skyscrapers loom behind, as does the brick Andrew Johnson, which was for 50 years the tallest building in East Tennessee, visible but in perspective. (In any good class picture, the tall kids stand in the back.) Over to the left lies the 1886 clock steeple of Immaculate Conception. From here, despite anything you might have heard, it looks like a city with some dynamic variety and potential.

Within this downtown are lots of little skylines, pocket urban vistas. From several perspectives, downtown Knoxville can outdo Picasso's high cubist period for interesting angles laid atop each other. There was a time when we strove to eliminate corners, to make cleaner, more modern-looking lines; maybe we've come to a point of appreciating architecture as complicated as we are, with sharp edges and a thousand shades of color and angles more interesting than coherent. (Jack Neely)

Best Sunsets and Stormy Skies

Gay Street Viaduct

Usually to get a good view of anything in Knoxville, you have to get up pretty high. No matter what part of the city or county you're in, your ground-level sightlines in most directions are pretty conscribed. This is not exactly surprising—we live in a river valley, surrounded by ridges and hills. But if you happen to pause while walking across the Gay Street viaduct between Depot and Jackson avenues, and if you happen to slowly turn 360 degrees, you will be rewarded with just about the most expansive sky you can find without climbing up some mountain. The long straight railbed that runs for blocks along the north edge of downtown has kept any architecture from encroaching on the view. On a sunny afternoon, you might simply enjoy the deep, dazzling blue or giant puffy white clouds. But if you really want to see a show, hit the bridge right around sunset. You will be rewarded with a vast celestial curtain of oranges, purples, reds, amethysts, ochres, and other interstitial shades known only to art critics and interior decorators. Even more dramatic, though in several ways more risky, are the minutes before one of those huge storms blows into town from the west. You can watch the progress of billowing gray columns as they advance across West Haven and Mechanicsville, bearing down like a Wagnerian overture. That all of this plays out above a rough landscape of brick buildings and train tracks, urban weedlands and arcing roadways, only adds to the drama. ( Jesse Fox Mayshark)

Best Way to Feel Like a Tourist a Few Blocks From Your House

Stroll Down Any Major Thoroughfare

Knoxville likes to talk up its alternative transportation scene. And indeed, the cyclist culture has blown up, and KAT has a new fancy bus station, and people really do walk everywhere downtown. Still, the city really is centered around cars, and unless you live downtown and never leave it, you're apt to spend some portion of your day driving down busy streets to get home.

But what if you walk down that street instead? We're not suggesting you walk Broadway from Fountain City to downtown, but maybe just stroll a mile or so down it, or Chapman Highway, or Kingston Pike way out west. You'll suddenly realize that as well as you thought you knew your neighborhood, as many times as you might have patronized every business you're waking past, you've never really paid attention to most of what's actually there, like the irises growing in front of Burger King or beautiful geologic formations just behind that Mexican place.

You'll get a lot of funny looks from all the drivers speeding past you—a few honks, even. But the best way to see new sights in Knoxville is just to get out of the car, right where you live, and walk around. (Cari Wade Gervin)

Best Local Online Celebrity

Amigo—One Amazing Horse

He's "Amigo—One Amazing Horse" on Facebook and T-shirts and in press releases, but I got the name "Amigo the Wonder Horse" stuck in my brain a few weeks into his ordeal, and so it has remained—same as the way I always hear those song lyrics, "don't give up, no I won't give up" when I think about him. He is a wonder: a full-blooded Endurance Arabian race horse (owned by Gary Sanderson of Luttrell) who, at the top of his racing game, was found at his barn Jan. 17, 2010, with a two-inch wide, three-foot long tree tree?limb embedded in his chest above his left shoulder.

His first amazing feat was trekking across across the 100-acre pasture to get to the barn at all, with two broken ribs, but from there his tale becomes truly astonishing. After he was rushed to the UT Veterinary Hospital, the first vet who saw him said he'd put him down if he was the owner. Within a week, they were giving the horse, oh, a 2 percent chance to live. But Sanderson had none of that, and the Meegster, as his buddies call him, rewarded his faith. through three months of healing Amigo literally died—both lungs collapsed—for a few minutes during a March surgery to remove a rib and get to a mass that had been resistant to antibiotics, but he came back. By then, veterinarians were giving him a 50 percent chance of survival.

And he'd also become a worldwide celebrity, with more than 1,000 Facebook followers last spring (he's got over 10,000 now). Lots of them were the purebred racing set, or international horse lovers; many more, like me, were just intrigued by this hulking, glamorous beast who was crushing his medical woes while his loving owner worked two extra jobs to pay the costs. We panicked when he had a setback—at three instances he flirted seriously with death. In lighter times, we scoured his temperature reports like racing forms. We rejoiced when he was released to go back to his barn, and again when he was cleared for riding about a year ago.

This February, the doctors said Amigo was cool to maybe race again. Sanderson's putting up videos of him doing left turns in a field, possibly eyeing some 25-mile races for later this year.

I got to meet Amigo once, a few days before he left UT the first time. He had hair in his eyes and was affable and intelligent and seemed to strike a pose for the camera. He was especially gracious to children bearing handfuls of fresh grass. I was most amused to learn that they were bearing grass only because, even in those relatively early days, he'd gained a little too much weight and had to cut back. The culprit? Too many Froot Loops. That's a hero for me, and my times: the horse with the weakness for sweets—and the strength to defy death. (Rose Kennedy)