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Food & Drink
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The city's most famous rib emporium carries off the best o' trophy yet another time. If you live in Knoxville and for some strange reason haven't sampled Calhoun's thick, tangy specialty, then by all means beat a path to one of the eatery's Knox locationsdowntown next to the river, on Bearden Hill, or near Farragut on Kingston Pikeand order up a slab. You won't be sorry you did.
Runners Up: Corky's, Sarge's
With more lobster and shellfish and crab legs and other sea-faring delectables than you can shake a fork at, the tastefully posh downtown eatery easily beat out the Red Lobster chain as Knoxville's favorite place to sample the ocean's bounty. And for those who don't care for fish and such, Chesapeake's serves up a pretty respectable slice of moo as well.
Runners Up: Joe's Crab Shack, Shrimp Shack
Best Mexican Restaurant
Heaping quantities of Mexican food are the only way to cope with this dang El Nino thing. Walking through upset winner Cancun's door is like stepping into the South of the Border sunshine. Hearing the host's liquid Spanish makes you believe you're in Chihuahua. And sucking down Queso Flameado, Pollo Jalisco, and tender Sopapillas will prove that you are in heaven.
Runners Up: La Paz, El Charro
Best Middle Eastern Restaurant
Knoxville's seen a lot of Middle Eastern restaurants come and go in recent yearsThe Olive Tree, Fatoosh, etc. But the Falafel Hut has held its unobtrusive place in the Fort Sanders neighborhood for over a decade now, combining college-town chic with a delectable (and affordable) menu. You could make a meal out their dips alonebaba ganouj, hummus, et al. But you wouldn't want to, because then you'd miss things like the moussaka and the falafel sandwiches. Hungry yet?
Runners Up: Kashmir, King Tut
Best Restaurant Pizza
Nobody in history has ever made pizza like Mahasti Vafiae. The owner, proprietor, chef, and benevolent spirit of the Tomato Head doesn't squirt cheese into her crusts or put her toppings all the way out to the edge. But she does take pizza where no one has gone before, with an astonishing variety of imaginative toppings. (Get out your calculator and see if you can figure how many thousands of different varieties of pizza you can get at Tomato Head.)
Tomato Head's salads and sandwiches are almost as extravagant as its pizzas, and, though the voting was much closer, won both those categoriesbeating last year's winner Silver Spoon in the salads category.
Runners Up: PizzaStefano's, Pizza Hut; SandwichesSubway, Nixon's; SaladsSilver Spoon, Calhoun's
Best Lunch Spot
Bosses, be forewarned. If your employees say they're going to lunch at Tomato Head, you just may not see them again today. This perfectly renovated turn-of-the-century space is both comfortable and lively and can make you forget the humdrum world on the outside of Tomato Head's patio corral fence. Decorated with a changing and often-surprising art gallery, served by chummy bohemians who actually come here even when they're not on duty (the best clue to a great place), Tomato Head's one place you don't mind being when it's crowded. Go ahead and eavesdrop; most of the conversations you overhear are too interesting to be wasted on one table. You want to stick around for a few hours afterward, and sometimes you do. Sit back down. Have another a choc-o-gasm. The Man can wait.
Runners Up: Silver Spoon, The Lunch Box
One of the coolest things about the South is barbecue (I'm talking about the noun barbecue, my carpetbagger friends), and as you travel through Dixie you'll find that they prepare it a little differently everywhere you go. Buddy's is celebrating 25 years of doing it Memphis style, pulled pork with lots of tangy red sauce, by usurping Corky's spot as Knoxville's best Q. Whether with a fork or on a bun, with slaw or without, grab some crisp fries, rich baked beans, and hush puppies and you've got good eats.
Runners Up: Corky's, Calhoun's
Robert Cook's Nixon's Deli has become something of a Knoxville institutionand with good reason. The selection of hot deli and specialty sandwiches, salads, and soups can't be beat and your options are myriad. There's corned beef, there's teriyaki steak in a sack, there's salami, there's chicken cordon bleu, there's something called mettwurst! With five types of bread, seven kinds of cheese, and a St. Mary's Eat Hearty menu, Nixon's is the deli that eats like a restaurant. Plus, you can walk into any of the six Knoxville locations at 10:55 pm with $5 and an empty stomach and walk out with a full tummy, ready for bed.
Runners Up: Harold's, Sam and Andy's
We offered this category to give folks a chance to vote for their favorite BLT-and-a-Coke-type beanery where the waitress's name is Latrine and she saves you a coffee-stained newspaper, and when it's all done your check says $3.14. We know of at least 20 perfect examples in town, but after our balloting, we can only guess which one's best. As it happens, none of the three top contenders from our poll really fit our idea of what a diner is. But no matter; they're all great restaurants, and a couple of them do have the word "diner" in their name, even if it's used only ironically. Sullivan's Diner, on the fringe of the Old City, was the winner. With lots of formica and stainless steel, it's built to look like a dineror some mid-century Platonic ideal of a diner. It even has a counter and stools. And it's open for breakfast on both Saturday and Sunday mornings, a rarity in Knoxville. But its diner trappings are mostly a posethe food is the legacy of the original Sullivan's Saloon chef; it's really a fine restaurant in a droll disguise.
And it's the definitive example of our "diner" dilemma. Ask for a bowl of spinach in a real diner. Okay? Now ask for one at Sullivan's Diner. You don't have to be Popeye to notice the difference.
The Fountain City institution Litton's came in secondone of the most interesting and popular restaurants in Knoxville, if you've never been there (but FYI, real diners don't have wine lists), with the Downtown West sit-down restaurant The Diner (see what we mean?) a very close third.
Runners Up: Litton's, The Diner
Prohibition's over, folks. We can go back to drinking the sharp, tasty stuff called real beer that was illegal in Knoxville from 1907 until 1972. Our favorite place to quaff it is still the Great Southern on Gay Street. Not only is the changing lineup of beer great (try the bitter, or the pilsner, or the stout, or heck, the ale), but the dependably diverse crowds of UT students, downtowners, and professional sorts keep the conversation lively, even among those who come in alone. (If your interests fall anywhere between modern architecture and barbecue, you'll probably find a good conversation at the brewpub and learn something interesting, even if it's not strictly true.) In a handsomely renovated turn-of-the-century furniture store, it's also the most beautiful saloon of any kind in East Tennessee, though whether that long three-sided bar is oak or mahogany depends on which resident expert you talk to. We're not completely sure why we're not there right now. (Or at the Black Horse, for that matter, which took a solid second place despite being in business only three months.)
Runners Up: The Black Horse Saloon, Calhoun's on Bearden Hill
New York Bagel
Variety is key here. If you didn't know there were more than three or four flavors of bagel, you probably didn't know there were several flavors of cream cheese, too. And just so it wouldn't turn into a breakfast-only place, NYB makes some deliciously imprudent deli sandwiches with fitting names like the Brooklyn Bomber. They bake 'em fresh any day, of course. The coffee's strong, and the newspapers they keep for you are a clue to the fact that this is a place to hang out.
Many voters specified which store was their favorite. Gay Street got the edge. But New York Bagel's downtown store and the Bearden store each demolished all other contenders. The only warning about the New York Bagel on Gay Street is that you're likely to run across sundry News-Sentinel personalities there.
Runners Up: Alpine, Tomato Head
JFG Coffee House
On ambiance alone, JFG Coffee House is one of the coolest places in townexposed brick, high ceiling, a full wall of genuinely interesting books. You can spend hours talking, reading, or just retreating from the world. You can also fill up on Knoxville's most reliably enticing dessert selection. The cheesecakes are creamy, the carrot and coconut cakes are moist, the blueberry coffee cake is sweet and crumbly. There's a reason so many evenings end with a stop on Jackson Avenue, and this is it.
Runners Up: Regas, Litton's
Best Coffee House
Annual coffee house honoree Java squeaked out another win over its main nemesis JFG, but its victory also raises all sorts of troubling questions: Were people voting for the Homberg Java? Or were they mistakenly voting for the Java that was located in the Old City but has been renamed 195 Degrees and is under new ownership? Well, we can't peer into the minds of voters, but we do know that Java's west location really came into its own last year, locking into a comfy boheme atmosphere. And with the Terrace Theatre right next door, it offers every opportunity for the Perfect Date. Drink up.
Runners Up: JFG, Cup-a-Joe
Best Vegetarian Restaurant
The Tomato Head is kind of a winner by default here, since two of the top three finishers are no longer with us. But it more than earns the title with its astounding menu and delicious daily specials. The obvious fave is the vegetarian sandwich, a layered delight of tofu, pesto, and spinach on the Head's trademark chewy buns. But don't forget the pizzas, with toppings like goat cheese, eggplant, and even carrots. We've said it before and we'll say it againthe Tomato Head is a flat-out Knoxville treasure. On a sadder note, so was Tjaarda's, for several years the shining light of the Old City dining scene. Its high-tone veggie fare was some of the most interesting food noncarnivores were likely to find this side of the Mason-Dixon line. Its demise is a wake-up call to those still in denial about the Old City's struggles. Finally, the Sunspot will also be missed by those with a taste for the pleasures of nonflesh. Last year's winner of best overall Knoxville restaurant had a tough 12 months and finally shut its doors for good during the winter. Goodbye to the best blackened tofu sandwich in town. Rest in peace.
Runners Up: Tjaarda's, Sunspot
Best Wine List
The wine list at the Orangery is a book-length piece of work. Sommelier/wine steward Stuart Kendrick presides over a list that includes the 469 different wines in the restaurant's temperature-controlled wine cellar. There's something for most everyone on a list that includes everything from fine French burgundies like the Domaine de La Romanee-Conti that'll set you back a cool $800 to a good selection of domestic wines that will cost from $25 to $7 per bottle. There are sparkling wines from California and a large selection from the French Champagne houses. Periodically there are wine tastings and fine, multi-course dinners with multiple tastingswatch for these, as they get rave reviews.
Runners Up: Regas, Litton's Back Room
Best Italian Restaurant
Best Romantic Atmosphere
Can the nostalgic power of Naples be denied? Nearly everyone in Knoxville has had a formative romantic experience there, we'd wager, snuggled into a booth (the curtained one, if you're lucky). It's that kind of placedim lighting, low-key, refreshingly free of both mauve and teal touches. And recent trips to the restaurant have confirmed that new memories are being made there every night. Of course, we find that the consistently fabulous Italian cuisine helps, even if all we really need is a loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou.
Runners Up: The Orangery, Regas
Best New Restaurant
Converts come out with glazed eyes, spreading the gospel with a True Believer's zeal: "You HAVE to go to Copeland's." And go people havejust try to find a parking spot on a weekend night. Not possible. This Bearden Hill tribute to New Orlean's cuisine has been a smash hit since it opened its rather, um, opulent doors and turned on the neon sign. Despite the fact that its teal and hot pink interior doesn't exactly spark many recollections of the Crescent City, people have been rapturously enjoying its Cajun concoctions. Tailing it by just a few votes was the nouvelle continental stylings of Mango, the cozy, hip hangout created by Stir Fry Cafe impresario Kenny Siao and former Mattioda's chef Dean Hoyos-Holsberry.
Runners Up: Mango, Black Horse
Best Out-Of-Business Restaurant
It was open, it was closed, it was open, it was closed, it was open...and now it's closed, seemingly for good. Oh Sunspot, we hardly knew ye. But what we knew, we likedfantastic vegetarian cuisine, trademark black-bean chimichangas, incredible filet mignon. It was an oasis of urbane sophistication on the rowdy frat-infested Strip, a place to escape, to relax, to enjoy a refreshing microbrewed malt beverage selected from the trademark "beer map." Now there's a tear in our beer, cuz we're crying over Sunspot.
Runners Up: Tjaarda's, Southbound
Best Delivered Pizza
Delivered or take-outwe'll take it any way we can get it. That's because the sauce is so sweet, the crust so chewy, the toppings so fresh, and the price SO affordable. Forget the gimmicksPapa John's doesn't need the novelty crust, the theme pizza, the gargantuan sizes, or the attendant merchandizing to keep us coming back for morejust reliably delicious pizza pie.
Runners Up: Pizza Hut, Domino's
Best Sports Bar
The sports bar has grown up. It's not just a place for guys to hang out with their buds and knock a few back while watching the game. This cavernous mall of a sports bar nestled in an inconspicuous corner of Windsor Square Shopping Center doesn't have a crotchety old bartender, but it does have more pool tables, dart boards, free-throw hoops, buffalo wings, beer, and TV sets tuned to ESPN than any other place in town, and it's surprisingly fresh and clean. You can actually Take A Date to Bailey's to watch NASCAR with you.
Runners Up: Hooray's, Knuckles
Best Beer Selection
"Best Wings" has been one of the most hotly contested categories the last five years, fittingly enough. This year's award goes to Spicy's, a campus institution that serves 'em anywhere from naked to dripping. Don't be timid; if you order them mild they come mild, with hardly any sauce or flavor. You have to get them at least hot, but lava's the best. And luckily enough, you're in the right place to find just the right beer to wash the wings down. Bottle or draft, Spicy's has enough of a selection to offer one of those "Drink yourself around the world" deals, where you're immortalized on a wall of fame if you try all of them (it doesn't have to be in the same night).
Runners Up: Hooter's (wings), bw-3, Sam's (beer selection)
Trying to dissect the success of this Fountain City restaurant isn't too hard. Despite its location far from the busy crowd centers of West Knoxville and its decidedly unfruity menu, the secret of Litton's success is pretty simple: They serve the best burger in town, bar none. It's big, it's served on a homemade bun, and it's always perfect, sometimes creating an irresistible urge that has to be satisfied. The only drawback to the Litton's burger is that it never leaves enough room for any of the restaurant's desserts.
Runners Up: Back Yard Burger, Wendy's
Once again the Mandarin House rules the buffet roost. Bottomless piles of steaming rice and vegetables and that spicy General Tso's chicken have made the Mandarin House the most popular buffet in Knoxville every year. This perennial champ has so dominated the category that last year's opening of a second location on Merchants Drive doesn't seem quite fair. But they did it anyway, and the advantage paid off, as they nearly doubled the tally of the runner-up.
Runners Up: Great American, Old Country
Ye Olde Steakhouse
It's nice to know that some things never changelike the atmosphere at Ye Olde Steakhouse, or the fact that Knoxvillians keep coming back for more, year after year (30 years, in fact). We gotta love the homespun feel of the place, the family-style serving, the B.Y.O.B. policy, the pregame/postgame Vol-fueled energy. But most of all, we gotta love the steaksimpossibly thick cuts done right, by folks who've made doing steaks right their entire lives.
Runners Up: Outback, Regas
Stir Fry Cafe
No surprise hereStir Fry garners Best Asian kudos every year. The novelty's worn off long ago, but we keep coming back for the exotic curries, the coconut-milk-scented sauces, the sinus-clearing spices. There's something on the Stir Fry menu for every palateno matter how naive or how jaded. For the meek, there is an array of mild Chinese standards; for the adventurous, there are tongue-numbing green curries. For lunch there are terrific and inventive Asian "burritos," served with taro chips on the side. And for every frazzled nerve, there are wonderful dry martinis to wash down the food while washing away your workday woes.
Runners Up: Mandarin House, Kyoto
Blue Moon Bakery
The Old City may be losing its breath, but its gut is bulging thanks to the Blue Moon Bakery and Cafe. With stalactite lights, hardwood floors, and sunshine beaming through the large windows in front, it's a great atmosphere for casual lunch or a business brainstorming session over a cup of coffee. But to hell with ambiance, it's the food that's worth coming for: 12 different kinds of bread, including red pepper cheddar, challah, whole wheat walnut, and raisin pecan; some of the most inventive sandwiches in town, such as roasted eggplant focaccia and smoked turkey with mango chutney; and fattening deserts to top it offtriple chocolate torte cake, cream cheese pound cake, and toll house pie. Yum.
Runners Up: Fresh Market, The Old Mill
Start with the fresh pastries, muffins, and bagels, then work your way through the steaming trays of artichoke dip, breakfast potatoes, and shrimp Creole on your way to the giant platter of smoked salmon adorned with heaping mounds of chopped red onion, capers, egg, and sweet red pepper. What else do you need to have a perfect brunch? Unless it's fresh fresh-squeezed orange juice delivered to your table by the most solicitous of Sunday servers. Copper Cellar (the West Knoxville location) offers the most grown-up brunch in townit's the place to see and be seen post-Sunday service.
Runners Up: Regas/Southbound, Hyatt Regency Hotel
When it comes to getting events catered, Knoxvillians went with do-it-all, one-stop-shopping catering titan Rothchild. That's probably because Rothchild can handle anythingfrom supplying multi-tiered cakes to the actual rooms. Rothchild handles everything from corporate affairs to box lunches with equal aplomb, and makes its services available to the entire Southeast. Yes, these are the party experts.
Runners Up: Hyatt Regency, Lord Lindsey