Or more truthfully, where not to gnosh.
I didn't intend to become one of those people who hates to eat out. It just happened after the husband and I had one miserable experience after the next. The waiting. The subpar food. The ridiculous prices. Eating out stops being a treat when it's stressful from beginning to end: even deciding where to go had started to wear me out. And I do have this quirk about waiting for more than 10 minutes to be seated. In short, I won't do it. It's never, ever worth it.
Here, I'll detail some of the best and worst places to eat in Knoxville, in my very humble opinion. Keep in mind, also, that I hold impossibly high standards for both food quality and service, so some of the places may be fine if you can overlook poor service or a terrible atmosphere or average food. When I eat out, I want it to be a supreme experience, which is maybe unfair in our current climate of if-it-looks-like-food-I'll-eat-it cuisine.
I'll start with the goodies and end with the baddies.
Good: defined here as places in Knoxville I will bother to patronize. I don't mean to say that these eateries are "good" on any national foodie critic scale. I'm just a picky eater with a low tolerance for BS.
Calhoun's: Oh, I know. You're shaking your head. How cliche. But as steak houses go, Calhoun's offers the taste of Ye Olde Steakhouse without the weird hours, pain-in-the-ass parking, or the assumed-from-the-outside pretension (which isn't accurate, by the way). We were at Calhoun's on the River just over a week ago, and though they put butter on my potato when I distinctly asked for it without (a point I'll always ding a restaurant for, since they don't know if I'm just picky or have an allergy), my BBQ steak was good--a superb medium well--and my basic salad and potato fit the bill without tasting bland. One thing I like about Calhoun's is that their "loaded" baked potato isn't super heavy. There's a sprinkling of cheese and maybe a tablespoon of bacon. I also recommend the Ale Steak. The bar area is always seat yourself, and we have yet to wait for a table. Pricing is typical, around $12 for a steak entree with a $3 salad substitution. (I don't like how they push carb-y sides but make you pay for something veggie oriented, though I supposed I could have gotten steamed broccoli.)
Pete's: This downtown cafe reminds us of Petie's, a family-owned cafe in Euclid, Ohio, one of the few bright points of our time in Cleveland. Pete's is very much a cafe, with cramped seating, a long bar section, and a visible cook area. The hashbrowns are real potatoes parboiled and crisped on a griddle with--wait for it--NO OIL. Though, be forewarned, if you order oatmeal, you will get Quaker Instant. To the server's credit, though, she did let me know this point beforehand. Diner food without a super-heavy greasy feel, unless you order anything biscuit oriented. Unfortunately, the coffee always tastes burned, so I avoid that part of the experience. The wait staff is quick and friendly, and though they're always packed when we stop in on Saturday mornings, we like sitting at the bar, so we always get a seat. Pete's offers a nice experience before heading over to the Market Square Farmer's Market. Low, low diner-like prices make Pete's a nice weekend treat. (We usually get out of there for under $12 for the two of us.)
Taste of Thai: I love Thai food. Thai food, though, has a better-than-average chance of being bad. Taste of Thai's entrees are fairly good, but their yellow curry is excellent. The taste is close to Indian Korma (i.e., rich), so a small portion is satisfying. If you go for lunch, the service is quick, and you're more likely to get a seat. Taste of Thai closes between 2 and 5, and dinner hours are usually far busier. Last weekend, we placed a to-go order to enjoy while in the middle of our Miyazaki marathon. I do have two complaints here: we were told our to-go order would be ready in 15 to 20 minutes, and we waited a full 40 minutes. Lesson learned. We'll call it in next time, rather than placing the order and expecting to wander around Dick's Sporting Goods for 20 minutes. Also, the spring rolls are usually unacceptably greasy tasting. Still, Taste of Thai is one of the only places I'll venture into far-west Knoxville for.
The baddies: defined as the places were we've experienced consistently bad service and/or food. Like the goodies, these critiques aren't informed by anything other than my own standards.
Deadend BBQ: I don't understand how this nasty place keeps getting on "Places to Eat" lists. The couple of times we've eaten there, the food has been not only overpriced but also NOT BBQ. My "BBQ" chicken was actually rotisserie chicken someone had shredded and covered in sauce (and cheap, sour-tasting sauce at that). My jalapeno cornbread had nary a trace of jalapeno and, to boot, was bricklike. And my mac and cheese, that southern staple, either came out of a can or had been sitting for a few days. The husband's brisket was pot roast (not the same, and you'd think someone at a BBQ place would know the difference), and his waffle fries were obviously frozen bagged fries that had been deep fried. Add to this mess a $30+ tab and waiting for 25 minutes just to have our drink orders taken, and you have one bad experience. Deadend's BBQ was, indeed, deadend in a number of different ways.
Chandler's: Like Deadend, I do not understand how this icky hole-in-the-wall continues to get good ratings online. We've eaten there three times, and every time, the food was old, bland, and expensive. I understand that Chandler's is supposed to specialize in soul food, and I'm not afraid to delve into some uber-southern cuisine. (My grandmother would make lots of game meat, I'm not a stranger to pig's feet, and we'd routinely eat weeds from the yard in big salads. We also drive to Memphis pretty regularly to get real soul food, but that's another post for another day.) My fried chicken--which is what everyone says to get at Chandler's--came out with the fat congealed on top of it. It wasn't even warm enough to melt the fat on it, is what I mean. The cornbread was dry and tasteless, and the gravy lacked about two hours from becoming a solid. My husband ordered some kind of pork, and he became nauseated immediately after eating. His side dishes had seen better days, probably around the Tuesday before. The bill was impossibly high for the quality of food, something over $20, and we waited for about 20 minutes for a side of baked beans. I really wanted to like this place, since everyone seems to, but the low-quality food, dirty eating area, and lackadaisical service (along with the ridiculous pricetag for such mistreatment) totally prevents me from supporting it, which is a shame, because I like to enjoy locally owned restaurants whenever possible.
Soho: Never has fusion been so uninteresting. Soho is hip and trendy and in near-west Knoxville, so you know the coolest-of-the-cool go there. What a case of superficiality. The interior is beautiful, and the menu offers a pretty nice selection of Chinese/Pan-Asian fare, but your tastebuds have two options: over-seasoned or bland. From the sesame chicken--candy-sweet--to the General Tso's--way over-spiced--the only good thing I can say about Soho is that the steamed broccoli was crispy. Add in a $15/entree bill and hit-or-miss service, and Soho becomes yet another Knoxville restaurant I'll never recommend, though the customers are always impossibly-beautiful-yet-sloppily coiffed and super-hip.
The disclaimer here is that I am not any kind of expert. I'm just a picky eater who's careful about where she spends her disposable income. I'm always wary of places "everyone" loves, and I'm particularly wary of any eatery that keeps ending up on Top 10 lists. While my requirements are fairly simple--no waiting, good prices, good food, decent service--they're also fairly stringent. Sadly, the state of the food business is going more the way of Man vs. Food, prizing quantity over quality, leaving people like me to cook at home, which is a venture that I'm usually satisfied with.