I recently had the opportunity to go on a local walking food tour in the downtown area of my hometown and it was a great way to spend an afternoon even for a local! I want to share my experience and what to expect with you so you can see why experiencing a food tour in your own town or when you are on a trip might just be the thing to do.
I took the Chef’s Table Tour with East TN Tours – the way it works is you pay a single fee to cover the tour and all food, then pick a date. Lauren Quinn, owner and our expert tour guide for the day, met us at the Knoxville Visitor’s Center at the corner of Summit Hill and Gay Street. The Visitor’s Center offers free parking in their lot for those going on the tour on a weekday and it’s always free on the weekend. While inside the center waiting for your tour to start is a perfect opportunity to browse the local artwork and Tennessee goods for sale. Before hitting the streets, we were each given a name tag and asked to introduce ourselves to the group. Lauren used a portable voice amplifier so that we could all hear her over the busy streets. She also came prepared for the ubiquitous southern heat with mini mister fans and sunblock for us to use.
A Knoxville native, Lauren has been running her tour company for almost a year and is clearly passionate about local culture, cuisine and history! Throughout the tour, she would share factoids about Knoxville with us. Learning a bit of history around the city just added to the whole experience. Despite being born and raised in this town, I learned quite a few fascinating things I never knew like how a ‘Million Dollar Fire’ destroyed two blocks of downtown Gay Street in 1897.
East TN Tours has partnered with many local restaurants and pubs so that each stop on the tour is pre-arranged. The dish chosen to sample at each restaurant is a surprise though and even Lauren doesn’t know beforehand what will be served. She does ask for dietary restrictions in advance of the tour and provides those to the chefs upfront so that they can be accommodated. Our group had five stops over approximately 3 hours. Each stop was coordinated so that a table was already set up and waiting for us, which meant we got to visit all of these local gems with little to no waiting. In most cases, the food was already laid out for us too, so all you had to do was order a drink if you wanted anything other than water. Even though we were on a schedule, I did not feel rushed at any of the stops. Our tour guide allowed for ample time to enjoy the food, ambiance, and socialize with others on our tour.
We practically walked the length of Gay Street to our first stop – Clancy’s Tavern and Whiskey House – situated next door to the Tennessee Theatre on the corner of Gay Street and Clinch Avenue.
Clancy’s is an Irish pub featuring an extensive drink menu. They’ve got everything from draft and bottled beers to wine and cocktails. They have an entire side of their menu devoted to Irish liquors, scotch, bourbon, rye, and whiskey. Clancy’s is one of the few places in Knoxville where you can get a Smithwick’s on tap – my husband’s favorite beer!
We sampled the Shepherd’s Pie made with stout-braised lamb, sweet peas, celery, and onion capped off with home style potatoes and melted cheddar cheese. My dairy free restriction was accommodated with no cheese on top!
A vegetarian option of the black bean burger was provided to one of our group members and we all thought it was plated very nicely! Makes you want to gobble it up!
I managed to snap a group photo in Clancy’s! Lauren is holding up a binder for the group to see. It was filled with old black and white photos of historical downtown she would show us throughout the tour to provide some perspective.
We walked through Krutch Park on our way to the next stop and I learned that I’ve been pronouncing the name wrong my entire life!
The second restaurant was located in Market Square, a vibrant teeming retail and restaurant courtyard, which was the original site of the first indoor Farmer’s Market in Knoxville. That original building was torn down years ago, but much of the square remains unchanged and still hosts the Farmer’s Market twice each week in the summer.
The second restaurant stop was The Tomato Head, a cafe I’ve frequented in the past thanks to their amazing pizzas and use of fresh, local ingredients. I was overjoyed when they opened a second location in West Knoxville closer to my office.
All of their food is delicious and I love their use of unique flavor pairings, but I can’t stay away from their Southwestern Salad and Kepner Melt. Their other menu options run the gamut from burritos and quesadillas to pizzas by the slice or whole pizzas, soups, salads, sandwiches and a fabulous brunch.
As part of our tour, we were all given the choice between the Tomato Chipotle soup or the soup of the day, which was a Tomato Bisque. If anyone’s dietary restrictions prevented them from eating the soup, then we could order a side salad. For me, both soups contained dairy, so I ordered the salad. That was alright by me because I love their salads! All of their salad dressings are made in house and they load their salads with fresh veggies. Perfect for a HOT day in June. This tahini dressing hit the spot too because it was slightly creamy without any dairy, something I’ve been missing since my go-to has been balsamic vinaigrette for salads lately. I also love that they serve all of their soups and salads with a wedge of Flour Head Bakery bread. You will find even more of their sweet confections in the bakery case near the entrance, including vegan baked goods!
Our next stop was at Balter Beerworks, a brewery located in an old service station on South Broadway. If you are mapping this out, we walked quite a ways from Market Square down Gay Street and turned up onto W. Jackson (That’s a hike). This brewpub started serving up their own craft beers and food made from scratch in February 2016. In the short time they have been open, they’ve been wildly popular and can get extremely busy during peak hours. They do have their own small parking lot, but you may still need to find street parking when it’s crowded.
Inside you will find a bright, clean restaurant with an industrial vibe. They’ve retained the character of the old service station by highlighting features like the exposed beams and the huge service bay window that now serves as a window into the kitchen galley.
Balter’s menu offers a bevy of options, many of which are unexpected for a traditional brewpub selection. Avocado Shrimp is not something you will find on just any ol’ brewpub menu. I hear they also serve up a bangin’ brunch menu on Saturdays and Sundays. I’ll have to check it out sometime. But what I do know is their fish tacos are possibly the best in town and I rarely pass up a fish taco. Both styles are delicious, but my favorite goes to the Blackened Fish Tacos. They are TO DIE FOR.
During the tour, however, we all enjoyed sampling Balter’s burrito bowl – it starts with a bed of seasoned rice and charro beans that is topped with blackened chicken, lettuce, charred salsa, pico de gallo, crema, cilantro, cotija cheese, and house made chips. You guys will be shocked to know this is a HALF portion!! The full serving is HUGE and a bargain for less than $11. It was also incredibly flavorful and has my vote over a burrito bowl at Chipotle any day of the week.
Here it is for you with all of the
evil delicious dairy components. My pal, Erin, over at Brownie Bites let me snap a photo of her dish so you could see it with that yummy crema and cotija cheese. It is evident that each ingredient in this dish was lovingly crafted taking care to ensure that it lacks nothing in the flavor department.
Balter has a great patio in front of the restaurant and behind the brewery area making it a perfect spot to enjoy sunshine and a beer after work!
This cozy, sophisticated bar offers over 48 wine choices on tap by the glass and 150 available by the bottle. Tables from the former Patrick Sullivan’s Saloon down the street that is now Lonesome Dove are used inside as well as re-claimed metal and wood. In addition to the extensive wine menu you’d expect at a wine bar, there is also a limited yet impressive tapas-style food menu. The chef has clearly chosen to focus on a few small items with big flavor.
The chef served our tour group a light summer salad with baby Swiss chard, crispy pork, dried cranberries, cucumber, and creamy crumbled goat cheese. This salad was a severe juxtaposition from the roasted corn crab dip and barbecue flat bread my husband and I enjoyed on our first visit here, but equally as delicious. It was the perfect fresh, light pre-dessert bite after walking for a couple of hours in the heat.
Sugar Mama’s was the final stop on the tour for DESSERT! Open for a year now, this bakery/bar is located in the 100 Block of Gay Street. What started out as a food truck serving baked goods became a brick and mortar location with a more extensive menu of family recipes, hand-crafted pizzas, and an all local tap wall.
Inside this quaint cafe, they are serving up good food and good fun. You can get locally-roasted coffee or choose from a large selection of local beers on draft. The bakery case beside the register is always filled with a selection of mouth-watering treats. And most every night of the week they have an event – everything from bingo and trivia to a $2 craft can lottery!
The owners and creative brainsharks of Sugar Mama’s are Hannah and Mike McConnell and they were our gracious dessert hosts – that’s Hannah explaining the beer and pastry samples she provided each of us as part of our tour! Isn’t she just cute as a button?
Hannah shared a sample of a new special release beer with us that was brewed by Cold Fusion Brewing just for them called the McFuggle Off. It is a delicious boozy Irish imperial amber with hints of tangerine and melon. Brewed with Fuggle and Mandarina Bavarian hops, a play off of their two heritages and named after them. I could have easily knocked back a few of these as it was incredibly drinkable.
Sugar Mama’s also shared a basket of pastry samples with us – from left to right you have a cherry danish, chocolate chip cookie, snickerdoodle, curry shortbread, and fudge cream. Can I just say that their danishes are out of this world? Cause they are. Hannah uses her grandmother’s recipe for the danishes and cinnamon rolls. You get the sense that she takes great pride in upholding that family tradition of being a baker and takes great care to craft soft, buttery goods that will have you hankering for more. The curry shortbread was a unique take on one of my favorite simple cookies. I love her use of curry in a sweet form since most often it is used in savory dishes, but I’ve always found it’s a spice that can be treated both ways. And don’t even get me started on that fudge cream! A fudgy brownie cup filled with the most decadent buttercream. I needed about a dozen of those, but I settled for another cream cheese danish in a baggie to take home to the hubs who spent his afternoon with our son.
We all left Sugar Mama’s with happy bellies and a token to return for a free beer! Now that’s Southern Hospitality at it’s finest!
Lauren walked us back to the Visitor’s Center parking lot and that was where she left us all to go our separate ways, but before I leave you I wanted to provide a few quick tips to remember as you prepare for your own food tour.
- Wear comfortable walking shoes! This is a walking tour after all and does involve A LOT of walking.
- Wear light, comfortable clothing! There is no need to dress fancy for this food tour, instead be sure you will be cool and comfortable if it is in the dead of summer or dress in layers during the cooler months since you will be going in and out of restaurants. Better yet, wear your stretchy pants or a dress because you know you’ll be going home with a full belly. 😉
- Wear sunglasses or a hat and sunscreen! Again if you are taking your tour in the summertime, be sure you are prepared for the blazing sun. There is some shade around the buildings and in Krutch park downtown, but the majority of the walking will be out in the sun.
- Don’t forget an umbrella or rain jacket if the weather is calling for precipitation!
- Bring a small camera or your phone for pictures! You will get a chance to see quite a bit of downtown and won’t want to miss a good photo opp.
- Bring your wallet and ID if you want to order a drink at any of the restaurants other than what is provided, which is typically water. Many of East TN Tours’ partner restaurants feature local brews or unique specialty cocktails you may want to try. Clancy’s had a special of $3 mimosas and bloody mary’s when we were there.
- Don’t bring water. You are stopping at enough restaurants that will give you water that this is just one less thing to lug around.
- Have fun! Get the know the other people in your tour group. They are on a local food tour with you and so you might just find you have a lot in common. Or you may meet some interesting folks from out of town.
Prices for tours range from $49.99 to $69.99 per person (Children 2 and under are free) and more details can be found at www.easttntours.com
I attended this food tour with a group of other local bloggers. I’ve linked to their blogs below so you can check them out as well! From left to right:
Kara @ K&R Adventures (that’s me!)
Erin @ Brownie Bites Blog
Kate @ Southern Belle Simple
Melisa @ Suburban Scrawl
Gwendolyn @ Finding Sanity In Our Crazy Life
Sarah @ Kitchy Living
Vanessa @ Green Acres Meets Paris
(this lovely couple aren’t bloggers but their tour date coincided with ours!)
Eric & Mandee McNew @ KnoxFoodie