Or, how one empty-nester is eating her feelings in her son’s new college town
Photography by Stacey Greenberg
My younger son, Jiro, started as a freshman at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, last fall. Rather than looking at it as losing my baby, I saw it as gaining a new city to explore. And of course, my explorations always include the local dining scene.
I’ve been to Knoxville on three separate occasions now and feel confident in giving recommendations, though I plan to add to my list as I continue to eat, drink, and shop over the next three years.
First, let’s talk about the drive. It’s long. I find that the only way to make it tolerable is to stop in Nashville for a meal or, at the very least, a coffee. I refer you to Solo Surprises for my Nashville picks. If you don’t want to stop in Nashville proper, then try Punjabi Dhaba restaurant across from the truck stop in Kingston Springs. Great food, nice folks, and Bollywood on the TV!
A word on when to visit Knoxville: during the week! Weekends in Knoxville are great, especially if you like football, but hotels and Airbnbs are crazy expensive on football weekends. And parent weekends. And really anytime there is an event on campus. I have been doing Sunday to Tuesday visits.
Where to stay? My favorite place is The Tennessean Hotel. They have great rates and amenities and a perfect location. Jiro says their gym is one of the best he’s ever seen in a hotel. I love the little Perk Up coffee shop in the lobby, the cozy Drawing Room restaurant and bar on the second floor, and the adjacent Maker Exchange with its Tavern (food, drinks, shuffleboard, pool, foosball, etc.) and local art-filled community spaces. (The Marriott is on the opposite side of the property and would be another great option.)
The Sunsphere, which was built for the Knoxville World’s Fair, is open for tours and is just across the street. The World’s Fair Park runs alongside the property. Opposite the park is the Knoxville Museum of Art, which is free and fabulous. It’s an easy mile-and-a-half walk to campus, and all of downtown is at your doorstep. The Tennessean staff will happily shuttle you to and from anywhere you want to go in a three-mile radius via golf cart or SUV at no charge.
OK, let’s eat!
Before my first Knoxville visit, a friend who frequents the city said to me, “If you love yourself, you’ll go to Potchke.”
Of course, I went. And I make a point to go on every visit and to tell everyone I know to go.
Potchke is a Jewish deli that specializes in the dairy side of kosher, which is to say the menu is not at all meaty, though there is a pastrami sandwich on the “secret” menu. You’ll find matzoh ball soup on the secret menu as well, but it’s the fresh babka and bialys—along with lighter but elevated offerings like the mushroom Reuben and kosher banh mi—that are bringing people in the door in droves. The “Jewish retiree in South Beach” decor is an added bonus.
During the pandemic—October 2020—Emily Williams, now 28, started a business selling babka out of her home. It was called Lesser Babka and was inspired by a Seinfeld episode. Laurence Faber, 31, a chef and Emily’s boyfriend, says that they were selling 120 babkas a day and that the line stretched down the block. Lesser Babka’s success inspired Laurence to leave his job at Blackberry Farm and convince Emily to open a restaurant with him.
“The pandemic changed our lives,” says Laurence, who hails from Memphis. “It made me re-evaluate and rethink corporate life. I decided to create something for myself and my partner.”
They started Potchke (which means “to mess around in the kitchen”) in March 2022 as a pop-up while they waited out the build on their fine dining restaurant, which will focus on Eastern European fare and is set to open later this year.
“The space came open with a kitchen and espresso maker,” says Laurence. “I’d never done a café before, and we thought, ‘We have a year to waste.’”
But after just two weeks, they knew Potchke was here to stay. The opening coincided with the Big Ears Festival, where Emily says they found their target audience of “people with money who like weird dining experiences.”
She adds, “We knew we had to take it more seriously and doubled our team.”
Laurence has seen Potchke fill a niche. “I always wanted a place to take people for lunch,” he says. “It’s great because you can hang out, have a meeting, etc. A restaurant wouldn’t be as accessible.”
Potchke is open every single day and plans to continue that way. Laurence says they have a very strong team, and since he and Emily still plan to open their restaurant, he stresses that their first goal is to replace themselves with the cream of the crop.
“We decided to lean into this year and have fun. We didn’t know Potchke’s identity when we opened it, but it revealed itself to us,” says Emily.
They are proud of the culture they’ve created at Potchke. “People don’t know anything about the food, but it’s fun and inviting,” says Laurence.
I can’t wait to try their restaurant when it opens, and I am determined to get the first Potchke franchise in Memphis.
Laurence turned me on to A Dopo, which is owned by his good friend and fellow Blackberry Farm alum Brian Strutz and his wife, Jessica. A Dopo specializes in wood-fired, minimally topped sourdough Neapolitan style pizzas, seasonal vegetable dishes, and house made gelato. It’s pretty perfect in my book.
They only serve dinner, and seating is for around 40 people, so make a reservation! It’s a casual spot and clearly a favorite of locals. They do a ton of carryout, and you can order online.
Another often recommended Italian spot is Emilia, which is on Market Square. It offers seasonal fare, made by hand. The dishes are simpler than what you’ll find at Osteria Stella (see more on that below), but plenty delicious. Market Square is a very popular area, so this is an easy pick if you are looking for something high end and convenient.
Osteria Stella (& Brother Wolf)
If you are looking for upscale Italian food, wine, and cocktails, then look no further than Osteria Stella and its neighboring bar, Brother Wolf. They’re both owned by local power couple Aaron Thompson and Jessica “Rabbit” King. Osteria Stella’s menu was created by chef consultant Amalia Brusati, a Milan native; at Brother Wolf, Thompson has curated wines from all 20 regions of Italy.
I don’t know any of the bigwigs in Knoxville, but I do know that this spot was super sweet, offered stellar service, and wowed us with every bite. On our visit in October, it was decked out in Halloween decorations and seemed like a great place for a date night.
Peter Kern Library
Knoxville’s one and only speakeasy can be found behind The Oliver Hotel in the historic Kern Building. However, before you go looking for the sole red bulb lighting the way, stop in the hotel lobby to ask for the password.
This is a fun stop for cocktail lovers and adventure seekers, especially those who like to try new things. The menu includes a lot of unusual and unknown (to me) ingredients. However, the servers are very knowledgeable and more than happy to guide you to the perfect drink based on your preferences.
It’s small, dark, and handsome.
I am always on the lookout for good Asian eats, and Kaizen delivers. This is a cute little izakaya-style restaurant in the Old City that offers Szechuan and Thai dishes in addition to Japanese. In the kitchen you’ll find chef/owner Jesse Newmister, who worked with culinary giants in Charleston, South Carolina, and Louisville, Kentucky, before moving to Knoxville to assist in the opening of the Northshore Brasserie.
Steamed buns, fried rice, and all manner of noodle dishes fill the menu. There’s a full bar, sweet patio, and big-time locals vibe. (Jiro liked it so much that he took his girlfriend there for their one-year anniversary.)
Sticky Rice Cafe
I went to the family-owned Sticky Rice Cafe featuring Laotian cuisine after reading a Forbes article. It required a pretty good drive (around 20 minutes from downtown) and was (to my surprise) in a strip mall, but the food was excellent. All of the dishes are made with fresh ingredients and go great with a side of sticky rice. They have fun offerings like a phorrito (tortilla filled with pho ingredients and served with broth) and boba. It’s definitely worth a visit if you are venturing out to the burbs for a Target run.
If you go exploring, make your way to Central Street in the Happy Holler Historic District and check out the vintage shops (Retrospect Vintage Store, French Fried Vintage, and Mid Mod Collective). You’ll find lots of vintage UT gear as well as the usual and unusual items one seeks out in these shops. Mid Mod is dangerously full of refurbished mid-century furniture and unique finds. Wild Love Bakehouse is next to Mid Mod and receives rave reviews from many I’ve talked to. I have popped in twice, only to discover I am too late and the pastry cases are empty. But it is a great place to grab a coffee between stops, should you find yourself a bit tardy, like me. Be sure and treat yourself to a burger and dip cone at Freezo, a nostalgia-inducing 1942 dairy bar with a clown-faced ice cream cone as a mascot. (It’s cash only, so plan ahead.)
A fun activity to share with your college student is bowling at Maple Hall. It’s a spiffed up alley with 11 refurbished Brunswick lanes, comfy leather sofas, TVs, full bar, and good eats. They don’t take reservations, but we had good luck showing up right when they opened.
The French Market Creperie offers a taste of New Orleans in downtown Knoxville. Crepes are sorely lacking in Memphis, so my guys always jump at the chance to eat them. This is a cute spot with a bazillion crepes to choose from, both savory and sweet.
Another crowd pleaser is Cruze Farm Dairy. This dairy bar specializes in ice cream and other treats made from farm fresh milk. There’s a weird gingham dress uniform going on and a recalling of “simpler times,” but it’s clearly a Knoxville thing and, despite any perceived weirdness, offers quality products. There are several dairy bar locations, and I definitely want to hit the Asbury one, called the Pizza Barn—because pizza—on my next visit.
Speaking of, here are a couple of other places on my list: Landing House, which features Cambodian food and comes highly recommended, and J.C. Holdway, the farm to fire to table concept by James Beard winning chef and Blackberry Farm alum Joseph Lenn.
Finally, if you are looking for a spot close to campus for a final meal before hitting the road, or need an easy meetup place, try Sunspot. It’s a fairly casual restaurant that has been around since my kids were little. It offers a variety of items with something for everyone.
Did I forget something? Email me your additions! firstname.lastname@example.org.