My Old City Tour, “Legends & Modern Local Flavors” is wild and wonderful for 2019! This Saturday afternoon tour is offered weekly from 2:00-5:00 p.m. with my great line up of partners. Book this tour now for your visiting family and friends or just for a fun day out for yourself. Curious about what to expect? Here is a brief description of a recent Old City tour.
Where else should we begin other than where it all began - the Regas Building, ground zero for fine dining in Knoxville. Here, beginning in 1919, brothers Frank and George Regas presented the Greek principles of quality food, a good value, great service, and cleanliness. Over the next 90 years, many soon to be restaurateurs and hospitality professionals would pass through the Regas ranks, observing and learning how to obtain the high standards that lead to success. What, you thought Knoxville was Just Now coming unto the culinary scene??
This circa 1880’s, originally 5 story building, was part of the Watauga Hotel, which accommodated passengers traveling on the Southern Railway. It is now home to the Knoxville Leadership Foundation who provides support and meeting space for non-profits and other local organizations. The historic building also now houses the Vienna Coffeehouse Cafe. Award-winning Vienna Coffee is roasted in nearby Maryville and is served in many of the locally owned restaurants that might even choose to have their own signature blend created.
A tasting of roasted red pepper and gouda soup flavored with Regas Au Natural brand seasoning brought a taste of the past to the present. The rich, flavorful soup was accompanied by Vienna’s signature chicken salad along with their house made pimento cheese, which guests declared was such a delicious and unique four cheese version that it should be dubbed, “Vienna Cheese”. Guests were also able to taste the Regas seasoning on its own and a choice of a cup of the daily varieties of Vienna Coffee rounded out our samplings. Local products such as the Regas seasoning and Vienna Coffee are available for purchase along the tour route for guests who might like to take souvenirs back home for themselves, family or friends.
Outside the Regas Building it had begun to rain so we stopped under the awning to take a look at the progress on the Regas Square project, soon to house over 100 condominiums along with restaurants and other retail outlets. Regas Square is located at the former space of the Atkin Hotel. C.B. Atkin’s fine dining restaurant inside the hotel became the favorite place of ladies to take afternoon tea and featured classical music performances by string ensembles. One of the most outstanding musicians to perform at the Atkin was Bertha Roth, who went on to found the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra. You can read all about it in my book, Lost Restaurants of Knoxville. What, you thought Knoxville was Just Now coming on to the culinary, arts and music scene??
We headed up Gay St. and those wonderful old JFG signs came into view, left from the time when the coffee powerhouse operated out of several buildings in the Old City area. Locals will tell you that folks knew they were getting close to downtown Knoxville by the smell of roasting coffee. I shared with guests a quick history of JFG Coffee and the Goodson family. With the rain and wind coming at us, we kept moving.
Arriving safely at the Southern Railway Station, we had a chance to explore the restored building, originally part of a passenger and freight station complex completed in 1903 and now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Here we were able to take an up-close look at various colors, shades and finishes of locally quarried Tennessee Marble used in the structure. Excavation, finishing and distribution of Tennessee Marble created a million-dollar industry in this area between the 1850’s and 1950’s. The most common question I get at this magnificent building is, “Who owns this place??” Enter Blue Slip Winery.
At the Blue Slip guests were led through a tasting of wines produced onsite from locally grown grapes and other fruits. Varieties included dry, sweet and semi-sweet reds and whites as well as those specialty fruit wines. Inside the winery is the Pelican Bistro, where we had a tasting of 3 entrees, each prepared with a different wine produced at the Blue Slip. These signature features included Cayuga wine mussels with toast points for dipping in that tasty broth, a tender steak filet topped with a Cynthiana wine demi glaze, and a shrimp and pasta in white wine sauce.
After our tasting, we were escorted out to the developing railcar museum and had the opportunity to walk through several vintage train cars including an old mail car and a refurbished dining car which is available for rental for special events. Food for the bistro as well as the dining car is prepared by Chef Jon Henckel, former executive chef at Nama Sushi Bar and Gettysview Country Club.
Working our way to the heart of the Old City, guests got a great view of the old White Lily Flour Mill. White Lily was in production in Knoxville from 1883 until 2008. Made from soft red winter wheat, White Lily was always the flour of choice for southern baking.
As we moved on into the Warehouse District, I told guests of the first nickname for this area, “The Bowery,” named for a similar area of ill repute in New York, and how the term, “Old City” came into existence in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.
Guests followed me faithfully through the rain to an outdoor courtyard. Good Golly Tamale is temporarily using the space while their kitchen is being remodeled. The owner, Matt, explained to us how he insisted on having a cover installed over the outdoor space for his guests’ comfort while dining. I can think of nothing more “Old City” than sitting in a beautiful courtyard eating a tamale, one of the signature dishes of Knoxville. We sat in a completely dry area while we tried some of the daily tamale specials which included the Classic - Strongstock Farm ground beef, Mother Earth Meats sausage, Yukon potatoes and spices; the Curry Chicken - Springer Mountain Farms chicken, roasted onions, coconut and spices; and a new offering - whitefish prepared ceviche style. These were accompanied by the house made salsa and a surprise tomatillo salsa along with healthy collard greens.
Next door is Pretentious Glass where I had arranged a glass blowing demonstration for guests. Pretentious Glass has the distinction of being one of the top selling Etsy stores in the country, known specifically for their variety of hand-made beer glasses. Our demonstration was led by shop manager Summer and glassblower David Wiss, who studied Studio Glass at the University of South Alabama. Watching a piece being made while having it explained from the beginning was fascinating for tour guests. Guests also learned how they could book a session to make their own beer, wine or whiskey glasses, ornaments, flowers or paperweights. This cozy, warm space was the perfect hide out for a few minutes on a rainy day.
We moved on across the street to Corks Wine & Spirits, a specialty shop focusing on fine new and rare wines, craft beer and other spirits. Corks offers superior service and quality products including wines in a unique way - on tap - available to take home in special wine growlers. Our tasting was led by the Corks general manager along with their professional sommelier who informed guests when other tastings and classes were held and offered guests specials on purchases for being part of the day’s tour.
Somewhere along the way, through all the excitement, the rain stopped, and we reached the piece de resistance of the Old City, Patrick Sullivan’s Saloon. Built in 1888, this famous old saloon is now the fine dining establishment, Lonesome Dove Western Bistro, part of celebrity chef Tim Love’s restaurant group. We took the bar area to get the old saloon feel, and I heard a guest say, “I can just lean.” “Oh, don’t lean,” I sang out, not wanting anyone to feel uncomfortable. Then I just had to smile when I heard someone else behind me declare, “It’s the South, have a seat and stay a while!”
Suddenly we were presented with boards of “fettine” trios of wild game meats. The term fettine refers to a slice. The day’s selections were wild pig/venison/huckleberry, duck/quail/cheddar and lamb/pork loin/chili black garlic. This was quickly followed by a new spring salad of grilled corn, okra, tomato, cucumber in a red wine-mustard vinaigrette, which everyone quickly named their new favorite salad. Our meats and salad were accompanied by a bowl of warm beet home fries with goat cheese and lemon. Our tastings came to a close with Chef Love’s signature ancho chile chocolate cake, yes, made from that famous recipe from his winning battle on Food Network’s Iron Chef America Battle Chili Pepper.
At the end of the tour, guests had the option to stay and relax at the Lonesome Dove, explore the Old City further on their own, walk at their own pace back up to Gay St., ride the trolley around town, or to take the transportation I had arranged back to their cars or hotels.
And that’s what it’s all about on Knoxville Food Tours - discovering, learning and experiencing the wonderful offerings, stories and people of Knoxville. Come along with me and turn even a rainy day in Knoxville into a special day filled with “Legends and Modern Local Flavors”.