A Guide to South Knoxville
Looking southeast from downtown Knoxville across the Gay Street Bridge, a massive wall of kudzu rises from the bank of the Tennessee River to street level on the opposite shore. The renovated JFG sign and the impressive Kerbela Temple, both brilliantly illuminated at night, stand in stark contrast to the bucolic treeline that towers above them. It is a picturesque scene, but one that for years has offered false hope to many who have ventured down Sevier Avenue seeking cultural enlightenment. However, that blighted, industrial corridor, so close to the city center yet filled with urban decay for so long, is beginning to change in a big way.
The concurrent revitalization of the South Knoxville waterfront and the emergence of alfresco recreation opportunities have spawned an increase in redevelopment in recent months on that side of the river. Outdoors enthusiasts are flocking in droves to the ever-expanding Urban Wilderness, resurgent Ijams Nature Center, Mead’s Quarry and Forks of the River. Regal Entertainment Group soon will begin constructing its new, sprawling headquarters on the south bank, and the multipurpose Suttree Landing Park is scheduled to be completed sometime in the not-too-distant future. Savvy locals have taken note, and a rash of ventures that cater to the influx of newcomers either already have been established or are close to launching.
This is a look at a small fraction of what to love about South Knoxville, perhaps this town’s most charming area.
Setting up shop in October of last year just about a football field’s length from the aforementioned Suttree Landing and less than a quarter mile from Alliance Brewing Company’s home on Sevier, Trailhead Beer Market was one of the very first businesses to take advantage of South Knox’s newfound popularity. Occupying a building at 1317 Island Home Ave. that in the past housed several sketchy dive bars, Trailhead breaks the mold, offering an extensive array of quality craft beers available for consumption both on and off-site. Thanks to the careful guidance of co-owners Joe Jennings and Kathy Wright, it has quietly but quickly established a still-growing reputation as the community’s best neighborhood bar.
Likening his establishment to a living room/patio equipped with a bar, Jennings wants every customer to feel comfortable at Trailhead. “It’s for everybody,” he says, “from craft beer enthusiasts to novice craft beer drinkers. And even if you like a domestic, you’re more than welcome here, too. For the community, it’s a place to come, hang out, meet your neighbors and learn about places around here that maybe you didn’t know about.”
Such lack of pretention is evident in the shop’s quaint environs. The wooden bar top is simple yet elegant, accentuated by a carved sign bearing the Trailhead logo that hangs by the front door. A couch, plush chairs and a reclaimed coffee table line one corner of the room, handcrafted wooden tables and chairs dotting the rest of the cozy interior. Outlining the walls is a rotating selection of paintings created by local artists, each a First Friday display curated by Deborah Rule. Another eye-turner is a beautiful piece of metalwork placed next to the taps behind the bar. The rusticity of the room is by design, as is the overall concept of the business.
Having long been a frequent visitor to the trails at Ijams, Jennings was frustrated by the absence of options close by in which he could stop for a post-hike beer. “You could always go downtown,” he explains, “but sometimes you don’t feel comfortable with you and your dog being dirty going into somewhere there.”
After attending Knoxville-Knox County Metropolitan Planning Commission meetings and realizing that the city was making improvements to that specific area and was investing more in South Knox as a whole, he saw an opportunity to create the kind of place he and his friends would like to patronize: a family-friendly, smoke-free indoors, convenient beer market where people could stop in briefly to pick up brews, relax for a spell or spend an entire evening.
While admitting that this could have been a challenging prospect given the structure’s dubious history, Jennings shrugs off any difficulty he encountered in transforming the space. “I’ve heard of many of the incarnations it’s been, and a lot of locals have some most colorful stories about things that happened in said building,” he chuckles, before adding, “but it’s a charming old building that shouldn’t go to waste. I think it’s a really cool place.”
In researching the location and in speaking with a friend who serves on the board of directors for Candoro Marble, Jennings discovered that, while the photographic and recorded history of Vestal is strong, not much documentation about the Island Home section of South Knox materialized until well after the Downtown Island Airport was erected. As a result, he was able to procure just one old photo of the building (on display in the bar) and information about one of the city’s first public pools, which rested in the adjacent grassy lot on the other side of McCormick Street. Still, Jennings heard talk that the building was originally purposed as a house before transitioning into a pawn shop.
As was the case with the building itself for a number of years, the area immediately surrounding it currently is experiencing significant change. Construction of The River’s Edge, a massive luxury apartment complex situated along the avenue east of Trailhead and just west of Island Home Boulevard, began in earnest at the start of April 2015. In order for contractors to install utilities and necessary infrastructure, through traffic along the avenue was closed from where it intersects with Sevier Avenue to the boulevard, a long section of road that included the property on which the beer market sits.
Jennings and Wright had planned to open Trailhead near the end of July 2015 when that portion of the project was scheduled to be completed. Complications with the installation arose, though, and the closure was extended a full three months to the end of October. The news was concerning, of course, but the co-owners took the additional time to make renovations and pushed back their start to coincide with the road opening. When Trailhead finally opened in October, however, the avenue was not – and wouldn’t be until the end of January, another three months later.
The delay could have been devastating to the business, but beneficial support from the Island Home Park Neighborhood Association and strong word of mouth kept the business afloat in its early days. Possessing a sense of humor, too, helped. Jennings jokes, “Then, we were just like, ‘It is what it is. We’re gonna show up, and hopefully they’re gonna meet their deadline one day.’”
On a more serious note, though, Jennings then acknowledges how the South Knox community is the most supportive he has ever been around, citing how residents already had experienced hardship during the Henley Street Bridge closure and made a concerted effort then and now to support local businesses.
Trailhead returns the favor in kind, sourcing as much as it can locally. The refillable growlers they sell on-site are manufactured by a company near Chattanooga, and Circa supplies the enterprise with its merchandise. “We try to do everything as local as we can, even if means spending a little bit more money,” Jennings explains. “We would rather spend a little more money in Knoxville than spend a little less on the internet.”
Now it’s rare to pass by Trailhead and not see a full lot and/or bike rack. Increased success has allowed for improvements. Although still a small operation, the staff increased to include Corey Everett, Robert Richards and Rebecca Tillery. The back patio has expanded to include picnic tables and a grill is available for use by anyone who brings his/her own food (the bar supplies propane and tools). In addition to vinyl (hosted by Justin Clift) and 8-track nights (hosted by Bill Alexander, the Appalachian Hippie Poet), Knox Trivia Guys oversee spirited contests on Thursday evenings at 7. In addition to a solid beer menu, Trailhead welcomes food trucks at least five nights out of the week.
As far as the biggest draw – the beer – is concerned, Jennings favors quality and style over quantity and brand loyalty. On the store’s nine taps, usually there will always be two IPAs, one dark, one pilsner, one wheat and a variety of seasonals. Most are regional offerings, if not local, and the available canned and bottled brews are a balanced, cosmopolitan blend of micro and macro. The aforementioned Trailhead-branded growlers are available for purchase, fills and refills, as are any other closable receptacles customers are to bring in.
Economically and culturally, things in South Knox are changing for the better. As the community continues to develop, Jennings hopes that Trailhead will remain a fixture in the scene. Having worked for many years in the service industry, he appears to have a handle on what will keep the business flourishing. With typical mellowness, a twinkle in his eye and a wry smile, he says, “We’d just like to keep doing what we’re doing and maybe step it up a notch or two.” -Matt Rankin
Alliance Brewing Company
Alliance Brewing Company, the first and thus far only participant south of the river in Knoxville’s burgeoning craft beer scene, opened for business toward the end of last summer. Guest taps were all that they could offer at the time, but the intervening months have witnessed the brewers’ master craftsmanship be put on display. In addition to the excellent core selection, there are several seasonals, each one as good as the flagships. Hours for the tasting room were lengthened recently, ensuring that the delectable brews find an audience. -MR
Ye Olde Steakhouse
Hugh Ray Wilson, Jr., is Ye Olde Steakhouse’s General Manager, former chef and grandson of original owners Bunt and Helen King, who opened the restaurant in South Knoxville in 1968 serving “Steaks Cooked to Perfection” and “Food Fit For a King,” as their website slogans read.
“I grew up working in the restaurant. In the late 80s my dad also opened a restaurant in the Old City (Hooray’s),” Wilson says with an aside: “I’m actually trying to open another one once they start developing the South Knoxville Riverfront, if I can find an ideal spot.” The Hooray’s wing sauce won Ye Olde Steakhouse’s team a 5th place finish at last weekend’s wing festival in World’s Fair Park, not bad for a restaurant that doesn’t even serve wings these days. But what Y.O.S. does serve is some of the juiciest, most mouth-watering steaks a person can get their hands on. They’ve won Best Local Steak in multiple local polls and been featured on television shows like Man Versus Food.
“Mostly it’s always been a meat and potatoes kind of restaurant,” he says. “We’ve got steak, we’ve got fish, we’ve got chicken.” “Mostly we focus on the steak and sides kind of thing and we’re also known for our charbroiled shrimp.”
So what makes the food and the experience eating it so special at Ye Olde Steakhouse?
“We’re a local business, we’re family owned, and because we’re not a corporation, you know?” Wilson says. “There’s more of a down-home feel.” They get the special flavor out of their meat by grilling the cuts, then cooking it cast iron skillet with vegetable oil (“It cooks them through, keeps them moist”) and then throwing them back on the grill, which burns the oil off and chars the meat, and then they season, butter, and serve. “Some of our grill grates and cast iron skillets are very well seasoned since we have had them 30+ years,” Wilson says. “You think about how many steaks are cooking in that vegetable oil every night, you could almost make a gravy.”
The quality of the cuts is another thing that sets Ye Olde Steakhouse apart, according to Wilson. “We serve a USDA top choice, a step below prime…if you go to… I don’t want to name names, but they may use a lower…and you can just tell, because it’s more gristly. A lot of the restaurants don’t cut their steaks by hand; we do…and,” he says laughing, “you may get a little extra. I don’t advertise this fact but a lot of the time our ribeyes are 12oz instead of 10 ounces, and with our hamburger, we use the trimmings from all the steaks that we cut. We don’t use any store-bought burger meat.”
Burger Monday is another popular, if limited supply, event: “It’s first-come, first-serve.” 10 oz burger for $8. Early bird special M-Th, choice of burger, buffalo chicken or grilled sandwich plus one side for $8 4-6pm.
So what’s it mean to be a local restaurant in Knoxville all these years?
“A few years ago I read somewhere that Knoxville has more restaurants per capita than any other city in America and it’s harder to make it here than anywhere else in the country,” he says. “My family has been doing this, in 2 more years it will be 50 years we’ve been opened, and we hope to make it to 50 and then make it another 50 years. We try to do things to give back to the community and we hope that the community will support us as much as we want to support the community because we are a local thing and we are a family and there is something more special about that than a Texas Roadhouse or something like that” Wilson’s parting advice:.”Start booking now for home game reservations and Christmas parties because they fill up fast.”
South Knoxville’s Great Outdoors
Of course, what South Knoxville is perhaps best known for is its insanely gorgeous parks, trails, and other outdoor offerings. Knoxvillians have a special setup in that they can cross the Gay or Henley Street Bridge out of downtown and be in some killer urban wilderness within minutes. This includes Ijams Nature Center, Island Home Park and Greenway, Knoxville Outdoor Adventure Center, the new Bell Built grant recipient Devil Racetrack mountain bike course and so much more.
The Knoxville outdoor community is a loose coalition consisting of often overlapping and cooperating entities: the city and county’s parks and rec departments, of course, but also non-profit groups like Legacy Parks Foundation and clubs like the Appalachian Mountain Bike Club, who was largely responsible for many of the trails built throughout the area, including the application for and awareness raising around the $100,000 Devil’s Racetrack grant from Bell, which opened with a ribbon-cutting on June 17th.
Also, according to AMBC’s President Matthew Kellogg, much of the progress in developing Knoxville’s Urban Wilderness has been the fruit of the labor of some passionate individuals who care deeply about projects and make them happen through the organizations they’re involved with or on their own by volunteering. He cited Carol Evans, Executive Director of Legacy Parks Foundation and architect of the Urban Wilderness, who has overseen more than 50 miles and 7 newly opened miles of trail throughout South Knoxville. Kellogg says past AMBC Brian Hann has led many of these efforts towards trail building and awareness and his yearly AMBC Fall Festival on his South Knoxville property, replete with bonfires, lit night-time dirt tracks, races, cookout and more, as a way to thank AMBC helpers and South Knox outdoor folks for their hard work year-round. There’s Doug Battel, working with Knox County, who is also an avid mountain biker and user of the trails himself. There’s Dave Hicks, who lives in Knoxville with his family, frequents the trails as a rider and volunteer trail builder, and has performed in bands at the AMBC Fall Festival yearly. There’s John Tod Baker, who has his Arbor music studio in the woods of the area, rides the trails and does sound at Fall Festival. Then there’s all the tourists:
“We see out of state tax in our trailheads on a regular basis because we have such a great trail network,” Kellogg says. “Brian Hann and Carol Evans worked tirelessly on this project,” he says. Then there’s Trailhead bar right on the river on Island Home Avenue, a great spot for bikers to settle in with a beer after a hard ride at Ijams.
Most important, though, Kellogg says, is the every-day trail users who volunteer to help keep their own trails maintained. “We couldn’t do it without support from user groups,” he says.
Whether it’s kayaking on the Tennessee River beneath the Knoxville skyline via the Knoxville Outdoor Adventure Center, riding the Devil’s Racetrack or just strolling on the lakeside boardwalk at Ijams or swimming in Mead’s or Fort Dickerson Quarry, perhaps the best way to spend a summer day in South Knoxville is to get outside and play. -Luke Brogden
(Originally ran in 2011)
Drive down Martin Mill Pike as it winds along. About a mile from Chapman Highway you’ll go over a hill. Round the corner to reveal old Mugford’s Drug Store. Ahead, Pease Furniture Store with it’s diluted teal back drop sits at the corner of Ogle Ave. Slow down, ‘cause you’ve arrived.
Look to the left across from Pease and you’ll be staring at a Knoxville legend. Yes, King Tut’s is more than just an Egyptian Restaurant. If you haven’t been there yet it is something that you must experience, especially if you live in Knoxville.
In years past, you might hear karaoke, or other loud music within a party atmosphere. These days, it’s a bit more relaxed, but it’s still a great place for birthdays and other such occasions. They offer up a cozy eclectic atmosphere, well decorated with all kinds of random stuff. In addition to a traffic light and a deer head the walls are adorned with many small signs. They’re all printed with phrases that are usually reserved for koozies and bumperstickers.
There are also numerous “Best of Knoxville” awards for “Best Middle Eastern Restaurant” adorning the walls of King Tut’s.
On some occasions, there’s a fun, outgoing, open community feeling you get when you go to this place on a busy night. What’s sad is that this has actually kept some people from checking it out. I once had a friend say to me, “I heard that the food is good but I don’t want to sing or have to wear a mask or anything.” But as far as I’m concerned, if I hear that the food is good, I’m giving it a shot.
Speaking of grub, let’s get down to it. They boast the “best Greek salad in Knoxville” and make a mean Egyptian platter. Both are highly recommended, once by me and twice by the owner. I can’t remember the last time that I ate a Greek salad or that it was ever even offered on a menu. Maybe I need to make it a point to look for them or perhaps go to a Greek restaurant and order one. But one thing’s for certain. I can, without doubt, vouch for this Greek salad’s crisp, fresh delectability.
I got my 40oz flower vase filled to the brim with Dr. Pepper. Shortly after, heaped high and capped with serving tongs, it arrived in all it’s glory.
Except for the hearts, the Romaine lettuce appeared to have been “de-boned” of stalky tissue. The more mature and fleshy tops had been removed- there was nary a dark green “half moon” in the bowl. This is good for this type of salad. Sometimes the tops and stalks can have a slight bitterness, and light vinaigrettes such as traditional Greek dressing don’t do much to obscure that and can accentuate it in some cases. Fresh tomatoes, pitted kalamata olives and hardboiled egg slices are layered in. I’m a “pepper-head” and love pepperoccinis so I was a little sad that there was only one. However, I was not as sad as my girlfriend ‘cause I ate it before I realized that it was solo. The dressing was light and flavorful, not at all overpowering. I’ve noticed that the further South you go the more sauce and dressing they want to slather on your food. That’s not the case here and at the bottom of the bowl there was no “puddle-o-sauce.” These are all good things and in my opinion a must on many if not most salads. I would have to say that the crown jewel of this piece was the cheese. It was mild feta scattered like first strike snow flakes on the still brilliant Autumn grass. The soft bodied nature of feta and the uber thin ash-like structure of these cheese flakes had me in a quandry. I even asked the man what kind of cheese was on the salad. I felt no recourse because I was sitting under a sign that read “Don’t be afraid to ask dumb questions.”
I decided that they must chill or possibly freeze the cheese to allow them to grate it off so rice paper thin. This is just a speculation, I could be wrong… but I honestly don’t remember the last time that happened.
I was delighted that arms full of food kept coming. This was the Egyptian platter with six saucers of yum. The hummus was very good with just the right amount of olive oil on top. The baba ganoush, a paste similar in texture to hummus but made from eggplant, was excellent. Even if you are not usually an eggplant lover, this is something you should try. There was one large falafel, which is basically a fried chickpea patty. Nestled on top of a tahini sauce (a sesame seed paste) this is one of the best falafels I’ve eaten. I’m a huge fan of Dolma, grape leaves rolled up with rice and other tasty stuff. Sometimes they have meat in them but I think that these were vegetarian. These were set in a bed of tzitziki, a cucumber yogurt sauce. The platter also contained an Egyptian bean dish called Ful. I’m pretty sure that they were fava beans. A tomato and cucumber salad with basil tipped the scales on this dual platter “sampstravaganza.” A good release from the high level of savory in the previous items, this was a real pallet cleanser. Last but not least of this most flavorful experience was the Kushari, a perfect blend of Spanish rice, brown lentils and elbow macaroni noodles topped with a medium bodied Italian style tomato sauce. This dish brought several styles of cooking together, Spanish rice, Middle Eastern lentils, and Italian noodles and sauce. It is a dish that compliments itself and the other flavors on the platter.
Don’t sweat it if you’re not in to the nightly specials when you go. You can always get their staple items- grilled chicken or fish, liver and onions, shrimp scampi or ribeye steaks. And of course the famous greek salad or Egyptian platter are served up any night of the week. Whether it is a weekend or weeknight, if there is a party there or not, I would recommend that you head down and check out King Tut’s restaurant.
It’s a perfect example of what South Knoxville has to offer. It may take a moment to find what you are looking for, and it may not look extravagant from the outside, but it you give it a chance, you won’t be disappointed. -Jay Tomson