Where to eat in the relaxed Southern city that’s just under your radar
Cities like Atlanta and Charleston get all the glory, but Chattanooga in East Tennessee plays host to a bevy of can’t-miss culinary gems no traveler should overlook. The unpretentious Southern city offers plenty to do and see in between bites, like the Tennessee Aquarium and Songbirds Guitar Museum, but a city’s food is why we go, right? Hop aboard the Chattanooga train and visit these six swoon-worthy spots.
What do you do with a building that once housed a Coca-Cola bottling plant? If you’re Erik and Amanda Niel, you convert it into one of the most highly regarded restaurants in town. The Niels opened Easy in 2012; since then, Erik, who helms the kitchen, has been a James Beard Award semifinalist twice. It’s easy to see why with his careful attention to detail and high-level execution in everything from the artful charcuterie boards to the beef short rib with beets, figs, beech mushrooms and black garlic.
Chattanooga has a rap for casual touristy favorites like Maple Street Biscuit Company and Aretha Frankensteins, but chef Rebecca Barron has proven there’s an appetite for fine dining, too. Set within a former turn-of-the-century hotel, St. John’s emanates grandness, with two-story windows and soaring ceilings. Barron sources local produce from Tennessee farms, including Chattanooga’s own Crabtree Farms, a nonprofit farm that supplies produce to the city’s restaurants and provides educational outreach to the community. The menu rotates frequently and focuses on seasonal dishes, but Kenny’s Roasted Pork Belly, served on buttermilk biscuits and named after sous-chef Kenny Burnap, is a year-round menu staple.
3. Southern Sqweeze
In a region so heavily dominated by heavy, grease-laden cuisine, Southern Sqweeze (with locations in Downtown and North Chattanooga) is a refreshing change of pace, and perfect for a breakfast or light lunch that’s equal parts satisfying and Instagrammable. Stay on trend with the Sweet Talkin’ smoothie bowl, made with almond milk, acai, cherry, banana and cacao powder. Other California-inspired offerings, like chia puddings and superfood lattes, further set Southern Sqweeze apart in a region that’s sorely lacking in health-conscious juice bars.
A restaurant with a butcher shop—or is it a butcher shop with a restaurant?—is always a winning combination. Main Street Meats, Easy Bistro’s sister restaurant, specializes in meats that have been processed in-house, like andouille made with pork from Knoxville-based Southern Natural Farms and various steak cuts from Lake Majestik Farms just 45 miles away in Flat Rock, Alabama. At the restaurant, the local beef burger is the MVP, but the MSM BLT is a strong contender for runner-up, with house-smoked bacon, heirloom tomatoes and bread from Niedlov’s Breadworks right next door. After you’ve polished it off, grab some charcuterie from the butcher shop to snack on later—there are more than 30 kinds to choose from.
5. Milk & Honey
Chattanooga is a terrifically walkable city, and no visit would be complete without a stroll across the Walnut Street Bridge—one of the world’s longest pedestrian bridges, spanning the Tennessee River—to the North Shore, home to galleries, boutiques and casual restaurants like Milk & Honey. Complete with honeycomb tiles and garage door windows that open the cozy space to sunlight, Milk & Honey exudes charm. Signature gelato flavors include Purple Cow, reminiscent of grape Smarties, and pineapple habanero. But a brand slogan of More than Moo delivers in spades, with a full menu, great coffee and an epic avocado toast — loaded with onion jam and poached eggs—at brunch.
Woodsy vibes recalling a tree house make Flying Squirrel Bar an appealing casual dinner spot. Post up at the open-windowed bar and treat yourself to an order of Burt’s Famous Fried Chicken, which is named after sous-chef Burt Brown and available in original and spicy—the heat packs an oomph without killing you. End the night with a blueberry-lemon tart or one of Flying Squirrel’s infused liquors—the smoked peach whiskey is a local favorite.
Lia Picard is an Atlanta-based freelance writer. Follow her on Instagram at @liapicard.
Published online on Sept. 7, 2017: Written by Lia Picard