A Tennessee city firmly rooted in the past keeps moving on with new music in historical buildings, vintage guitars in a modern museum and a river’s unchanging beauty running through it.
In Chattanooga, I prepared my ears for the worm: the 1941 signature song about a guy riding the train to Tennessee to attend a soiree with a sweetheart he endearingly calls “funny face.” I assumed that the city would stream the classic tune in speakers hidden behind shrubs or that Glenn Miller’s voice would boom down from Lookout Mountain. Hey, you down there: Woo, Woo, Chattanooga.
But during my visit, no one hummed it and no venues played it, not even the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel and Attractions, which inhabits the old depot. And so I discovered: The ’Noog isn’t tied to its tracks; the Scenic City has chugged on. Of course, I had to visit Terminal Station, but not for the obvious reason. The 101-year-old beaux-arts building has evolved into an entertainment complex with live music (upcoming shows: the Velcro Pygmies and Pigeons Playing Ping Pong), a comedy club, a vintage guitar museum and a bar that serves eight kinds of artisanal ice in its cocktails.
But then I moved on, just like the city. To the 13-mile Tennessee Riverpark along the glassy blue Tennessee. To Coolidge Park and its Old Faithful-spurting fountains. To the vertiginous Civil War site of the “Battle Above the Clouds.” To downtown neighborhoods dabbed with graffiti art, scented with Indonesian cinnamon rolls and populated with rock climbers and skateboarders. On my languorous wanderings — garden snail was the average pace — I traded pleasantries with strangers. Because while Chattanooga has advanced beyond its choo-choo days, it still embraces old-fashioned Southern gentility.
1. Sculpture Fields at Montague Park sits on an unpleasant past: The 33-acre green space was once a landfill. Founder/curator John Henry tidied up the area with 120 trees, landscaped gardens and 35 large-scale sculptures. For the second phase of the project, he plans to add twice as many artworks, an amphitheater, a visitors’ center and a children’s section. The outdoor museum features predominantly abstract pieces by artists from around the world, including Switzerland, Palestinian territories, Germany and Chattanooga (see Henry’s “Bette Davis Eyes”). Hop along the groomed trail, and if you want a closer peek, go ahead — they are 3-D, after all. “It’s a walkaround experience,” Henry said after a golf cart tour of the garden.
2. At Songbirds Guitar Museum, which opened in March, you might suddenly feel the urge to play air guitar. One of the world’s largest private collection of vintage guitars — 1,700 fretted instruments, including 500 models on display — has that effect on visitors. The museum tracks the evolution of the electric guitar and honors the instrument’s contribution to such musical genres as bluegrass, surf and the British invasion. Guitar fanciers can play “Who Strummed It?” For example, I say “1964 Fender Stratocaster?” And you answer, “Buddy Guy.” The rarest models live inside a Fort Knox-fortified vault, so try to restrain the windmill moves.
3. A common refrain heard at the African American Museum and Bessie Smith Cultural Center: “I didn’t know [Very Famous Person] was from Chattanooga!” Among the names I exclaimed: Samuel L. Jackson, Usher, Reggie White (see his signed Packers helmet), Willie Mayes, James Mapp and several Impressions. The 32-year-old museum, which changes its exhibits every three months, focuses on “the history of Chattanooga and the part African Americans played in its development,” said program coordinator Marty Mitchell. A permanent section dedicated to the Empress of the Blues features her rosewood grand piano and a 1927 telegram inquiring about her availability for a gig in Georgia. She was free.
Up, up, up goes the Incline Railway, one of the world’s steepest, which has been defying gravity since 1895. After cresting the 72.7-percent-grade track, shake off your wobbles at Point Park, a 10-acre National Park memorial overlooking 4. Lookout Mountain Battlefield. Attractions include the New York Peace Memorial, a unifying tribute to both sides of the conflict, and the Ochs Memorial Observatory museum, which showcases images by Union Army photographer Michael Linn. Warning: Don’t attempt to re-create the precarious poses on the boulders.
5. Main Street Meats knows its way around proteins: The 40-seat bistro grew out of a butcher shop and charcuterie and, since opening two years ago, has not strayed from its roots. The staff grinds the meat, cures the bacon, ages the beef and salami-fies the salami on the premises. Former assistant manager Kevin Combs says the burger, which comes with house pickles, caramelized onions, bacon and Gruyere, “is becoming a rite of passage.” Toast your initiation properly with the Homegrown, a madcap mix of Chattanooga whiskey reserve, Mexican coke and salted peanuts.
When the 6. Bitter Alibi opened in 2014, the basement-level bar was so empty that the few patrons who did show up couldn’t find a witness to back up their alibi — the inspiration for the bar’s tagline, “You were with us the whole time.” That’s no longer the case. After expanding vertically with a restaurant and a tiki bar and introducing a menu heavy on multicultural comfort, the place is now swarming with eyes. For nostalgia’s sake, order Kermit’s Flat Attack, an ode to the early years when the only cooking equipment was a panini press and no one saw you eat.
7. St. John’s Restaurant was not named after the Apostle, though many diners claim that the smoked corn soup with lobster fell from up above. The sophisticated farm-to-table eatery, which specializes in Southern cuisine, repurposed elements from its earlier incarnation as a hotel catering to train travelers. For example, the bar-top marble was quarried from the guest room showers. Manager/sommelier Michelle Richards said guests dine here to celebrate “an anniversary, or for just being alive.” For smaller-fry celebrations and more casual fare, see what’s behind Door No. 2 (Surprise! It’s St. John’s Meeting Place.)
The photos displayed inside 8. Zarzour’s Café document the long, strange trip the four generations of owners have taken. One one wall: a portrait of Charles Abraham Zarzour, the Lebanese immigrant who opened the restaurant 99 years ago. On another wall: a picture of Dixie Fuller, former stage manager for the band Alabama, buddying up with ZZ Top. The menu could fit on an index card: hamburger (add cheese for two quarters), hamburger steak (small or large), meat-and-threes (sides include pinto beans, turnip greens and pickled beets). “If your grandmother was from the South,” said Shannon Fuller, who runs the homey place with her husband, “she’d cook what we cook.”
Ongeleigh Underwood designs clothing with her female customers, including Mother Earth, in mind. For her label 9. Temperate, she uses sustainable materials (flax linen, hemp and organic cotton, for instance) to create loose, flowy pieces that, by contrast, make yoga pants feel like sausage casings. The color palette leans toward neutrals, though the Vera dress lets the animal out of the cage with its blue stripes. Underwood sells her collection from her production studio. Peek behind the curtain to see what you’ll be wearing next season.
10. Merchants on Main takes the antiques-mall arrangement and removes the fustiness and creepy dolls. More than 20 vendors set up mini-shops showcasing clothing, accessories, honey, candles, artwork, repurposed furniture and homewares more fitting for a Brooklyn loft than the Victorian parlor of a fading doyenne. Refinery 423, for one, stocks Hoff hot sauce, golf balls in an egg carton and messenger bags with the image of a skulking bear. Wanderlust and Wolf designs laser-cut wood earrings in the shape of coffee cups, bicycles and foxes. And a coffeehouse barista moonlighting as a Lilliputian landscaper sells her Jurassic-style terrariums with succulents and plastic dinosaurs.
11. Winder Binder Gallery and Bookstore started with toys in the 1990s, the old-timey tin kind that wind up and waddle off. Owner David Smotherman then added books (new, used and antique), then folk and outsider art (bugs made of bullets, face jugs, screen prints of Bill Murray), music (B-side bests) and apparel (a ’Noog T-shirt for every phase of the moon). To make a local statement, pick up merchandise for the Chattanooga Football Club, the city’s soccer team, and identify yourself as a Chattahooligan.
On Manufacturers Drive, open your window and inhale the Proustian scent of MoonPies wafting from Chattanooga Bakery. Then drive to Broad Street to ingest the memory. The 12. MoonPie General Store sells individual packages as well as family-size boxes of the coated marshmallow-and-graham-cracker treat. Relive the past with the original flavor or look forward with salted caramel, banana or coconut. To learn the backstory, watch the video about the snack that a Kentucky miner suggested should be as big as that pie in the sky.
If you missed out on midcentury Palm Springs — or Palm Beach, depending on your coastal bias — here’s your chance to relive the epoch. 13. The Dwell Hotel is a showcase of period decor that is not shy around color or tropical prints. Each of the 16 rooms boasts its own fingerprint. The Flamingo room features wallpaper with the leggy birds and a white shag-covered chair; the Convex has yolk-yellow chairs and framed Op Art. If your peepers need a break from the brightness, duck into Matilda Midnight, a lounge dimly lit by a starry ceiling. Perks include valet parking, a gym pass, breakfast and iced sugar cookies sparkling under a glass dome.
Guests who show up with ropes and belays know the real meaning of 14. the Crash Pad, an eco-hostel (LEED Platinum status) that attracts mountain climbers and other adventurous types. (Spotted in the parking lot: A car with Georgia plates and surfboards on the roof.) In the lobby, find climbing magazines and adventure guidebooks, plus a pocket store that sells such essentials as chalk bags, sweatbands and Beta balm. For accommodations, choose from curtained bunk beds in an open space or a private room. Breakfast is a simple gas-up-and-go affair: fresh bread from the bakery next door, peanut butter, jam, Nutella and coffee. You can also stash your food in the community fridge or dine at the adjoining Flying Squirrel, where Crash Padders receive a discount.
All aboard the 15. Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel. The lobby occupies the old Terminal Station, a Beaux-Arts structure that was built in 1909 and causes neck cricks with its 82-foot-high ceiling dome. “You feel like you are reenacting the history of Chattanooga when you walk in,” said Justin Strickland, a local historian. The MacArthur Building, which shares the name of Southern Railway’s last steam-powered freight train, offers standard guest rooms. To feel closer to the rails, book a room in one of nearly two dozen Pullman train cars. Fortunately, you don’t have to wait for your bed to stop moving to step outside for a stroll in the Glenn Miller Gardens.
Several years ago, few could imagine that one day, in the 16. Southside neighborhood, you could buy cold-pressed juice called the Pipe Cleaner, absorb the healing powers of infrared light therapy and purchase copper-clad custom speakers for $36,400. “It was a rough part of town,” Combs said. Well, that day has come. The once-gritty area on Market and Main streets carries the torch of eclecticism. Public art adorns the sidewalks, and galleries feature works by established artists as well as homeless individuals. Southside also claims to have the highest number of restaurants per capita in the city. The culinary options include sushi, choripanes, hash (choose from corned beef, portobello and cilantro-lime tofu), avocado toast and smoked bison meatloaf with a side of ping-pong.
Charles and Mary Portera didn’t create 17. Bluff View Art District — geologic forces shaped the stone cliffs overlooking the Tennessee River — but the Chattanoogan couple did establish the city’s first arts district. For more than 25 years, the Porteras have been carving out a mini-fiefdom of culture with their River Gallery and sculpture garden, both within skipping distance of the Hunter Museum of American Art and the Houston Museum. Of course, art-viewing can make you hungry. To the rescue: Tony’s Pasta Shop and Trattoria, Back Inn Cafe and Bluff View Bakery, where you can smell the carbs from the sidewalk. It can also cause drowsiness. Silence the call for a nap with an espresso drink from Rembrandt’s Coffee House or succumb at the Bluff View Inn, a trio of properties housed in buildings ripped from the pages of a fairy tale.
Published online Sept. 20, 2017: Written by Andrea Sachs