Babalu Tacos & Tapas
Babalu has been packed since opening last November on Gay Street. With touches like the old J.C. Penney’s sign, still-mint poster cards from Knoxville music and theater shows going back years (with lots by Yee Haw Industries), and menu items like a Sugarlands Moonshine margarita, this regional restaurant feels homegrown. Its unusual blue-corn soft taco combinations contain ingredients from tuna to oysters to pork belly. For just $3 to $3.50 each, you can try the pulled pork taco with roasted peanut slaw and pickled red onions, or my favorite, the orange and soy-braised duck taco. But the star at Babalu is the fresh guacamole made table-side, hands-down the best you’ll ever eat. It is a religious experience. (S.H.D.)
Popular Picks—Top Appetizers: Downtown Grill & Brewery, Knox Mason/Calhoun’s (tie)
Popular Picks—Top New Restaurant: Emilia, Kaizen
Popular Picks—Top Taco: Chivo Taqueria, Senor Taco

It seems unlikely that Knoxville would be home to a Japanese gastro-pub, and, yet, there it is right downtown on Clinch Avenue. Kaizen, the brainchild of chef Jesse Newmister, has a brief but effective menu with noodles, steamed buns, gyoza, and a handful of other delights including a dry fried eggplant happily seasoned with Sichuan peppers. Kaizen doesn’t always stick to pure tradition: You’ll find some fun fusion in the form of the Nashville bun—a sambal-laced take on hot chicken. Newmister keeps things pretty accessible, though the adventurous (real Southern) eater won’t pass up the chicken liver gyoza with egg yolk ponzu. (Dennis Perkins)
Popular Picks: Nama Sushi Bar, Taste of Thai

cover_1020_magpiesClay Duda

Magpies Bakery
Knoxville’s sweet scene continues to get sweeter every year, but the queen of the cupcakes still captures Knoxville’s heart in a winning way. Of course Magpies does a lot more than cupcakes—it’s the wedding cake maker to the groovy, author of incredible oatmeal crème pies, quality cookies, profound cherry pie, and more. Owner Peggy Hambright and her team of buttercream mavens helped start the Central Avenue revival and continue to make it a real sweet spot. (D.P.)
Popular Picks: VG’s Bakery, Wild Love Bakery

Sweet P’s Barbeque and Soul House
Sweet P’s is smokin’ the Top Knox barbecue category for the second year in a row as its renown spreads along with its locations. The longtime Soul House at the marina off Maryville Pike has attracted those in-the-know to the Middle of Nowhere for years. But more and more people are in the know, especially since the successful Downtown Dive outpost has had time to become a lunch magnet and catering go-to for businesses in town. The vibe at both is both homey and hip, and the food is distinctive—the side dishes, especially, are variations you’ll never find in some cookie-cutter joint. That smashed potato salad with eggs could have come from your mama’s kitchen, and the collards peppered with carrots, black-eyed-peas, celery, and bacon offer an unexpected twist that still feels 100 percent authentic Southern. Sweet P’s delicious (and generously portioned) banana pudding was ranked among the best in Tennessee (no. 2) by this year; its barbecue, with a tangy red sauce or a thinner cross between Tennessee and Carolina styles, has made a list of the 50 best in the country; and the Travel Channel featured the restaurant’s Gigante Burrito on Man Vs. Food. During football season, you can watch the game at the Downtown Dive while noshing 50-cent wings and $2.50 pints of Tennessee brews. It’s a distinctively Knoxville experience. (S.H.D.)
Popular Picks: Archer’s BBQ, Dead End BBQ

Pete’s Coffee Shop
For 30 years, Pete and Rita Natour have been dishing up generous portions of simple, homey food for what seems like the same price in this Union Avenue diner. It’s one of the only places you’ll find bankers and politicians rubbing shoulders with construction workers. The flaky biscuits, fancy omelettes, pancakes, and cinnamon French toast—all available early on weekdays—have put Pete’s breakfast at the top of our reader’s poll for years. And while it’s hard to keep any downtown lunch tab under $10, Pete’s is the exception. It’s probably also the only place (downtown or elsewhere) where you can get a high-quality, delicious hamburger for $4. Pete’s keeps it simple and traditional with homemade pimento cheese, a classic patty melt, or meatloaf. But it also offers lighter, more trendy options like wraps—try the sun-dried tomato pesto wrap when it’s on special. (S.H.D.)
Popular Picks—Top Breakfast: Holly’s Gourmet Market, OliBea
Popular Picks—Top Meal That’s a Steal: Good Golly Tamale, Soccer Taco

Bistro at the Bijou
This brunch may be legendary for the Cool Hand Luke—a 10-egg omelet—but the reason it remains tops for one of the city’s favorite meals lies in the general quality and freshness of the food. Impressive vegan and vegetarian options open the menu to all sorts of eaters, and the jazz that often accompanies the meal (along with a brilliant Bloody Mary) are important grace notes in this spot’s appeal. Red Flannel Hash made with potatoes and beets and chicken fried steak with sawmill gravy give you an idea of the menu’s range. And if you hurry, you can replace your pumpkin spice overload with a healthy helping of gingerbread waffles. (D.P.)
Popular Picks: Copper Cellar, Tomato Head

cover_1020_mattgallaherTricia Bateman

Matt Gallaher
For many Knoxville diners, Matt Gallaher will forever be the man who brought pork rinds to fine dining. Of course, that’s just one of the chef’s many tasty contributions to the city. Gallaher’s food, whether it’s his take on Southern classics or classic Italian, is vibrant, intense, and satisfying to both eye and appetite—and that’s true whether it’s bar snacks at Knox Mason or antipasti at Emilia. That he so easily handles the comfort food of two nations speaks to both his skill and his popularity. (D.P.)
Popular Picks: Holly Hambright, Jesse Newmister

cover_1020_kbrewTricia Bateman

K Brew
K Brew is the kind of coffee shop where you’ll run into barristas from other coffee shops—and that’s perhaps the highest endorsement your morning cup of joe can get. The rotating high-end blends, the informed and patient staff, and the multiple brewing methods will please the purists, but K Brew makes world-class coffee anybody can appreciate, from connoisseurs to entry-level enthusiasts. Plus, the new location on Broadway, an easy destination from anywhere in the central city, is one of the most fun places to get a caffeine fix, with its sleek, open design and jungle of hammocks for luxurious lounging. And don’t forget the new downtown outlet, located in the federal courthouse building at the south end of Market Street. (M.E.)
Popular Picks: Old City Java, Remedy

Chandler’s Deli
Once again, Chandler’s Deli wins honors for warming the cockles of our heart and gullet. It’s not just that the food is comforting, but it’s delicious, too. The truth of the matter is that if you haven’t had a piece of their fried chicken—particularly a thigh—you just haven’t lived comfortably at all. Of course the chicken couldn’t do it alone—there’s also very uplifting BBQ and daily specials like meatloaf, salmon patties, and chicken tetrazzini, along with a slate of utterly soothing side dishes like macaroni and cheese, sweet potatoes, and chicken and dumplings—all of which clearly make Knoxvillians feel much better about whatever ails them. (D.P.)
Popular Picks: Jackie’s Dream, Tupelo Honey

Frussie's Reuben SandwichCourtesy of Frussie's Deli

Frussie’s Reuben Sandwich

Frussie’s Deli & Bakery
For many diners, the great surprise about eating in town is the quality of sandwich making—and the current king of that noble art is Jay Brandon, owner of Frussie’s. Good sandwiches are built from the bottom up—so it’s hardly surprising that this much loved deli’s excellence is based on the combination of homemade bread and house cured meat. It’s a tough life, and we’re awfully glad that Brandon feels compelled to do it. The Reuben is legendary, and the Italian sub, the stuff of dreams. (D.P.)
Popular Picks: Nixon’s Deli, Market House Cafe & Curious Dog (tie)
Honorable Mention (RIP): North Corner Sandwich Shop

In a city of really good desserts, Litton’s ever full and unendurably tempting dessert case stands out to voters across Knoxville who make a pilgrimage to Fountain City for a slice of legendary red velvet cake. There’s plenty more, from cookies to crustless cheesecake; the cream-cheese brownie is an exercise in joyful eating, and the restaurant’s coconut cream pie was named one of the South’s best by Southern Living—though we could have told you that any old time. (D.P.)
Popular Picks: Magpies, Tomato Head & Coolato Gelato (tie)

Savory & Sweet
At the beginning of Knoxville’s food road trip, Sweet and Savory owners Byron and Kiki Sambat were among the first and finest to join the convoy. Four years later, they remain one of the best mobile meal sources for inspired tacos and other treats: the brunch bowl and burritos; their signature bacon-wrapped, stuffed dates; and a bacon and pimento cheese-filled delight called Go Big Orange Biscuit. The food is consistently well made, delicious, and fun to eat, and sourced from suppliers more near than far. (D.P.)
Popular Picks: Cruze Farm, Good Golly Tamale

The French Market & Café
The French Market has had a tough year, with its flagship Gay Street location hidden behind wood paneling erected by the owner of its building. An ongoing struggle with its landlord has played out in social media, but its loyal fans have turned out to eat (and vote) in its favor. The creperie (also located in Farragut) offers no less than 15 savory, paper-thin French pancakes full of fresh ingredients, and large enough to satisfy a famished lunch appetite. The vegetarian deluxe with spinach, tomato, artichoke hearts, avocado and goat cheese offers a complex blend of flavors. There’s plenty of good bacon, turkey, and ham on the menu, too, as well as breakfast crepes and omelettes in the morning. It’s hard to leave room for the array of sweet crepes, which vary from the grown-up crepe suzette to a kid-approved s’mores version—but you should try. (S.H.D.)
Popular Picks: Northshore Brasserie, Oliver Royale

Stock & Barrel
From the moment it opened, Stock & Barrel gave Knoxville’s meat eaters a whole new wave of burger craving. Made with local beef from Mitchell Family Farms, the burgers are big, mouthwatering and topped with delectables that run the gamut from the ordinary to the decidedly unexpected—things like peanut butter and fried bananas (that would be the Elvis) to corn salsa. There’s lamb, bison, salmon, and black bean burgers that are made with the same drive to please that makes the whole menu a joyful read. (D.P.)
Popular Picks: Litton’s, Not Watson’s

cover_1020_curiousdogMichael Tremoulis

Curious Dog
A quick glance at the menu will tell you all you need to know about why Curious Dog is a favorite of flavor hounds—it reads like a Food Network recipe line-up. A Cuban Dog leads the pack, and it’s followed by a Texan, a Tennessean, a Thai, and more. Each dog comes with a lively array of distinctive toppings in creative combinations that make it nearly impossible to actually decide what to eat—A Venezuelan includes cabbage, carrots, mustard, Russian sauce, house sauce, and a final layer of potato chips on top. One dog is topped with salami, another with roast beef, and others still come with kimchee, tzatziki, BBQ sauce, olive pesto, or even pineapple. (D.P.)
Popular Picks: Cruze Farm Milk Bar, Public House

Cruze Farm Milk Bar
Like so many of the joys of summer, Cruze Farm Milk Bar was with us only for a season. But the line was often out the door of the Union Avenue “pop-up shop,” a first foray into a permanent location for the dairy that has long scooped for downtown markets, festivals, and fairs. Unusual ice cream flavors like lavender honey and bourbon peach attracted adults along with the kids (and the buttermilk lime cardamom was the wildly-unexpected epitome of summer to this grown-up palette). The distinctive Cruze Farm girls with their calico shirts and kerchiefs finished off the summer season by serving an early harbinger of fall: pumpkin ice cream under torch-scorched marshmallow fluff. The word is that they will return downtown next summer—maybe as a pop-up shop again, maybe more permanently. Can’t wait. (S.H.D.)
Popular Picks: Coolato Gelato, Rita’s Italian Ice

cover_1020_sitarScott Hamstead

Sitar Indian Cuisine
It’s a comfort to know that Sitar has been in business for as long as it has and still captures the attention of Knoxville eaters. Their buffet remains a popular lunch choice for folks looking for a bountiful fix of tandoori chicken and sometimes curried goat, too. (D.P.)
Popular Picks: Bombay Palace, Woodlands

Naples Italian Restaurant
Knoxville and Naples go together like an old married couple—it’s hard to imagine the one without the other. But the romance hasn’t left this Bearden staple; it’s a longtime winner of awards as diners and their dates can’t get enough of its classic dishes and checkered table clothes. It looks much the way it always has, so every lasagna comes with a side of nearly cinematic romance and nostalgia. But it’s not just red sauce and reminiscence. Naples is a reliable source for osso buco, steak Chianti, and veal Marsala, too—and the tiramisu and chocolate chip cannoli are legendary. (D.P.)
Popular Picks—Top Italian: Altruda’s, Emilia
Popular Picks—Top Romantic Dining: Bistro By The Tracks, Emilia

Juice Box
Get a big 16-ounce plant-based boost at this North Knoxville sipping spot, which offers a huge selection of raw, all-natural, cold-pressed juice and fresh fruit smoothies. Your choices run from the refreshingly simple (the Belize, made with apple, ginger, lemon, and cayenne; or the Rawkstar, with coconut water, mango, banana, and strawberry) to the slightly more complex (the East of Eden includes a wheatgrass shot, kale, celery, apple, parsley, and ginger), or you can opt for a quick shot of essential oils or concentrated wellness concoctions. (M.E.)
Popular Picks: Fruition, Market House Café

Tomato Head
Despite being 26 years young and an icon of modern downtown dining, Tomato Head remains a vibrant and fresh spot for a midday repast of fabulous pizza and more. Vegetable-loving Knoxvillians are especially fond of the selection of crunchy and inventive salads that have kept them happy for years. The food is appetizing, filling, and the restaurant remains a leader in providing good menu options for vegetarians, vegans, the gluten sensitive, and old fashioned picky eaters, too. The restaurant was among the first in the area to have a serious conscience—so organic ingredients abound, many of them from close to home. (D.P.)
Popular Picks—Top Lunch Spot: Sunspot, Yassin’s Falafel House
Popular Picks—Top Salads: Aubrey’s, Trio Cafe/Calhoun’s (tie)
Popular Picks—Top Vegetarian/Vegan Menu: Dinner Bell (food truck), Sunspot

Soccer Taco
When it first opened more than decade ago, the combo of soccer and tacos seemed downright odd, but the quality of the food along the exuberant atmosphere turned skeptics into fans and created a Knoxville institution. Whether it’s huevos rancheros, chiles rellenos, exotic sopes, huaraches, or tacos made with cheek or tongue, Soccer Taco makes lots of friends with its quality fare and large margaritas, too. (D.P.)
Popular Picks: Chez Guevara, Senor Taco

cover_1020_yassinsTricia Bateman

Yassin’s Falafel House
There’s seemingly no stopping Yassin Terou’s ever-expanding falafel emporium. Knoxville’s favorite Syrian refugee started selling falafel at a local mosque not long after landing here in 2011, soon moved into a small downtown storefront with lunch hours, and has now expanded his space, his menu, and his hours, staying open for dinner during the week and currently trying out Saturday hours. The secret to Yassin’s success? Make simple, convenient, affordable street food, and make it delicious. But another attraction is Terou himself, ebullient and welcoming to all. (M.E.)
Popular Picks: Holy Land, King Tut

cover_1020_lakesidetavernCharlie FInch

Lakeside Tavern
In our city, award-winning outdoor dining always seems to come with a sight of water—in this case Fort Loudoun Lake. And it’s clearly a winning view, often with a nice breeze, and one that makes this patio the place to be. The Tavern is home to a popular Sunday Brunch that seems as long as the lake itself with nearly every brunch item you can imagine plus pasta; the regular menu, just like the view, has something to please everyone. (D.P.)
Popular Picks: Calhoun’s, Balter Beerworks & Central Flats & Taps (tie)

Hard Knox Pizza
This modest, unassuming pizzeria in Western Plaza offers a new take on the traditional Neapolitan pie. Is it the fresh mozzarella? The sweet and spicy tomato sauce? The creamy white sauce? The brick ovens that create a nearly perfect crisp and chewy crust? It’s everything—all that attention to detail elevates Hard Knox above the usual, and its inventive recipes promise a flavorful surprise with each visit. (M.E.)
Popular Picks: Sergeant Pepperoni’s, Tomato Head

Based on awards, polls, and happy eaters, it’s almost hard to believe that anyone else serves ribs in Knoxville. There’s something in the sauce, perhaps, that makes these tender and smoky treats a constant city favorite. It doesn’t hurt that the ribs are served in a perennially popular location on the riverfront. Between the view and bliss of chowing down on good ribs, Calhoun’s makes for excellent therapy, an awfully good mood, and a happy meal for all ages. (D.P.)
Popular Picks—Top Ribs: Archer’s BBQ, Sweet P’s Barbeque and Soul House
Popular Picks—Top Waterfront Restaurant: Lakeside Tavern, Sweet P’s Barbeque and Soul House

For the land-locked, seafood restaurants can seem like an ocean of the deeply fried. Not so at Chesapeake’s—although they do offer an excellent fried seafood platter, the quality of their fish shows beautifully under the broiler, in the steamer, and in classic presentations like Crab Imperial and stuffed Maine lobster. And it feels like a place for seafood, too, with a pleasantly nautical but not too kitschy decor that has an attractive selection of aquariums of beautiful fish that are not available for eating. (D.P.)
Popular Picks: Shrimp Dock, Shuck

Ye Olde Steak House
Tradition carries a lot of weight in this town, and Ye Olde Steakhouse has slabs of tradition that are almost as thick as their slabs of red meat. Family owned and operated by the venerable King clan for over 50 years, the restaurant and its rustic environs are planted immovably in the minds of many Knoxvillians as the prime source for celebratory and carnivorous satisfaction. (D.P.)
Popular Picks: The Chop House, Connors Steak and Seafood

cover_1020_namaTricia Bateman

Nama Sushi Bar
Nama is Knoxville’s original rock-star sushi joint with a menu that reflects its urban-cool vibe and combines traditional sushi service with a modern flair. You find that duality best expressed in things like wasabi hummus or any of the flavor- and ingredient-packed rolls with names like the Ex-Girlfriend, Ocean Commotion, and the popular and delicious Soy Joy. All of those live in blissful harmony with lovely tako, ebi, hamachi, and hokkigai, too. (D.P.)
Popular Picks: Anaba Japanese Cuisine, Tomo Japanese Restaurant

Central Flats & Taps
Happy Holler is all the more cheerful a place after a stop at Central Flats & Taps for a helping of some of the city’s most thoughtful chicken wings. Slow-roasted then baked, the wings come either gladly bathed in sauce selections that include Sriracha Buffalo and Key lime BBQ or happily rubbed with one of the house’s spice blends (try the Jamaican Jerk). They take a minute longer than your average deep fried, buffalo drenched wing, but, once you get a taste, you’ll be glad they take the time. (D.P.)
Popular Picks: Rooster’s Bar & Grill, Sweet P’s Barbeque and Soul House