There are many things Tennessee does well: Southern sensibility, music, and food. And when it comes to food, the wide array of options from classic fried chicken to the best barbecue you’ll ever bite into, you’ll always leave with a satisfied stomach.
Ask anyone in Memphis and they’ll know of Corky’s BBQ. In Mason, Gus’ Fried Chicken. And in Nashville, Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack. These eateries are staples of the state. Be sure to check out these 15 best restaurants in Tennessee.
Gus’ is a family affair, starting with Na and Maggie Vanderbilt in the small town of Mason, Tennessee. They experimented with the recipe while working at a tavern during the 70s until opening their own shop with the help of locals in 1983. Later, Memphis native Wendy McCrory would bring Gus’ to wider recognition, opening the downtown location in Memphis and leading to other franchise locations. But it’s hard to beat the restaurant where it all began.
Corky’s BBQ was established in 1984 and steadily grew in popularity due to the delivery of the most delicious barbecue in the region. Their barbecue pit uses hickory wood and charcoal and options include ribs and pork, while still offering beef and chicken. The results speak for themselves, as Corky’s has amassed 22 designations as the top barbecue joint in the city and led to numerous franchise locations across Tennessee.
Their slogan goes: The home of blues, brews, and burgers, established in 1970. The name comes from the founder Alan Gray, whose nickname was Huey in childhood. The Huey burger is considered by many to be the best burger in Memphis. The original location is on Madison Avenue in Midtown Memphis and you can expect to see a lot of colorful wall art, tooth picks stuck in the ceiling, and those red-white checkboard tablecloths.
There are newcomers to Nashville’s famed hot chicken scene—Hattie B’s is one that’s exploding off the map—but Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack wins points for its rich history. It was once called “the best restaurant in Tennessee” by then-mayor of Nashville Bill Purcell, according to The Ringer. The process involves frying the chicken, coating it with a paste, and then layering on a series of hot spices such as cayenne pepper. The result has made hot chicken a national trend and eateries like Prince’s on the national map.
The Tomato Head is located in Market Square in downtown Knoxville, a few minutes away from the campus of the University of Tennessee. It started as The Flying Tomato as a lunch spot, with food being served on paper plates, eaten with plastic forks. Today, there is a range of good eats at The Tomato Head, from Mediterranean flavor like hummus to combination pizzas that blend flavors through toppings. It’s easy to eat healthy there, with many salads or vegetarian-friendly options.
There are the daily specials—fried chicken n’ gravy on Mondays and chicken n’ dumplings on Wednesdays—but the general consensus seems to be that Loveless Café is the embodiment of southern cuisine. The beginnings of the café started in 1951 when Lon and Annie Loveless began serving fried chicken and biscuits to travelers. Fried chicken and biscuits still have a home at Loveless Café today, long from its very modest roots to the accolades it receives today. It retains its hominess and simplicity and still serves its biscuits made from scratch to those who want a quieter dining experience.
Paulette’s is located on Harbor Town Square along the Mississippi River. Paulette’s has been around for decades—in this case, 40 years. Paulette’s is known for delicious chef-inspired recipes, but also for its ambiance and decadence. It’s a place for gatherings of family, romantic dinners, or banquets, and set in a beautiful location.
Etch is located in Encore Tower, with The Country Music Hall of Fame and SoBro nearby. Chef Deb Paquette, the first woman in Tennessee to become a certified executive chef, created the restaurant, which features a very sleek, modern design. Menu items are creative, such as the lamb frites, which have lemon goat cheese, charred eggplant, and golden beet sauce. The unique flavors, prime location, and modern ambiance make this restaurant a must-visit in Nashville.
Opening in 2012, the Maple Street Biscuit Company quickly became a popular spot in Chattanooga, even earning acclaim with a spotlight on The Food Network. It prides itself on southern favorites—the name of the restaurant may give that away—but those southern favorites feature additions not normally seen. There are 17 sandwich options, all of which utilize a flaky biscuit and additions like fried chicken, pulled pork, and bacon, along with dressings like the house made apple butter. Their locations have a friendly atmosphere.
Monell’s has been open in 1995 and serves traditional southern dishes such as BBQ ribs and fried catfish, while offering a breakfast that includes smoked sausage, corned pudding, and coffee. The meals are served “communal” style, which means it’s first come, first served. It’s also family-style seating, which makes it unique. You’re sat at a large dining table and the basic rules—no cell phones and “pass to the left”—make this a hospitable, southern atmosphere, adding to the delicious food.
It almost seems disingenuous to have a list of the best Tennessee restaurants with only one barbecue shack, but here comes Sweet P’s. There are two locations in Knoxville, one in the heart of the Old City (a part of downtown Knoxville) and the other along the little river. It has received some national attention—the original location along the river from the Travel Channel’s “Man v. Food”—and has added an attractive sit-down with the family option for Knoxville barbecue, with its two locations featuring music and a solid handle of ambiance.
The Stock & Barrel is billed as a burger and bourbon restaurant and although it is a fairly new restaurant, the Metro Pulse, a Knoxville weekly newspaper, has already bestowed on it a few awards, including best hamburger and best French fries. The bourbon options are simply plentiful and there are 20 different burgers to try, all specialized and containing unique blends of ingredients. It’s become a popular spot in downtown Knoxville with inside and outside seating, and rave reviews for the burgers and drink selection.
The French Market Creperie offers a different fare than most restaurants in Tennessee in that their selection of foods does not exactly scream southern heritage. Crepes, baguettes, croissants feature significantly less in the state than the chicken and barbecue but The French Market Creperie has become a successful restaurant in Knoxville and appealing for many who want the Paris experience. For that experience, there are small café tables outside, inside décor, and the appeal of the intimacy of downtown Knoxville.
There is the valet, the strong collection of wine and a menu that is both sophisticated and delicious, but Flight Restaurant and Wine Bar adds another element to the equation: the concept of flight. The idea is that you have the option of trying smaller portions of three different types of wines or entrees or appetizers, etc. That may mean three different kinds of white wine or a chef flight split between the catch of the day, ribs, and steak. It has rave reviews and is currently listed as the No. 1 restaurant in Memphis.
Public House Restaurant strives to blend the balance between fine-dining and a more relaxed restaurant. The idea was to procure high quality food, such as seasonal fish, and ease the prices so that a meal wouldn’t break the bank. The result has become one of the most popular spots in Chattanooga, where there are small plates and large plates, sandwiches and cocktails, all of which are varied to suit numerous budgets. The service has been cited as excellent, with waiters and waitresses being knowledgeable, and the atmosphere relaxed while feeling upscale.