The Best Food and Drink in Tennessee for 2019
December 20, 2018
The food is the only 10 we see!
The Best Food and Drink in Tennessee
Tennessee is not only the epicenter for country music, but it’s home to some of the best country cooking and Southern staples in America. From Memphis to Nashville, Tennesseans and visitors alike are quick to tell you that the Volunteer State doesn’t mess around when it comes to food. You will find this Southern state’s hospitality, hot chicken, and pimento cheese beyond compare to any other when you check out our second annual guide to the best food and drink in every state.
Although Tennessee is stuffed with heavyweight Southern cuisine like Hattie B’s hot chicken and Peg Leg Porker’s ribs as well as honky-tonk bars and dives, it is also home to a new wave of inventive food trucks, an all-natural grocery with a selection that rivals Whole Foods, and great Italian-style pizza with Southern roots.
With so many delectable dishes and restaurants in this state, you may be wondering: How did The Daily Meal decide? Over the course of the past year we’ve honored everything from its best hot dogs and brunch spot to its best bar and craft beer in our comprehensive and wide-ranging lists and rankings, compiled through extensive research and with input from a wide network of site contributors, bloggers, journalists, and chefs. We’re pleased to present definitive galleries celebrating the best food and drink in every state, and you can find our Tennessee gallery ahead.
Best Airport Restaurant: Neely’s Interstate Bar-B-Que (Memphis International Airport)
Neely’s Interstate Bar-B-Que is a famous Memphis barbecue joint with a convenient location right inside the city’s airport. Get some pork ribs, chopped or sliced beef, a barbecue spaghetti dinner, or one of their many other options alongside baked beans, slaw, or potato salad. You can also purchase their frozen meat, sauce, and seasoning to make it for yourself at home — or at least a T-shirt or hat to remember the experience by.
Best All-You-Can-Eat Deal: Brook Shaw's Old Country Store (Jackson)
Brook Shaw’s Old Country Store/Yelp
Picture in your mind’s eye your best approximation of what a place in Jackson, Tennessee, called Brook Shaw's Old Country Store would look like. Weathered wood, front porch, antiques on the walls, and plenty of home cookin’, right? You got it. Open nearly every day since 1965, the buffet at old-fashioned “whistlestop” Casey Jones Village serves a huge selection of country favorites, like country ham, turnip greens, cracklin’ cornbread, chess pie, fried chicken, sweet potato casserole, pulled pork, fried catfish, pickled okra, ribs… If you’re a fan of down-home country cooking, Brook Shaw’s is a must-visit.
Best Bar: Robert’s Western World (Nashville)
Home of traditional country music, hillbilly, and rockabilly, Robert’s Western World is a legendary honky-tonk. Plenty of stars of the Grand Ole Opry and actors on shows like Hee Haw and Nashville Now have called the place home in the years since it opened in a space that originally hosted a steel drum manufacturer and then a boot and apparel store. Currently owned by singer Jesse Lee Jones, the bar brings back the golden era of country music and pays homage to its past with quintessential hillbilly flair: shelves of boots, fresh-grilled Angus burgers, fried bologna sandwiches — piled high with seven slices of bologna and served slightly grilled with lettuce and tomato — moon pies, live music, and cold PBR.
Best Beer: Sue, Yazoo Brewing Company (Nashville)
Sue from Yazoo Brewing Company is rich, bitter, hoppy, and heavily smoked with burnt barley malts and cherry wood. Smoked? Oh yeah. Tennessee is known for its smoked meats, so this beer is an ode to that process. But unlike a lot of other smoked beers, Sue is balanced. The smokiness is sweet before it’s anything else. For skeptics of smoked beers, this is the perfect beer to start with.
Best Burger: Earnestine & Hazel’s (Memphis)
The building that houses Earnestine's & Hazel's supposedly started as a pharmacy in the ‘30s and was owned by Abe Plough, the man who would invent Coppertone suntan lotion. Rich from his invention, Plough gave the building to two hairstylists (sisters) operating upstairs who used another of his products to straighten hair. Their names? Earnestine and Hazel. They turned the spot into a café, one said to be visited by musicians like B.B. King, Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Bo Diddley, and Chuck Berry after gigs at a nearby club. Food wasn't the only thing people stopped in for — there was also supposedly a brothel upstairs. After being boarded up in the 1970s, it was reopened in 1993 by Russell George, who, until he died in 2013, hosted an amazing atmosphere with a fantastic jukebox in a bar whose every step creaks, and whose every inch holds the tantalizing smell of the incredible slow-cooked “soul burgers” the joint is known for. Thin, perfectly seared, and served on a soft white bun, it’s given a couple squirts of Worcestershire-kicked sauce as it cooks, and is the perfect accompaniment to a night out.
Best Brunch: Loveless Café (Nashville)
In business since 1951, this legendary Nashville restaurant serves what very well might be the best biscuits in the world (not even exaggerating), based on a recipe created by founder Anne Loveless herself and closely guarded to this day. And best of all, every breakfast plate comes with a side of them. But a great brunch needs more than just great biscuits, and Loveless Café delivers on all fronts. Country ham with red-eye gravy, pit-cooked barbecue pork, fried pork chops, and country fried steak all benefit from a couple fried eggs; three-egg omelettes are available with a wide variety of fillings; and other spot-on breakfast favorites include French toast, sausage or country ham on a biscuit, hash brown casserole, and (of course) biscuits and gravy. Breakfast is served all day, but at 11 o’clock lunch and dinner options like a pimento cheese and bacon burger, fried chicken, fried catfish, and meatloaf join the party. Family-style breakfast and supper is also available for parties of four or more.
Best Chicken and Waffles: Hattie B’s Hot Chicken (Nashville)
The chicken at Hattie B’s is not for those who are afraid of heat, though there is a no-spice option available for people who just want to enjoy the perfectly crisp, not-too-thick texture. The secret to the perfect spice is actually a little bit of brown sugar to lighten up the cayenne. On Sundays, you can order a waffle to go along with your chicken. Perfectly crisp and topped with powdered sugar, the waffle is the angel that balances out the devilishly spicy chicken. Expect to wait in line for at least an hour, but also expect to not regret doing so once you get this incredible plate of chicken and waffles.
Best Chili: Varallo’s (Nashville)
In business for well over 100 years, Varallo’s doesn’t just serve Nashville’s finest chili, it’s also its oldest restaurant. Frank Varallo, the traveling Italian violinist who opened the place in 1907, bet big on a bean soup recipe he encountered in South America, which he dubbed chili. Today it's run by the fourth generation of the Varallo family, and its beefy, beany, garlic and white-pepper-kicked chili is still bringing in the crowds.
Best Coffee Shop: Barista Parlor (Nashville)
Barista Parlor has three shops in Nashville, each of which work with local artists, bakeries, businesses, and farms to bring customers seasonal, locally sourced fare in a friendly, artistic atmosphere. Enjoy specialty espressos like bourbon vanilla and whiskey caramel, and make sure you try their biscuits and waffles.
Best Chinese Restaurant: Lucky Bamboo (Nashville)
This spacious and welcoming restaurant is the destination for authentic Chinese cuisine in Nashville. You’ll find a wide variety of Szechuan cold appetizers including dan dan noodles, Mala beef tendon, and pork belly in garlic sauce; and on weekend afternoons nearly 20 dim sum options are available, including pork buns, rice crepes, spare ribs, and dumplings. Other specialties include five spice whole roast duck, cumin spare ribs, dry pot chicken, and braised pork belly with pickled mustard greens.
Best Doughnuts: Ralph’s Donut Shop (Cookeville)
The apple fritter at Ralph’s Donut Shop is a legendary creation; it’s huge and features a beautiful pool of apple filling in the center. But that deliciousness is not the only reason to head to Cookeville. The blueberry doughnuts, butter twists, and regular glazed are simple but pure perfection.
Best Farmers Market: Nashville Farmers’ Market (Nashville)
The Nashville Farmers’ Market has been around since the early nineteenth century and now covers 16 acres of urban landscape. The Market House is a permanent complex of 16 restaurants and local shops. Open 362 days a year, the daily market in the center of the Market House hosts up to 100 farmers selling seasonal produce, meats, and dairy items.
Best Food Truck: Thunderbird (Nashville)
A food truck completely dedicated to chicken wings? Yes, one glance at these perfectly charred wings and thighs and you’ll fall head over heels (or drumsticks) in love. Thunderbird has already captured the heart of Nashville with a simple menu that features just wings, thighs, boneless wings, chicken salad, and a handful of classic barbecue sides. The key is in the execution; the chicken is smoked over pecan wood and seasoned with a special spice blend.
Best Fried Chicken: Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken (Mason)
The original Gus’s is in Mason, but in recent years it's expended to 25 locations across the country, with more in the works. The wait is notoriously long — not only because there are plenty of people in line, but also because Gus’s has been reported to take twice as long to complete an order than their estimated time. Still worth it? Most definitely. The golden brown casing keeps the interior juicy, and the simple but effective team of salt and cayenne make for a seasoning that lingers on your lips (and is most welcome there).
Best Fudge: Fudge Shoppe of the Smokies (Gatlinburg)
Fudge is nearly as popular a treat in the resort town of Gatlinburg as it is up on Mackinac Island, and locals and tourists alike know that the place to go for great fudge is Fudge Shoppe of the Smokies, which has two locations in town. Every batch of fudge here is made from scratch daily from high-quality ingredients in the traditional style (stirred in a copper pot and cooled on a marble slab), and formed by hand. Popular flavors include peanut butter pie, cookies and crème, penuche, and rocky road.
Best Grocery Store: The Turnip Truck
The Turnip Truck Urban Fare/Yelp
The people of Nashville love their Publix and Whole Foods, but The Turnip Truck deserves the title of Best Market. The locally owned store has two locations and places a serious emphasis on sourcing locally. Reviewer Jason King said, “This is a nice natural food store with some great ready-to-eat meal options. The prices are reasonable (especially when compared to other natural food markets), and they always seem to have demos and samples out.”
Best Hot Dog: I Dream of Weenie (Nashville)
This Nashville gem is the definition of funky: It’s a decked-out VW bus with a front porch and a walk-up window, and it’s unlike anything else that’s out there, to say the least. But it’s not just a sight gag: The hot dogs here are spectacular, and insanely unique. All-beef, charcoal-grilled, and served on half of a soft Italian roll, you never know what kinds of crazy toppings will be on offer. Caramelized Vidalia onion marmalade with goat cheese? Sure. Fresh grilled corn salsa? Sounds delicious. Ginger hoisin sauce, Asian slaw, and crunchy chow mein noodles? Nothing wrong with that! How about mashed potatoes and gravy on an English banger, red beans and rice on andouille, or chorizo topped with tomatillo slaw, avocado, and sour cream? The possibilities at I Dream of Weenie really are endless.
Best Ice Cream Stand: The Pied Piper Creamery (Nashville)
People love this East Nashville spot for its Trailer Trash — vanilla ice cream with Oreos, Twix, Butterfingers, Reese’s Pieces, Nestle Crunch, Snickers, M&M’s, and Cheetos. Craving something a little less heavy? Try the tomato strawberry sorbet or the avocado ice cream.
Best Irish Pub: McNamara’s Irish Pub and Restaurant (Nashville)
Nashville is a legendary party and music town, and on both counts McNamara’s Irish Pub and Restaurant fits right in. This popular tavern, with its classic Celtic-inspired décor, is well-stocked with whiskey and beer, has an appetizing menu of Irish fare, and regularly features live Irish music, usually by Nashville's noted Nosey Flynn.
Best Italian Restaurant: Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen (Memphis)
Lifelong friends Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman created Italian/Southern U.S. fusion heaven when they opened Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen in a 1940s ranch-style house off Poplar Avenue east of midtown Memphis with some 54 seats in late 2008. The two chefs credit their grandmothers, Catherine Chiozza and Mary Spinosa, for their inspiration but have plenty of culinary pedigree beyond these maternal instrumental familial food memories, old-style Italian recipes, and traditions (there's a vegetable and herb garden for the restaurant too). You'll want to try the veal breast with celery root, parsnips, turnips, carrots, spinach soubise, and truffle; Maw Maw's ravioli with meat gravy; and the veal agnolotti with tomato braise and lardo.
Best Mexican Restaurant: Las Tortugas (Memphis)
Jose “Pepe” Magallanes opened Las Tortugas in 2003 to preserve the integrity of Mexican cooking and cuisine by refusing to Americanize the process or presentation. He sticks to utilizing traditional methods of cooking and assembling the cuisine. The menu features several varieties of tortuga, a freshly baked loaf of bread that is then hollowed out by hand and grilled and filled with beef, pork or chicken and garnished with avocado, roma tomatoes, queso fresco, shredded lettuce, poblano peppers, sliced sweet onion, and a spread of garlic pinto beans. Another favorite dish on the menu is traditional carnitas de Mexico City, Berkshire pork shoulder braised in a copper “olla” pot with whole orange, bay leaf, jalapeño, lime, and allspice.
Most Outrageous Restaurant Dish: Buffalo South, The Grilled Cheeserie (Nashville)
You'll find some of the most extravagant grilled cheeses at The Grilled Cheeserie, a Nashville eatery with plenty of interesting options. The Buffalo South is made on country white sourdough bread and contains pepper jack cheese and pulled organic chicken, with Buffalo sauce, blue cheese aioli, and pickled celery on top.
Best Pancakes: Pancake Pantry (Gatlinburg)
Gatlinburg is what you might call a pancake town, with no shortage of places serving amazing flapjacks. But the Pancake Pantry, in business since 1960, was the first pancake house in the entire state and remains the best. The century-old building is a gem in itself, and the pancakes served here (and everything that goes with them, including the whipped cream) are made from scratch. Twenty-four different pancake varieties are available, but their flagship old-fashioned buttermilk pancakes are light, tender, and slightly chewy. Standouts include the melt-in-your-mouth cornmeal pancakes, rich Swedish pancakes with imported lingonberries, wild blueberry pancakes, Smoky Mountain buckwheat cakes, whole-wheat pancakes made with flour from a local mill, and a wide variety of crêpes. The Hayley Special, an off-menu item, is also popular with those in the know; these pancakes, topped with bananas, bacon, and peanut butter syrup, are completely out of this world.
Best Pasta Dish: Gnocchi, Trattoria Il Mulino (Nashville)
Il Mulino is one of New York City’s finest Italian restaurants, and its now-shuttered sister restaurant Trattoria Il Mulino was more casual but well-regarded as a top spot for expertly-prepared pasta dishes. The formula was apparently replicable, because the Nashville offshoot is spectacular. Chef Thomas Cook has given the New York menu a twist and made it his own, but the best pasta on the menu is a timeless classic: fresh handmade potato gnocchi, perfectly sauced with real-deal Bolognese and expertly-made béchamel.
Best Pizza: Hog & Hominy (Memphis)
Whether you call it “Italian dining with a Southern drawl” or “Italian cooking, Southern roots,” the fact is you’re going to have an amazing meal at Hog & Hominy. Menu options include a beef and Cheddar dog in a pretzel bun with yellow mustard; an order of sweetbreads with spicy peanut agrodolce; poutine with neckbone gravy; or an amazing burger (lunch only) topped with pickled lettuce, American cheese, onion, and mustard dedicated to one of the country’s best food writers. Now factor primetime pizza into the equation.
Their menu has expanded from nine to include 14 pies on the menu, which are tended to in a painstakingly monitored oven (built using bricks from the original building’s chimney) on the side of the restaurant. There’s the enticing Red-Eye (pork belly, egg, Fontina, celery leaf, and sugo); Down With the Shine (corn, fontina, leeks, and garlic cream); and Chicken of the Sea (clams, chili, lemon, arugula, and pesto). But the signature is the Prewitt with fontina, tomato sauce, boudin, and scrambled eggs.
Best Rest for Breakfast: Biscuit Love (Nashville)
Biscuit Love got its start as a food truck in 2012, and the biscuits served by the husband-and-wife duo, Karl and Sarah Worley, proved to be so popular that in 2015 they opened a brick-and-mortar restaurant in The Gulch that opens at 7 a.m. daily. Their “East Nasty,” a biscuit sandwich with fried chicken, Cheddar, and sausage gravy, is a wonder to behold, but a plain biscuit with sausage gravy (chocolate and tomato gravy are also available) is the dish to order. Also make sure you try the “Bonuts,” fried biscuit dough with lemon mascarpone and blueberry compote. But there’s a lot more to love about this place besides biscuits: There’s a French omelette with Boursin cheese, sautéed mushrooms, and onions that would be right at home in Paris; flawless shrimp and grits; bananas Foster oatmeal; and an addictive shaved Brussels sprouts salad with hazelnuts, Parmesan, lemon vinaigrette, and two poached eggs.
Best Restaurant: The Barn at Blackberry Farm (Walland)
The cuisine at The Barn at Blackberry Farm is so emblematic that it has inspired a new category: Foothills Cuisine (the foothills being those of the Smoky Mountains), a term that has actually been copyrighted. Nestled inside a luxury resort and functioning 4,200-acre farm started by Kreis and Sandy Beall more than 30 years ago, and housed in a turn-of-the-century bank-style barn located in the center of the FarmStead, this operation is helmed by executive chef Cassidee Dabney. If ever there was an appropriate use of the term “farm-to-table,” this is it. The Barn (think antique linens, custom chairs, and sterling silver — with gentlemen required to wear jackets) uses the estate’s produce and products in a dynamic menu of Smoky Mountain regional dishes with global flair like Springer Mountain Chicken with Carolina Gold rice grits, broccolini, and roasted mushrooms; apple and duck heart salad with hop vinaigrette, candied pecans, crème fraîche, and sage; and hearth-roasted celery root with parsnip, cippolini onions, and mushrooms. And while the restaurant is a destination unto itself, topping off a weekend at the resort with a meal here can be one of life’s great experiences. Sam Beall, Kreis and Sandy’s son, took over management of the farm in 2000 and arguably turned it into the culinary destination it is today. He died tragically in a skiing accident in 2016 at age 39, but his widow, Mary Celeste, now manages the inn and keeps up the standards.
Best Ribs: Peg Leg Porker (Nashville)
Pitmaster Carey Bringle grew up in a ‘cue-centric family and has been competing in the World Championship of Barbecue for 25 years. He finally turned that competitive spirit into a brick-and-mortar joint in 2013. His ribs and other specialties have been recognized by everyone from the James Beard Foundation to Cooking With Paula Deen magazine.
Best Sandwich: Black & Bleu, Rae’s Gourmet Sandwich Shoppe (Nashville)
Rae’s has been going strong in downtown Nashville since 2002, serving made-to-order sandwiches on toasted New Orleans-style baguettes. There’s a wide variety of hot and cold sandwiches as well as daily specials, but the regulars swear by the Black & Bleu, grilled filet mignon with spicy Cajun mayo and crumbled blue cheese on top.
Best Soup: Corn Chowder at Old Mill (Pigeon Forge)
Pigeon Forge is a Tennessee tourist mecca, and countless tourists and locals alike stop by the Old Mill every year for its flawless scratch-made country cooking. Look around and you’ll notice that just about everyone is starting his or her meal with its famous corn chowder, and you should too. The thick and creamy soup is loaded with corn, potatoes, and bell peppers, and its seasoned with a secret spice blend that’s heavy on the onion and garlic powder.
Best Steakhouse: Kayne Prime (Nashville)
This classy and stylish steakhouse is a Nashville must-visit, run by M Street, one of the city’s most successful and trend-setting restaurant groups. Their market-driven menu is impeccably sourced, and it’s one of the few steakhouses in the country to list exactly where each cut comes from: fillet and New York strip are from Birmingham’s Evans Meats; wagyu fillet is from Missouri’s Premier Proteins; wagyu strip comes from Greg Norman Ranch in Australia; and flat iron, dry-aged bone-in rib-eye, and bone-in fillet come from Michael’s Meats in Columbus, Ohio. Steaks are cooked under a 1,200-degree broiler, and served with your choice of nine toppings, including truffle béarnaise, yuzu chimichurri, foie gras, and bone marrow butter. Make sure you try the risotto tater tots and macaroni and cheese on the side.
Best Sports Bar: Sam's Sports Grill (Nashville)
Sam' Sports Grill/Yelp
Nashville Scene Magazine, Maxim, and MSNBC all agree: If you’re going to watch sports in Nashville, this local chain is the place to be. Each Sam’s outpost is complete with the full game experience: Waitstaff decked out in referee outfits and team jerseys, a long beer list, a full bar-food menu with acclaimed ribs, chicken fingers, and pizza, and plenty of HDTVs — not a bad seat in the house.
Best Taco: Barbacoa, Carniceria Y Taqueria Don Juan (Nashville)
At Don Juan, the menu is painted onto the side of the building and you order your food through a small window. The small taco you’re handed is every bit as good as you hoped it would be. Simply topped with a smattering of diced onions and cilantro and served with a wedge of lime, these tacos are definitely legit — and an absolute steal at $1.25. Make sure you try the barbacoa, rich shredded beef. For more states, check out our ultimate guide to the best food and drink in every state for 2019.