Bell Buckle, Tennessee: if you’re looking for something worth stopping for on the two hour drive between Nashville and Chattanooga

Bell Buckle, TN is a very cute, tiny (population of under 400) town located well away from any highways, but on an active train line. It is a well-preserved historic town full of well maintained Victorian homes, many of which have very pretty gardens, as well as a well maintained downtown (it is a whistle-stop town on the train line from Nashville to Chattanooga) that has done everything feasibly possible to be appealing to tourists.

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Approaching the town you pass some impressively palatial homes, which is not what one expects to see in such a small town in Tennessee. Then, the moment you drive into town you’ll have to slow down to 15 mph, as you pass The Webb school. Looking at it I could tell it was a fairly affluent boarding school (its tuition is between 40-50K a year, which is up there with the price of sending your kid to University) whose presence in the town, I was pretty sure, probably explained why the homes I was passing were SO nice. That said, when I got home and did some research; I discovered that it was in fact a college prep boarding school, founded in 1870 (one of the oldest ones in the south); and that the school had been moved to Bell Buckle in 1886 (because the town was dry while its original location was going wet); and, that it was at one point SO good that it was responsible for producing more Rhodes scholars than any other secondary school in country (that said, I was looking on their website that lists where their current crop of seniors will be going for university, and the list was NOT a very impressive one — the public high school I went to, it does way better).

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This was on the sidewalk in front of one of the shops

A little further up the road you’ll come to a still active train line (none of the trains I saw actually bothered to stop at the town, confirming its whistle-stop status), and a small collection or historic storefronts which make up the “down town.” I parked my car and walked around, exploring the shops.

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This, plus one shop, is pretty much all of downtown, like I said, tiny

In every shop I entered I asked what the history of the town was, and none of the staff seemed to know. In each case they said they were actually new to the town, or didn’t actually live in town. Which was interesting.

The shops consist mostly of women’s clothing shops, shops that promote local artists,

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antique shops and

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and four different food places, a coffee shop, an ice cream and sandwiches shop (with homemade fried pie), a meat and three and ladies high tea place…. with the exception of the coffee place (which was just a coffee place), all of the other three places were so southern as to represent stereotypes of the south, or tourist trap heaven.

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Again, how more Old South can you get than Pulled pork, Fried Green Tomatoes, Pimento Cheese  — oh right, Fried peach pie
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Again, not sure a place can get more stereotypically Southern than RC Cola and Moon Pies

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This is supposed to be the best restaurant in town, a traditional Southern ‘meat and three‘ but the guy in the wellness store told me that everything they serve is actually produced by Sysco foods (i.e., almost nothing is made by them, it all arrives in bulk already made), which is kind of shocking as it apparently is one of the major draws to the town (one store owner told me that it alone generates most of the towns income), and was, according to their resturant web site, listed as one of the top 10 resturants in the state

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I ordered a $5 bowl of Chili and got a bowl so big I could only eat half, the pancake looking thing is actually corn-bread flat cake (known as a johnny cake or a hoecake).

The shop that surprised me the most was the Wellness Emporium place that sold things like tonics, Kombucha and CBD Hemp oil. The guy when talking to the women described how he runs an organic farm and produces most of his products himself.

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I stand corrected: There IS good food in Dollywood!

What I now know is that food in Dollywood comes in TWO varieties, 1) quantity over quality, or 2) quality over quantity.

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Mea Culpa back in May of 2016 I visited the Dollywood area for the first time and had nothing but horrible meals. Just recently I visited the town for second time with a friend who is a vegetarian, and as such, opted away from all of the tourist spots that promised massive portions and/or all you can eat options — as none of them were going to be vegetarian friendly, and instead opted for smaller local/places that offered normal sized meals where we cold pick and choose … and to my delight was MUCH happier with everything that was served to us. In fact I found TWO very tasty places in Pigeon Forge, and another down the road in nearby Gatlinburg.

Hidden among the shops right behind the Old Mill restaurant (where I had a TRUELY awful meal during my last stay) is an eatery owned by the same company called the Old Mill Pottery House Cafe & Grille

It’s a MUCH smaller place (easily 1/10th the size of the old Mill), that seems to attract an older crowd (I’m guessing snowbird types who come through town on a semi-regular basis) and locals, and neither I nor my friend were served anything we didn’t enjoy… and the prices are very reasonable. I had the salmon cakes appetizer with a baked sweet potato and Cheese grits, while my friend had the vegetarian sandwich. (Google maps for some reason refuses to load for the cafe, so I’ve loaded the Old Mill instead, but it’s right next door.

Across the street and about a quarter mill from the Old Mill we found a tiny hole in the wall Cuban place embedded in a strip mall called Smokies Cuban Cafe, which was also very tasty, where we could talk to the cook who directed my friend to what he could and could not eat; essentially she warned us that they only had one fryer, and as such all meat and vegetable dishes that were fried, were done so in that same single fryer. My friend, who has been a vegetarian for many years was given a mental heads up by this … having only really lived in places where vegetarians were normative, he’d never thought to ask about that before.

In this case I had the Cuban sandwich, while my friend had black beans and rice and a side of yucca with garlic sauce — the yucca fries being verboten (see above)

Finally, at the next town over, Gatlinburg, we took the suggestion of a shopkeeper and ate our dinner at Loco Burro Fresh Mex Cantina, a two story restaurant hidden above a Jonny Rockets burger joint and two small shops selling tourist junk. Even though it was a bit chilly we opted to sit in the roof top bar so that we could continue to enjoy the night view. I opted for a collection of side dishes: grilled shrimp, guacamole and black beans while my friend opted for a cheese quesadilla and a margarita.

 

Hanging with friends in Eastern Tennessee

This last few days were sort of a new thing for me, but highly enjoyable. I met up with an old (platonic) friend of mine who I knew from when I was living in the SF area, and we spent four days traveling together in Tennessee as a test of our compatibility as travel-partners, before we committed to longer trips.

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First we rented an affordable hotel room in the Pigeon Forge, Tennessee area (Dollywood/Gatlinburg/Smokey Mountains National Park) — with two beds, because I usually don’t sleep well with others. I was really happy to discover 1) he’s a very heavy sleeper who, 2) doesn’t snore — like not at all. Apparently… I don’t snore either, I am however quite the chatterbox while dreaming, but he said it didn’t bother him (like I said, heavy sleeper). Also, he has a job that allows him to work remotely, so he’d wake at around 7am, work at his computer till noon — about when I finally woke up — and then once I was awake did his business calls/meetings with co/workers while I was checking emails and getting ready — i.e., he’d get about 6+ solid hours of work in — and then we went to lunch (see my post, “I stand corrected: There IS good food in Dollywood!”)

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and do tourist stuff together in the afternoons and evenings. The first day we opted to go to Gatlinburg, which is right down the road from Pigeon Forge, a town I am said to say that I had completely overlooked last time I was here. All I’m going to stay is next time I think I’ll SKIP Pigeon forge and focus on Gatlinburg… we both liked it a lot more.

Granted, we were there for only a few hours, and essentially spent all our time at the Anakeesta attraction, a chair lift to the top of the mountain, and then when you get to the top it’s sort of a bridge among the trees… which bounces around a lot when you walk on it.

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Photos from the Anakeesta Attraction in Gatlinberg, TN

Afterwards, in the late evening we walked around Gatlinburg, and did some shopping.

 

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I’m a sucker for leather. I negotiated down the price of this hat (it is utterly impractical to my current lifestyle), which was already on sale, so I had no choice but to buy it. Happily, when we got back to the hotel I searched for it on-line and found I’d gotten quite the deal on it.

While walking around a shop keeper called out to my friend, who stands a good 6’5″ or such, and asked him to help her hang her Xmas decorations in front of her shop. He’s such a sweet guy that he agreed.

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After hanging out and doing tourist stuff, he went to sleep at his normal time, while I stayed up doing my computer stuff and watching movies on my laptop (with the screen strength turned down and wearing earplugs so as to not disturb him).

UNFORTUNATELY on our second day, when we had intended to try going to Dollywood, or driving around the Smokey Mountains National Park, his job went into a little over-gear unexpectedly, so we had to work around that, but it was ultimately all good. For myself, I spend so much time traveling that it’s no biggie if weather or life derails my plans, and I told him that going forward, we’d be doing longer stays (I prefer 2 weeks in a place rather than 2 days), so that if the same were to ever happen it would really NOT be a big deal for me. But it stressed him out, so he found himself a place where he could get some work done and, since we had two separate cars, we agreed to meet up at his friend’s home in Cookeville, TN (essentially what will one day be a suburb of Nashville, assuming it ever turns into a major city) later that evening.

Since I had about two hours to kill before we were supposed to arrive at his friend’s home — even considering the drive there — I decided to do a quick swing through the Smokey Mountains National Park.

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Note the kayaker about to brave the rapids, there were in fact two guys.

Later that night (which was Halloween’s eve) we met up at his friends home…. to find her dressed like a cat… So, I got inspired, and dressed us up in some costume bits that I conveniently had stashed in my car. (In about a month I was going to go to a Dr. Seuss costume party at the home of friends in Florida.)
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I’m supposed to be the skeptical pet gold fish from The Cat in the Hat story, while I dressed my friend as The Lorax . Being Australian and unfamiliar with Dr. Seuss for the most part, at first he wasn’t game with wearing the hat; but, then once we had explained to him how the Lorax was the ultimate conservationist fable for kids…

… conservation being a cause that my friend totally supports — he got into it with a will (the hat was mine, the rest of the outfit is something he picked up at a hippy type music festival he’d attended on his travels, cause he swings like that). We all went out to dinner dressed like that…

Later her friend showed up, and she remembered she actually had a “Cat in the Hat” hat in her garage and dug it out for him… and we went out again to meet up with some friends of theirs at a bonfire (where everyone immediately recognized which characters we were, which was gratifying).

Anyway… a good time was had by all, and I may have found myself a travel partner for some of my future travels… now we just need to decide where we want to go.

 

 

 

 

There’s no good Food in Dollywood

(Mia Culpa: I revisited Pigeon Forge in October of 2017, and in retrospect I realized my error lay in my sampling bias which was towards eateries aimed at tourists, all of which offer all you can eat/belly busting portions. What I now know is that food in Dollywood comes in TWO varieties, 1) quantity over quality (such as all the places described above), or 2) quality over quantity. So, please read this, but then please follow the link to the 2nd review)

Seriously, opt for a national chain or the grocery store; there’s nothing to eat here that’s worth breaking your diet. As you guys have probably figured out by now, I take food seriously…  both of my parents were great cooks, and I grew up traveling all over the world and my parents liked to eat. As such, one of the ways I judge a town is by how well it eats… and Pigeon Forge eats badly; from what I could tell from the two days I spent there, tourists ratings of restaurants were based soley on portion size and rather than on quality or taste, so that in leu of flavors, most cooks there seemed to rely on portion size and the salt & fat combo to keep customers happy. Pretty much everything I ate was bland, and none of these places could have survived in say, Chattanooga (a town with an active restaurant scene).

— My first meal after checking into my hotel was at the Old Mill Restaurant In Pigeon Forge proper which was suggested not only by the hotel staff, but by yelp and google reviews (4.5 stars with 277 reviews) as being the best local cuisine non-chain eatery in town. It’s a HUGE building meant to look like a converted mill.

Once you’ve been seated, and have ordered you will be served corn chowder, corn meal fritters and maple infused butter, as well as a salad with your choice of dressing… standard, to fill you up while you wait for your food to be cooked. As you can see from the picture, right there you’ve got enough food for a meal.

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First I got the chicken and dumplings: this was an absolute blech, my dumplings were inedible bits of semi raw dough that reminded me more of Japanese mochi (pounded rice) than of dumplings, and the gravy tasted of artificial chicken stock and salt — seriously it’s a sad day when you can compare a $18.99 dish to a can of hormel.

The waiter asked me how my meal was, and I was honest. He offered to let me order something else, and I flipped it out for chicken fried steak (also $18.99)… which is one of my favorite foods…. again, Blech, it tasted like bad cafeteria food.

Normally I hate wasting my money and will always pack up left overs to take home and eat later, but this food was so nasty that I left it all pretty much untouched.

To their credit, when the waiter saw I had unhappy with both dishes, he had the manager comp my bill.

 

— Miss Lillian’s Chicken Shack, is actually inside of Dollywood. If you take the train ride, this the place where Miss Lillian runs out to meet the train waiving her banjo in the air (and she does this every time — I felt sorry woman who plays the character). One of the things that killed me at Dollywood was there were food stands all over the place selling you a sandwich, or some such for about $12.99, which looked to be more bread than meat — i.e., massively over priced. While at the same time if you skipped the ‘fast food’ in option of a sit down, like at Miss Lillian’s, for $14.95 you got an all you can eat buffet with four kinds of salads, smoked chicken or turkey legs (you had to request the legs), fried chicken, and chicken fried steak and a choice of three deserts (or you can take all of them). Of the mains, I think the smoked chicken was the best and it’s all you can eat, so you can keep going back and refilling your plate. So while its not the greatest food on the planet, it’s hard to argue with all the smoked chicken and salad you can eat for $14.95.

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And there is a a lady, the aforementioned Miss Lillian, who is dressed up like she was ripped out of hee haw (think Minnie Pearl’s cousin), whose job it is to annoy the customers who won’t play along with the shtick, and maybe play a bit of banjo 

 

 

Paula Deen’s Family Kitchens — which I had to try because of her cooking show empire, and all the scandal around her, just so that I could say I had.

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I had intended to try this place my first night, as it’s a set price of $21.99 for adults ($10.99 for kids), and you HAVE to order three mains, four side dishes and a dessert even if you came alone, so I thought … What the hell, why not (apparently people traveling alone are usually put off by this)… But then the waiter warned me — after I’d been seated — that you are NOT allowed to take your leftovers!!! WTF? They don’t provide to go boxes and apparently they won’t even let you pack it up if you bring your own containers. SERIOUSLY? I paid for it, why can’t I take it if I want to (talk about fascist!). 

However, after having seen that old mill was charging $18.99 for a main, which I hadn’t taken home either, I decided to just go for it, with the caveat of tasting it all but only finishing what was good. I ordered, after discussing it with the waitress, Catfish (on the waitresses insistence), Fried Chicken, and smothered pork chops as my mains, with greens, squash casserole, macNcheese and succotash (which I’d never tried before) as my sides;

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— the best things (and hence the only dishes I finished) were the catfish and the squash casserole, all the rest of it just got pushed to the other side of the table after an initial taste. The fried chicken was incredibly dry, the pork chop was nothing special and a bit bland, the succotash was way too salty as were the greens… the Mac and cheese was ok… but it was Mac an cheese (nothing special, not much better than stouffer’s frozen in my opinion, which is sad considering she’s supposed to be this famous chef)….. my dessert is banana pudding which my southern friend had already instructed should be “lighter than air” if it’s any good, and this most definitely was NOT

 

 

 

1885 Grill

Tasty and affordable restaurant that’s conveniently located to many of the Chattanooga tourist attractions: Ate here four times, working their way through their menu, and didn’t have a single bad meal.

I discovered this affordable and tasty chef driven restaurant via Yelp, and have been there four times — and except for the last time when I had an extremely pretty blond imbecile for a waitress, I enjoyed ever visit (but that’s clearly not the cooks fault). It’s located at the base of Lookout Mountain, somewhat equidistant to both of the two most convenient roads up to the top (where the tourist attractions are) from both Chattanooga and Dalton; and as such this restaurant is incredibly handy if you’re headed to Rock City Amusement Park, Ruby Falls, or the historical/civil war tourist locations. It’s also walking distance from the base station for the Incline Railway (but I don’t suggest taking that as it is overpriced and pretty useless, in my opinion, if you have a car). If this eatery were located in Dalton, where I’m staying at a friend’s home, I’d be eating there every night.  It’s one of the many chef driven eateries in the Chattanooga area located in a refurbished brick building. The food is incredibly tasty and steaks are the only things on the menu that cost over $17. The servings are southern sized, and are more than enough for two normal people to share (excepting perhaps the shrimp and grits)… so if you do it right you can share a meal and walk away more than happy at $10/head.


Appalachian Grill

This was a very tasty and VERY cute looking restaurant — like Disney Wilderness Lodge cute; traditional Appalachian music was on the radio (brother where art thou type stuff) and they specialize in a gourmet twist on traditional Appalachian food. I had the pecan chicken from their Appalachian specials list. It was AMAZING … the kind of thing that would make judges on cooking shows very happy — simple ingredients cooked creatively and with style.

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Pecan Chicken: pecan sage crust, lightly fried; served over mashed chipotle spiced sweet-potato with a bing cherry sauce

I was staying in Dalton, about an hour north of here and had come to Cartersville to see an Ansel Adams exhibit at the Booth Western Art Museum (it’s an extension of the Smithsonian Collection). The grill is located just around the corner from the museum and under the overpass — an odd location for a chef driven eateries, but from my perspective it was a great thing because it was raining cats and dogs the day I went and I was able to park my car in a space under the overpass and walk to the restaurant without needing an umbrella.

This place is close enough to Interstate 75 to be worth a pit stop if you’re looking for something FAR SUPERIOR to any of the national chain fare most travelers suffer.

Maple Street Biscuit Company (brunch)

Traditional (horribly unhealthy, but oh so) tasty southern breakfast
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This would be one of the myriad of places that does breakfast and lunch, not lunch and dinner — in other words, places I rarely manage to get to because of my tendency to not wake up till noon. However, since I had to be at the car repair at 1 PM I  JUST managed to get here before closing. It’s one of the top ranked places in Chattanooga according to Yelp so I had wanted to try it. I was impressed that you can get iced coffee with maple syrup as a drink, and I ordered their “suggested” dish, the ‘5 and dime’. It was a biscuit, fried chicken, bacon, cheddar cheese, an over easy egg and sausage gravy — can’t you just feel your arteries hardening? The piped music was fiddle and banjo — I actually went home and searched for Appalachian music in iTunes afterwards (I now have a decent collection and am many dollars poorer).
The people at the next table (who all have thick southern drawls), who I overheard saying “well we found it, I hope it lives up to the hype” while walking into the place, were — after tucking in — all saying it did (live up to the hype) and are eating with gusto.  Based on their conversations I assumed they were from Nashville, and after talking about working in their churches they all said grace before eating (yes, I’m in the bible belt — but I kind of took that as proof of their expertise in the fare). It was an interesting southern moment, as just then a homeless woman was walking by and stopped so as not to interrupt them, and then said “hallelujah” when they were done.