Ruby Falls: underground waterfall & caves, 2 years later.

The first time I went to Ruby Falls was back in April of 2016. Today I went for a 2nd time mostly because my friend from Chicago, who had never been to this area before, had decided to visit me for three days — so as part of the grand tour I brought her here.

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That said, it’s a cave with a subterranean waterfall at the far end… and for the most part the only thing radically different was I got to see with a friend, rather than alone.

That said, it’s been about two years, so, what if anything is new? Upon arriving at Ruby Falls it was clear that a major upgrade and expansion of the exterior building was in effect (they’re promising more stores, food options, etc… i.e., some acceptability improvements, and more things to fill time while we the customer wait for our turns to go down into the caves, and of course more opportunities for them to separate us from our money).

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To that end, there was a lot of construction, and there seemed to be a lot more available parking than last time I visited, as in they seem to be expanding the parking lots. This is a good thing because last time I came here was during the scholastic spring break, and the entire parking lot was full to capacity.

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Also, I am not sure if this is brand new or not, I didn’t make it to the roof last time, but they seem to be going green, and installing solar power.

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Finally, one MAJOR change I found was that they have wired the whole cavern for free WiFi. Last time I was there, you could NOT get on the internet from within the caves, and now you can. And it’s not just in a few spots (I checked), it’s pretty much through the whole attraction with just a few dead spots. Impressive!

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Ruby Falls: underground waterfall & caves

Worth the ~$20/adult entrance fee, but ONLY if you come on a non-vacation weekday

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Also, I strongly suggest buying the combination ticket with Rock City and Battles of Chattanooga. Be warned, if you disregard my warning and come to Ruby Falls with the tourist crush you’ll feel like you were ripped off; Firstly, there’s insufficient parking so you might find yourself having to walk a fair distance up a steep hill. Then you’ll enter, only to find you have to wait as long an hour to be able to take the elevator down into the caverns. Once there you’ll be herded quickly like cattle through narrow caverns that aren’t wide enough for more than a single file of humans — with barely a chance to take photos of said caves, and after that, once you get to the room where the falls are, you’ll be forced to stand in line to get your picture taken by the falls, and only allowed about 30 seconds to do it, all for the low low price of about $20/adult. I have this on very good authority from numerous fellow tourists I met who had made that mistake, and were very very unhappy with their experience.

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I however, heeding the warnings of my fellow travelers, arrived on a weekday, when there was intermittent rain and no schools were out on vacation. I arrived mid afternoon and parked three spaces away from the main entrance. I bought my ticket, and had to hustle to the bathroom because the next elevator ride down was in five minutes. Once down there I was in a group of maybe 20 people, and while down in the caverns we only had to wait by the side to allow one group to pass us going the other way. When at the falls there was no line to take photos, and instead we could just do it as we wished.

The only bad thing, and it was pretty bad, was that after almost five years of dutiful service and managing to remain in pristine condition that whole time, I made the mistake of asking a Korean tourist, of the variety who used to live in my neighborhood when I taught University in S. Korea (fitting into their groups is such a priority for Koreans that they almost wear uniforms that help you to identify which ‘class’ they belong to), to take a picture of me, and he proceeded to drop my iPhone 4S onto the cave floor smashing the back screen to smithereens

— right after this picture:

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On the upside, the iPhone SE was due to be released in a week or two, and I finally had justification for buying a new phone.

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.


Alleia (Italian)

Alleia is a very upscale, tasty, romantic, and (by Chattanooga standards) expensive, chef driven rustic Italian eaterie. It is located in a renovated brick industrial building that sits directly behind the historic terminal station for the now defunct passenger railway line that used to pass through town, and was made famous by the Glen Miller mega hit “Chattanooga Choo Choo.” I was invited to dinner here by my Dalton friends, as we were going to go to a Buddy Guy concert that night at the Tivoli Theater (one of the many former vaudeville & movie palaces nationwide that cities have wisely been saving from the wrecking ball). This is one of the oddities of travel, I’d never heard Buddy Guy live in concert before, even though he’s based in my home town of Chicago — I had to come to a much smaller city at the GA/TN border to do it.

Free parking in that part of town is almost nonexistent, and it was raining, so I was incredibly happy to discover Alleia offers complementary valet parking. Directly behind the stand is the entrance to the restaurant, but good luck on finding the door during daylight. The contrast between the outdoor light and darkened space in which the massive ancient-keep-like wooden door sits, makes it almost impossible to see it till your eyes adjust to the difference — and keep in mind it was raining when I got there. As I had arrived a good half-hour before my hosts the restaurant placed me at a table right near the front windows so that I could spot them arriving, and while there I watched one befuddled elderly gentleman walk right past it — twice, trying to find the entrance. Once you’ve lugged open the door (it required grabbing the ring on the front and leaning back to get the thing to move) you enter into a darkly lit space reminiscent of a church, with massive candles that have been allowed to drip their wax to the floor, and hanging gas lanterns.

My meal was nummy. For my appetizer I had a very finely cut carpaccio with truffle and radish, and then for my main I had quail which lay on a fig, onion, and something else purée that was served with a side of sauteed purple cabbage and new potatoes … all of which was wonderful. The star of the show, however, was my dessert, an olive oil gelato (something that sounded incredibly odd but my friend promised me was something to be tried) with bits of salty pistachio in it. The gelato melted in the mouth in a way I’ve never experienced before, and the counterpoint to the pistachio was just amazing.

 

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Battles for Chattanoga, GA

Well worth the price! Probably the easiest to understand explanation of the civil war battles in this area, played out on a 3d diorama . Is it low rent? Sure, but whoever put the thing together did so with a spark of theatrical genius which makes the whole thing worth while. Great theater of the off off off Broadway variety if you will…

The Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park consists of three separate parks that memorialize one of the major/pivotal military campaigns of the Civil War (or what some Southerners refer to as the War of Northern Aggression).

They are: (listed in the order I went to them)

  1. Chickamauga Battlefield & Visitor Center (in GA)
  2. Cravens House located 1/2 way up Lookout Mountain (which I didn’t bother seeing the inside of because the original house was decimated during the battles, and what’s there is entirely a re-creation — and it’s only open on Weekends)
  3. Point Park & Lookout Mountain Battlefield Visitor Center (which the Park service thinks of as two separate things but I don’t think anyone else does)

Next door the #3’s visitor center is the tourist trap called Battles of Chattanooga which to be quite honest, completely beats the crap out of the paltry offerings at the tourist center next door; and, any traveler who wants a better understanding of the battles around Chattanooga should consider this a MUST do. In fact, this is the 2nd time I’ve gone to this attraction, the first time was maybe 10 or 15 years ago as a friend and I road tripped from Chicago to Disney World, and we spotted massive road signs advertising it. At the time we thought it was going to be hokey, but as we were both geeks we decided to give it a try. We ultimately agreed it was utterly worth the time as both of us had studied the battles in school, but the 3D blinking lights visual demonstration (showing troop movements up and down the mountains that surround the city, etc), allowed us to finally understand what had happened.

However, as it had been at least 10 years since my last viewing I decided to buy include the ticket to this as part of the Rock City/Ruby Falls/Battles combo deal which I strongly suggest buying if you’re going to be in Chattanooga for at least a few days. And I suggest seeing this demonstration and THEN going across the street to the National park at the point.

Since it was to dark inside to take any useful photos, let me set the scene with words:

Imagine if you will one of those massive sculpted 3d tables that shows the geography of the Chattanooga basin looking south across the winding Tennessee River —  with lookout mountain on the far right, and the hills of Missionary Ridge to the far left, effectively encircling the city below. Now imagine on the wall behind the table a movie about the long siege of the area, and how it went on until President Lincoln finally got fed up with General Bragg’s refusal to be aggressive (which was resulting in failing morale among the soldiers) and opted to replace him with General Ulysses S. Grant (sometimes referred to as Lincoln’s Butcher). From time to time the movie darkens, and the map comes alive with flickering colored lights demonstrating troop movements. For example: Federals floating past Confederate guards in the dead of night to attack the only viable ferry point, or racing up Missionary Ridge as, father like son, the elder (and horribly named) Arthur Macarthur (can’t you just imagine the ribbing he got growing up?) disobeys Grants express orders — setting the pattern for his son I suppose — and thereby wins one of the first Medals of Honor, as his son General Douglas Macarthur would later do in WWII (making them the first father and son pair to do so).  The whole thing is really quite exciting.

 

Rock City & Lookout Mountain; (GA & TN)

Rock city is WELL worth the price! Massive amounts of natural beauty and things for the kids. Arguably comparable to Paris Disneyland in terms of entertainment dollars. No, seriously!

While it lacks rides of any sort, for the very young and those of us who hate G-force attractions intended to make you puke, I would argue that while it’s about 1/4 as big, Rock City’s 700 acres is competitive with Paris Disneyland (~$83/day) in terms of whimsy and natural beauty, for 1/4 the price (~$20/day) — although I would suggest attending it during one of it’s special event nights and in good weather.

At the top of Lookout Mountain is Rock City, which I had the impression would be yet another over advertised but underwhelming tourist trap — sort of like Old town in Orlando is — so I was deeply hesitant to buy a ticket. Adds for it are everywhere in the region — no really, EVERYWHERE —  billboards and pamphlets, none of which ultimately do the place any sort of justice (they really do need better marketing). Now keep in mind I’m something of an amusement park connoisseur. I’ve been to all the Disney Parks world wide, even did Tokyo three times — and am waiting with baited breath for Shanghai to open — and just recently spent about 5 months in Orlando of doing little else other than going to Disney World and Universal (let’s hear it for season passes).

As such, I entered the park pretty sure I would hate Rock City, but I was wrong. Initially when I headed over there (after having spent the early part of the day at Craven’s House, a Civil War historical site half way up the mountain), I did so just to see what this Rock City thing was — from the adds I honestly wasn’t sure, other than it had a spot where you were supposed to be able to see seven states, while from Point Park, the National Park section of the mountain, you could only see Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama).
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When I got there, I initially wasn’t going to go in, but I talked to a few tourist that were just leaving, and they all said it was very pretty and they felt they’d gotten their money’s worth. As I approached the ticket booth, to see what it cost, I saw signs advertising a special event that would begin at 6:00pm for the kids called fairy tale nights (apparently a chance for kids to talk to their favorite fairy tale characters), for a few dollars more than the normal ticket. As it was already approaching 4pm, I bought a ticket to that and drove back down to the base of the mountain to grab a bite at the 1885 Grill, a restaurant that I liked so much I’d been working my way through the menu (haven’t had a bad meal yet).

My initial experience of the park was NOT good (they really need to talk to Disney about crowd management), in that rather than allowing us in all-at-once, they forced us to stand in a very long line while they slowly, and I mean painfully slowly, allowed family’s and or or individuals such as myself into the park …. one at a very long intervalled time. Each of us was forced to have an extended discussion with a guard sitting at the top of the “castle wall” and not allowed to enter until the family that had gone in before us finished talking to the first character by the gate, which I think was Cinderella and Prince Charming who were RIGHT at the other side of the gate. Suffice it to say people were NOT happy about this.

Ultimately, however, by the time I’d walked through the whole place I was a big fan of Rock City. Just like the Mr. Disney’s vision for his parks, which resulted from his having to take his nieces to amusement parks where he ended up sitting on benches being bored out of his mind while they went on rides, this attraction is sort of two parks distinct merged: one that meets the desires of the kids and the other is intended for the adults. At the disney parks the former is achieved with rides, candy and the ability to meet and talk to their favorite fairytale and cartoon friends, while the latter is addressed via beautiful gardens, architecture, and good food. Rock City achieves this same sort of dichotomy, and I’m posting two collections of photos to give you a sense of that difference.

In the first, kids get to do things like shrink down in size and talk to fairies that live in oversized gardens, see hawks up close, rock climb, do crafts like decorating their own crowns, meet characters like Hansel and Gretel, and look in on glow in the dark dioramas that display their favorite fairy tales.

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At the same time, while the kids are being thus entertained, adults get to be overwhelmed with natural beauty (and not so natural — the waterfall is man made) and impressive vistas. In addition, about halfway through the park, when you get to the lookout side, there’s a nice restaurant where you can just sit and sip come coffee and enjoy the views (that supposedly has pretty good food), and just chill. Since I was there for an after-hours event most of the food services had already closed — again they need to talk to Disney about (a well run park should never miss an opportunity to milk more money out of folks inside the park).

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Also, I have to add that I got QUITE the work out walking around in there because of a myriad of up and down stairways, un-level walk ways, etc. A staffer told me that there’s even a local woman has a season pass and walks through the every day as exercise, and with a one year pass only costing $55, I can see how folks who live nearby might do that.

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Lookout Mountain: the neighborhood

I have to say that the thought of being able to, in my retirement, walk through that park as my ‘daily exercise’ makes the idea of buying a place near there appealing (and I have a good friend who only lives about 30 minutes away). On the downside, however, should I collapse on one of those walks no one might notice me for a good long time because of how the park is constructed, and how lightly it is staffed; and, to get from there to the nearest hospital would require being medevaced.  No really, this is how my mind works.

I’m currently homeless and part of what I’m doing during this road trip is trying to decide where to re-locate to (my hometown of Chicago has a high cost of living). The dream, had always been to retire to Disney World, and go there daily for my walks. This is far less crazy than it sounds. Firstly, Florida is retirement central with a slew of doctors who specialize in geriatric medicine, and, secondly, Disney is chock full of staff trained to keep guests in view at all time (other than in toilets) and to respond instantaneously in the case of medical issues — that and they assign a specially trained cast member to hold your hand the whole time you are in the hospital, send you flowers, and be in constant touch till you’re checked out (its how Disney guilts people into not suing them/ the per hour cost of that cast member is much cheaper than paying a lawyer). Only — you can’t walk from your house to any Disney park, but you can live almost across the street from this one.

That and, overall, the neighborhood is very familiar for me; maybe six years ago I used to live in the hills of the San Francisco South Bay area, and the neighborhood at the top of Lookout mountain reminded me a lot of that. Both are high up on mountains, have very ritzy homes that range from upper middle class to obscenely wealthy (in SF I was renting a room from an elderly woman whose neighbors included rock stars, high-tech millionaires, and folks like Ram Dass). I don’t think this neighborhood is quite that upscale, but it had the same feel — and according to various folks I spoke to it has some of the best public schools in the area (a self-selecting mechanism for who your neighbors will be). Now granted, there wasn’t a decent grocery store up there — just a small market for overpriced necessities, but there is a Starbucks — although how much I’ll enjoy that at 70 is doubtful.

Also, while driving around that neighborhood I came across a local woman walking with her young son, and had an interesting conversation. She was originally from Vancouver,  and her boyfriend used to live in Evanston, IL — where I used to live — and his family has a house in the village where I grew-up. She extolled to me the virtues of living on Lookout Mountain, saying that not only were the schools wonderful, but that it’s so safe that shehe allows her son to walk unattended and wasn’t even sure where the keys to her house were — he looked to be about 7. Homes here very from multi million dollar homes that have amazing views to more landlocked homes that range from 250K to $300,000, and the distance from here down to Chattanooga proper, with all it’s stores and restaurants, is about 2.5 miles. She also said that while the folks who live there are not particularly political she was pretty sure every one of them was voting for Trump

 

Craven’s House – National Park (GA & TN)

Beautiful historic spot that has the advantage of being free, while Point Park, at the top of the mountain requires that you pay a small fee (or have a National Park pass, which you should). This really is a beautiful and peaceful place, so I get why Craven built a house here. Now, however, it is part of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park that includes Point Park, and is located about 3/4’s up the side of Lookout Mountain (Point Park is at the top).  Some fierce battles that ultimately destroyed the house (the signage includes photos taken after the battle of it blown to pieces) occurred here as the Union and Confederate soldiers fought for control of the strategically important mountain. Little placards are scattered all over the sight describing details of the battles, who did what and at what point in the battle, etc., and various states have set up monuments to their boys who died here. The original owner, one of the wealthiest men in Chattanooga later rebuilt it, and now the property is part of the park. It can be found down a turn off on the road between Ruby Falls and Point Park, and if you take the cable car instead of driving, you’ll miss it completely.

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Point Park National Park: Lookout Mountain (GA & TN)

Worth it just for the amazing view of the Chattanooga basin below; and if you’re a historical buff, as I am, I would suggest that you first watch the ‘Battles of Chattanooga‘ show (about 30 minutes long) in the building across the street so that when you do look over the basin you can easily reimagine the battle in your head.

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This precipice is part of The Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, which memorializes the major Civil war battle that happened here. For a bunch of tactical reasons control of Chattanooga was pivotal to winning the Civil war, and stand off between confederate and Union troops went on for months.
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Standing on it, it’s military importance is kind of obvious but still, for those who aren’t up to date with the Civil war history, I would strongly suggest paying a few dollars more to see the show in the building across the street — they also have food and a load of stuff for sale that your kids will pester you to get for them.

You’d think the National Park’s Visitor Center would include something like that as part of the price (like they do in the visitor center adjoining the Chickamauga battlefield), but they don’t… so you’re going to have to shill out a few more bucks, but honestly… I think it’s worth it.  This trip was actually my 2nd viewing; the first time I saw it was during a road trip with a friend from Chicago to Orlando, about 10 years ago, and as we are both ‘readers’ we felt it was one of the highlights of the trip (stunningly so). How often can you say you saw a tourist attraction and had it stick in your mind?

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The city of Chattanooga (TINY!!!)

That said, if you DO go to the National Park’s tourist center as well, rather than just buying the ticket for this park I suggest paying $80 for the one year pass. Firstly, it’s good for four people and will get you into every National Park nation wide, and secondly, the republicans have been doing everything they can to defund and dismantle the national park system, so we have got to do our bit to help keep it alive for future generations. Since I was alone, I comped 4 people standing in line entry into the park.

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View of Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama — and me!

Charles H. Coolidge Medal of Honor Heritage Center; Chattanooga, TN

Museum dedicated to a medal. Currently located in a mall, but expected to move back to central Chattanooga soon.

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This is a tiny but very interesting museum that should not be confused with the larger Museum that is being built in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina. I had a published pamphlet advertising it, and had called previously to confirm that was open and that it was really located in the mall… all of which turned out to be a very good thing, because if I had needed to rely solely on folks who worked in the mall to direct me, I’d have left feeling lost and annoyed; as it was, once I was at the mall I quite literally had to ask seven different staff members for directions before I found one who even know it was there and could direct me (and none of her fellow workers had any idea about it and laughed when they learned it was there and had been there for a while; One even realized she’d walked by it daily, and never saw it).

Like I said previously, the first medal of Honor was given for the civil war campaign called “The Great Locomotive Chase” (which, not surprisingly, Disney made a 1956 movie about) that occurred during the Civil war and ended in a tunnel near Dalton Georgia, where some union soldiers tried to steal a confederate train, take it back up north to Chattanooga, and do as much damage to the strategic rail line as possible along the way, hence the existence of this museum in the Chattanooga area. This museum used to be downtown and according to the docent, intends to move back there soon. The guy running it was a young war-geek guy, maybe 27 years old (where most docents are retired elderly people) who seemed to know a heck of a lot about every aspect of the museum. From what I could tell this was sort of a dream job for him, where he gets paid to sit around all day reading every book he could get his hand on about medal of honor winners, and shares that knowledge with visitors.

It’s a small place, but it’s packed to the gills with information about the medal itself, it’s history, and placards describing some of the more outstanding individuals who had won the medals. Among the ones that peaked my interest was the only medal of honor ever given to a woman, Dr. Mary E. Walker, which — according to the docent, was then taken away from her because women weren’t in the military (only she refused to stop wearing it), but the right was later returned to her posthumously. She had been a volunteer Union army surgeon who had been taken captive when she cross enemy lines in order to help wounded civilians, and declared a spy (probably because they couldn’t believe she was a doctor)

Among their fairly large selection of original medals and historic artifacts, was special cash brought back by WWII soldiers that had been created by the nazis for Jews to use within the concentration camp of Theresienstadt, which I’m not sure I ever saw before. For those who don’t know, Theresienstadt was a mediveil walled city which the Nazi’s had converted into a Ghetto for Jews, and as something of a waypoint to the extermination camps. Mostly however, they also used it for propaganda purposes, making movies about it claiming it to the world that it was an example of many Jewish resettlement areas, and an area they allowed the red cross to visit to prove the lie.

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And of course, we can’t forget everyone’s favorite Medal of Honor Winner, Audie L. Murphy who initially tried to enlist at 17, then won the medal of honor for valor he showed in battle when only 19, and then became the most decorated hero of WWII (33 different awards) when he finally left the military at age 21; and if that weren’t enough, he then went on to be a fairly successful hollywood star who even performed in a few movies that went on to become classics, including as himself in “To hell and back” his own life story.

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Maple Street Biscuit Company (brunch); Chattanooga, TN

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.