I stand corrected: There IS good food near Dollywood! PigeonForge, TN

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.

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

Dollywood

Worth a visit if you’re in the area, having the advantage of the natural beauty of the surrounding mountains. Shows for the adults, and roller coasters for the kids. If you go on a weekday off season you’ll almost never have to wait in a line.

Did I mention I’ve been to ALL the DisneyParks, some than once? I can’t do roller coasters, I have benign positional vertigo which means any ride that relies on centrifugal forces is a really bad idea for me. In Hong Kong’s Ocean Park I went on one of those water rides where the boat slowly spins and bounces through the water channel … I was nauseated for the next four hours — those rides for little kids where it’s swings attached to a central poll and all it does it rotate slowly? Ditto. So, while Dollywood has rollercoasters (a few) those are not why I love amusement parks.

I got to the park on a VERY low attendance day. I’m not sure how many parking lots the place has (they seem to wrap around a hill), but I arrived at noon only to find a parking spot in the 3rd lot (C for Candy Cane), and as I rode the tram to the main gate I spotted both of the other lots with cars were still about 80% empty. Parking is not organized and directed the way they do it at Disney World, where if you forgot where you parked your car but can tell them about what time you arrived, they can tell you EXACTLY where you are parked (assuming you parked where they told you to). Here you pay for your parking, pass through the gate, and then it’s catch as catch can, and most people seem to come in looking for spots close to the tram stop and just ignore the rest of the lot, moving on to the next one once they feel they’ll have to walk to far — insanely disorganized. (This would be like Disney patrons only parking in about the first 20 spots in a row and moving to the next row up).

The gods however were with me upon my arrival. I got to the front gate to buy a ticket to spot a woman who looked like she worked there standing by the ticket counter with a man along side her:
“why you here Hun”
“I need to buy a ticket…”
The guy standing next to her said “honey it’s your lucky day, I have been standing here for a 1/2 hour trying to give away this extra ticket.”
It seems season card holders are given some extra tickets for friends and this ticket was about to expire (or some such). Rather than just toss it he decided to be charitable and give it to a stranger, only everyone but me had already purchased their tickets before arriving.
This free ticket turned out to be a double good thing, as about three hours in massive storms kicked up which resulted in most of the rides, and such, shutting down because of lightning.

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Even though Dollywood advertises itself as good for people who get dizzy, I did not find this to be the case. In the whole park there were only two rides that were not bad for me were the Dollywood Express Train ride (with a genuine old antique soot and smoke producing steam engine), and a ferris wheel (which I didn’t bother riding). But I whole heartedly suggest the train, beats the heck out of the Disney Train which takes you through and around the park as well as into the surrounding woods.

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Other than that, Dollywood is about the performances. Now you’d think she’d have her pick of talented but unsuccessful country artists of various genres, but I found the three performances I heard to be beyond underwhelming.

That said, wifi at the park SUCKS, there was no 4g… Nothing!! There was supposed to be free Wifi which I connected to at the front gate, but no connection. I wasted a good half hour trying to find connectivity that lasted for more than a minute near the front gate area and finally gave up… I did however finally find some inside one of the restaurants towards the back of the park, Miss Lillian’s Chicken Shack.

Food at the park is kind of bizarre. You can spend $10 to $12 on a single sandwich, or for $14.95 you can have an all you can eat buffet… Miss Lillian’s included four kinds of salads, smoked or fried chicken, smoked turkey legs, and chicken fried steak, and all you can eat of four kinds of desserts (I had the banana pudding). It was all sort of cheap quality stuff, for $14.95 it was a deal. And there is a a lady walking around the place who looks like she was a rip off of Minnie Pearl’s character from the TV show, “Hee Haw” (it was on US TV from 1969 — 1992) annoying the customers and playing a bit of banjo. I strongly suggest passing the food stalls and opting for the sit down restaurants instead which all seemed to be pretty good deals.

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Finally, the park has a sort of Renaissance faire aspect to it, in that there various crafts not just available for sale, but being performed for you: carvers of wax, workers of leather, and blowers of glass, etc. You can order things like a custom aluminum sign for your house, and then watch it being made.

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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