Drive down to Knoxville’s Old City today and you can envision the neighborhood of bustling saloons as it once was, an area whose origins date back to the railroad boom of the 19th century.
It’s worn many hats since then: that of a garment district, a stockyard and even Knoxville’s red-light district. In fact, it was in a derelict state as recently as 15 years ago — a far cry from the thriving area it is now.
Today, the Old City is the place to be in Knoxville, particularly if you’re into live music, starting up your own creative enterprise or tasting your way through some of the town’s best restaurants and bars.
Yes, a major revitalization of West Jackson Avenue and Central Street is well underway; these are just a few stops worth making the trip for.
One of the pioneers of the neighborhood, Old City Java first opened its doors in 1990 and reigns as Knoxville’s oldest coffee shop, not to mention a favorite and beloved hang among locals.
It serves piping-hot drinks made from Counter Culture and Stumptown beans in a spacious, inviting environment, and all pastries and other baked goods are made in house (don’t miss the hand pie).
On warmer days, take advantage of the outdoor seating, set against an alley of colorful graffiti and murals by local artists that make a bold backdrop for your next Instagram.
This Market Square mainstay has a new home down in the Old City, one that’s far roomier and has really allowed the indie shop’s star to shine.
Don’t worry, though: Rala still carries the same curated selection of letterpress cards and other paper goods as it always has. It just now has even more accessories and home accents than ever, from leather earring studs to Knoxville map art, as well as novelty items like “What Would Dolly Do?” onesies.
The newest distillery in town, PostModern Spirits is not just a distillery, but also one of Knoxville’s trendiest cocktail bars. It’s open until 11 p.m. every day but Sunday (when it closes at 7 p.m.) and is often a first stop of the evening for those planning to burn the midnight oil at Barley’s or Hanna’s.
The mixologists approach each drink like a work of art, carefully blending top-notch (and house-made) mixers to produce mouth-watering drinks like the Chocolate Martini, White Russian or the Twentieth Century, among others, from their own line of elixirs.
If you’re more of a purist, don’t shy away from a flight of all of PostModern’s spirits, like the Giniferous Gin and the Amaro Arancia orange liqueur.
Throughout the Old City’s growth, there’s been one business that has stayed relevant amid the restaurant boom.
Barley’s Taproom & Pizzeria has long been a favorite hangout of University of Tennessee students, but it also draws crowds beyond undergrads thanks to its spacious, bi-level digs, reliable and unique pies, and plethora of live music. Having nearly 100 craft beers on tap doesn’t hurt, either.
It’s hard to find a good brunch spot on a weekday, but it’s near impossible to find one that does breakfast as well as Olibea, no matter the day of the week.
Prepared in a cozy, light-drenched space, the eatery’s small menu showcases breakfast items crafted from simple, seasonal ingredients, each selection fresh and packed with flavor, like the Olibea Chicken Biscuit (pickle-brined fried chicken biscuit topped with whipped sorghum, chow chow and gravy).
Pro tip: There’s always a special on the menu board, so don’t order before you’ve investigated all of your options.
You know a neighborhood has arrived when the celebrity chefs come rolling into town. In the Old City’s case, that would be Austin restaurateur (and UT alum) Tim Love, whose third location of his popular Lonesome Dove concept occupies one of the Old Town’s aforementioned saloons.
Love and his wife took what was formerly Patrick Sullivan’s bar and breathed new life into it, unveiling a railroad-inspired renovation that was a serious upgrade to its previous state.
It may be billed as a “Western bistro,” but don’t let that fool you: It’s one of the finer dining experiences in the city, with main courses running in the $30 range, many cooked in a wood-fired oven in Love’s signature style, and a selection of hand-cut steaks and exotic meats on the menu. For those looking for a front-row seat, there’s a chef’s counter opposite the kitchen.