Chattanooga for a Song & Lots of Good Food
Romantic travelers want to be transported to another time and place, even if it’s just for dinner. And many don’t need to go any further than the warm spots in their memories where spirits of their youth play in familiar surroundings. That why folks still trek to the Empire State Building, decades after it stopped being the tallest in New York. That’s why sports buy every seat to Wrigley Field, Cameron Indoor Arena and Keeneland even though the comforts and amenities in those places are sorry by today’s standards. It’s also why travelers adore historic old hotels like the Ahwahnee at Yosemite, the Greenbriar in Appalachia and the Grand on Mackinac Island where Hollywood goes to make movies about time travel.
My traveling companion, honeybear Wroburlto, is an indomitable Romantic who believes entire towns are holy depositories of zeitgeist - a German term that means “spirit of a former time.” Historic twists of fate often freeze cities and ghost towns in time like Bruges and Maccu Piccu on a grand scale of centuries. On old Route 66, Albuquerque has become adored by travelers for maintaining a cornucopia of Eisenhower era quirks and amusements, punctuated with outdoor adventure, gorgeous landscapes and time warp architecture. Just as that New Mexican city marked the two thirds mark on Route 66 between Chicago to the California coast, Chattanooga marked a similar progression on old Highway 41’s route from Chicago to Florida. That’s just the beginning of the similarities.
Both towns were best known to most of America through popular songs about travel - “Route 66” for Albuquerque and “Chattanooga Choo Choo” and “Chattanooga Shoe Shine Boy“ and “Ramblin‘ Man” for Chattanooga. Both are drop dead beautiful mountain towns where nature provides everything an adventure traveler could desire - river treks, skydiving, gliding, hot air ballooning and rock climbing. I am not one of them but Wroburlto likes to stay in the same hotels those travelers do - he says they provide great scenery. Sigh.
Because songs are so much a part of the way we imagine Chattanooga, we planned our trip for Riverbend Festival - nine days of eclectic music ( Last year we saw Willie Nelson, Three Dog Night and my San Francisco homeboys Train, plus numerous other acts on smaller stages) on the Tennessee River downtown, with one day off for the Bessie Smith Strut, a neighborhood blues fest that celebrates Chattanooga’s most famous singer and attracts some long distance barbecue kings besides. We checked into the newly remodeled Chattanooga Doubleday, just four blocks from the music festival and even closer to the famous Tennessee Aquarium and downtown.
Since I am Chinese, driving a car turns me into a Chinese driver. So I love pedestrian opportunities such as Chattanooga provides. My hotel was just a block from a city wide free shuttle bus service that connects just about every part of town we wanted to visit and making it possible to only rent a car for one of the four days of our trip.
Tia-Numa & His Curse
Determined to get some educational stuff in before dinner, we walked up, 80 feet straight up, to check out a most peculiar art museum whose history includes as many colorful anecdotes as a half dozen William Faulkner novels combined.
The Hunter Museum of American Art was built on holy ground - former home of the Cherokee’s giant hawk god “Tia-Numa.” After chasing Tia-Numa and his people away, white folk first built an iron foundry on this sacred bluff - an offering to the gods of industrialization. Union forces destroyed the foundry in the Civil War and then insurance broker Ross Faxon built an Edwardian mansion here, with lots of Classical Greek touches thrown in. About the same time, local businessman Ben “Quick” Thomas bought the national rights to bottle Coca Cola during a gentleman’s outing. The founder of that soft drink company couldn’t imagine why anyone would ever want to drink Coke out of a bottle, so he figured he was stealing $1 from the imprudent Thomas.
Ben’s nephew George Thomas Hunter was a gay blade who shuffled around Chattanooga in Rolls Royce, took over his uncle’s company and broke the hearts of all the unmarried women in town. He bought the Faxon mansion and later willed it to the city, to be turned into an American Art Museum. Two modern glass and steel additions later, it’s remained true to its American-only mission. It dazzled us with do-it-yourself art mirrors and some food art - Severin Roesen’s “Nature’s Bounty” and Rich Goodwin’s “Huntsman’s Door.” Our visit coincided with “Jellies: Living Art,” a collaboration with the Tennessee Aquarium that paired the artistic splendor of fine glass sculpture with the living beauty of jelly fish.
Dinner in Bluff View
Glass fish make us hungry so we walked a couple blocks to the Bluff View Art District where a single family revitalized a turn of the last century neighborhood over 50 years of due diligence. Dr. Charles and Mary Porteras began purchasing property and remodeling arty conversions back in 1960, when Chattanooga had been stung. The New York Times named it America‘s most polluted city. That was the curse of Tia-Numa.
Anchored by the River View Art Gallery, with a super regional collection of high and folk art, the area includes an outdoor sculpture garden that overlooks the Tennessee River, B&B’s, additional galleries and three distinct restaurants all of which are provided by Bluff View’s own coffee roaster, bakery and chocolatier.
We learned that the bakery turns out over 50 pastries a day, all laminated, hand mixed, artisan products. We tried croissants, puff pastries and the area’s signature - The Nun, a “Napoleon with a hood.”
The chocolaterie was run by Jerome Savin, a French educated chocolate genius who prefers Callebault and high cocoa butter (22 - 54%) confections. His mastery of tempering allows these high fat treats to have reasonable shelf life and a signature sheen. Just to be sure, we only ate freshly made truffles.
In a former glass factory, coffee roaster Matt showed Wro the dramatic differences in fresh beans.
We had to choose between two fine dining restaurants - Tony’s, which makes all its pasta from scratch daily, and Back Inn Café, a more traditional place with historic trappings. Wro chose the latter for its library dining room. I began dinner with huge seared scallops served with a sweet pepper pomace and lemon emulsion and charred pico do gallo. Wro opted for fried green tomatoes, the first of many versions we would have in Chattanooga and one that would set the template for “Chattanooga fried tomatoes” - a serving that included cooked prosciutto, lots of melted goat cheese and some fresh greens. We split an excellent lump crab timbale served simply with sliced green apples and crostini with olive oil. Knowing we would be visiting the fresh water aquarium, I reasoned that this might be my last conscience-free chance to eat frog legs for awhile and huge legs from Indonesia proved irresistible fried in panko and served with slaw. Lobster bisque was made with lobster shell stock and salad was fresh as spring time.
Wro ordered turbot ( whose relative would cast indicting eyes at us when we visited the Aquarium) served on wild mushroom risotto with crispy noodles and haricot verts. I ordered a NY strip “Rembrandt style,” rubbed in coffee and served with asparagus, mushroom cream sauce and truffled mashed potatoes.
Crème brulee and chocolate mousse cake finished our evening. We retreated to the music fest and thanked God that our hotel was only a few blocks away lest we fall asleep on the music grounds.
The next morning in our hotel lobby, we saw a guy wearing a T shirt for a tow truck museum. Loving such quirky places, we followed him into the gift shop and asked about it. He offered to drive us there. Turned out he was Bill Mish , the owner of the hotel. That’s the kind of place Chattanooga is.
We began the next day at Blue Plate, a metropolitan diner with a locovorean spin on comfort food. The place is designed for efficiency and that encourages the use of fresh food. There is only one tiny freezer and only two flat top stoves. Yet they manage to serve breakfast lunch or dinner at all hours they are open.
“This is a metropolitan diner, not a Mom & Pop. We hired an architect from Berkeley. It was really something new in 2005. Now it’s a style all around town,” said owner Rob Gentry of black and white schemes with wood and exposed ceilings.
“No one was doing breakfast downtown then. I see now why Waffle House does so well. Even though our average check is only $12 - $13,” Gentry continued.
Chef Joseph Black showed Wroburlto around. Joseph invented a Moon Pie cheesecake that both the restaurant and the Moon Pie company brag about. He showed Wro his stashes of local goodies - Aretha Frankenstein pancake mix, pastries from Bluff View and Niedlov’s bakeries, Stone Cup coffee, Spencer Farms chickens, River Ridge Farms pork and eggs, House of Rayford turkey, Clumpie’s Ice Cream and Mayfield Farm cream.
We tried a light breakfast of pancakes, with free ranged eggs and bacon. plus meat loaf and mashed potatoes with collard greens and creamy mac & cheese. I know that doesn’t sound like breakfast but soul food is hard to find in San Francisco, so we get it while we can.
Song of the Southside
The Southside is Exhibit A in Chattanooga’s most recent renaissance. Anchored by its old railroad terminal, it is a Bruges Syndrome story. Like that medieval Belgian city, economic circumstances froze the industrial southside’s real estate and architecture in time for decades. As suburban sprawl dominated new construction between World War II and the 21st century, the southside’s old brick buildings languished - too sturdy to tear down cheaply until restoration and gentrification became stylish. Now the southside and downtown are trendy again and not just on the covers of bricklayer magazines.
Southside revival began with the brick and mortar version of a song. “Chattanooga Choo Choo” was written by Mack Gordon & Harry Warren while traveling on the Southern Railway’s “Birmingham Special” train. Glen Miller’s version of the song was # 1 hit in America for nine weeks during World War II. The inspiration for the song was a small, wood-burning steam locomotive which belonged to the Cincinnati Southern Railroad and now is a main attraction in what used to the Chattanooga Terminal.
Opened in 1909 that railroad station hosted thousands of travelers during the Golden Age of railroads. Now known as Chattanooga Choo Choo, it was saved from the wrecking ball in 1971 and transformed into The Garden’s, a restaurant modeled on Tivoli in Copenhagen. Today, it’s a 23 acre complex offering a variety of overnight accommodations, including Victorian Era train compartments and suites, plus authentic New Orleans trolley rides, a model railroad display, formal gardens and a bar that evokes that glorious era.
We could have lingered all morning at the Choo Choo but Wroburlto is a modern bear more interested in tow trucks than antique trains. So we took Bill Mish up on his offer and headed to the International Towing & Recovery Museum and Hall of Fame. I am not making that up.
Holmes Wreckers & Other Heroes
There we learned that the Holmes Wrecker (1913) is not a slut TV show and that the Bubble Nose is not a fish. Well at least it’s not just a fish. Those are both famous antique tow trucks that now educate and comfort fans who come from all over America to see them. This quirky museum also enshrines workers who gave their lives as first responders - a frightfully under appreciated number of brave souls each year. We also saw the world’s fastest ever tow truck, appropriately owned by a garage in Talladega, Alabama. Wro loved this place and even Mamabear was fascinated.
Tow trucks make us hungry so we moved down the southside to the University of Tennessee where Chattanooga Market’s open air, covered pavilion showcased regional farmers and artists, live music and chef demonstrations. This is a real farmers market, meaning vendors must personally produce the goods they sell. I bought a Smokey Mountain bow knife for $30. I have never found a better tool for slicing bread or frozen meat. We also found the best strawberries and okra (from Mike Mayfield of Mayfield Farms) and peaches (from Ahzlewood Orchards in Cleveland, Alabama) in years - and I live in California! Signal Mountain Organic Farms sold Wro some radishes that were so fresh he needed to wash the bite down his throat with a strawberry smoothie from Bunky’s Salad Station.
Moon Pie Over My Amity
Chattanooga Bakery is an indisputable American icon. It’s just that most people know it by another name. This bakery makes a product that defines a Southern lifestyle as in “You’re a red neck if your wedding cake is a stack of Moon Pies.”
Chattanooga Bakery Vice President Tory Johnson told us the story of the birth of Moon Pie, no relation to Tia-Numa.
“Campbell’s Flour Mill started here in 1902 and by World War I they had excess production. So they started bringing out new items. Moon Pie developed after visits to the coal mine region of Kentucky where miners said they wanted something bigger and more substantial in their lunch pails. Moon Pie was developed in response to that - a snack as big as the moon. It was about the 200th new item brought out by the bakery,” Johnson said.
By 1930, Moon Pie was so popular it was the only item the bakery made. Still a family owned, family run company, they make six flavors now. The original flavor is the original s‘more - chocolate enclosed marshmallow. In southern lore, Moon Pie is linked with RC Cola, so we asked about that.
“RC Cola was the first soft drink to bottle in 20 ounce sizes, when others were still preferring 6 and 8 ounce bottles. So, the blue collar lunch became a Moon Pie and an RC. It stuck ever since,” explained Johnson.
Other Moon Pie lore.
~ Moon Pies were one of three things, along with Coca Cola and Bazooka gum, that Oprah said made America American.
~ 2008 was the year of the first non-marshmallow Moon Pie, with peanut butter filling introduced.
~ Sam Walton told Wal0Mart managers that each needed to promote a personal favorite item. He held up Moon Pie’s as his personal favorite. Kiss-ass managers followed his lead and Moon Pie sales soared.
~ Chattanooga Bakery purchased Betsy’s Cheese Sticks of Alabama recently, looking for a product for the high end market. Betsy’s Cheese and Sweet sticks are made without high fructose corn syrup.
Junk food history always makes us hungry, so we decided on a moveable feast dinner, with bread at one Southside place, appetizers and cocktails at another, entrees at third and desserts at a fourth.
Niedlov’s Breadworks on Main Street was a charter member of the area’s revitalization program. This artisan bakery sells to walk-in customers and also provides bread for Greenlife Grocery and Chattanooga’s fine dining establishments. Niedlov’s signature loaf, Wholely Whole Wheat, is the city’s only organic, naturally leavened whole-grain bread.
Wearing a T shirt that said “We knead to love,” owner John Sweet said he learned in Germany that “Good bread is a commonality to good life.”
Niedlov’s practices extensive fermentation. Sweet wanted a unique leavening agent and created his own mother starter (we call that sourdough in San Francisco) on Lookout Mountain. As the Chattanooga food renaissance developed, he moved to the southside to be in the middle of it.
At Niko’s Southside Grille, owner Nick Kyriakidis added linen tablecloths, dark woods, modern lighting and impressionist art to the brick wall ambiance of an old warehouse. Chef Edward Lewis turns out “Greek & Southern fusion” cuisine - grouper is given a Thai treatment, grits are served with shrimp and tasso ham, quail are wrapped in bacon and flat iron steaks are marinated in Jack Daniels. But old Greek American favorites dominated the appetizer menu we tried: traditional hummus; tzatzikis; and tapenades with pita and sweet potato chips; beef-stuffed grape leaves; fried calamari rings; fried kasseri cheese with pecans and bread toast; and some fried green tomatoes with arugula, goat cheese and prosciutto.
St. John’s Restaurant and its owner/chef Daniel Lindley are Chattanooga’s consensus top dogs. Wro gets excited about meeting hot chefs so he was disappointed that Dan couldn’t be there the night we came. We discovered much later that he was having surgery after a bad accident.
Set in a 1920’s bank with live jazz, balcony dining and deco trappings, St. John can certainly transport diners to another time and place. It epitomizes the black & white, mortar & brick, marble & wood, Modernist “Chattanooga style.”
Our plan had been to have entrees only but we couldn’t resist a couple appetizers: divine tenderloin tartare with a capers, shallots and quail eggs; an heirloom tomato salad smartly paired with a Parmesan soufflé, fresh basil leaves and sherry vinaigrette; and a baby beet salad with pea shoots and marinated mozzarella.
To honor our original plan, we also ordered entrees. I tried a Kobe steak heftily paired with mashed potatoes. Wroburlto has been a pork belly sampling tour for several months so he ordered a “pork tasting” that also included loin, a rib and pepper risotto with smoked onions. It was served minus the belly with an explanation that they had run out. That provoked such ostentatious despair that our server returned to the kitchen and found some belly after all. I so wish I could whine as effectively as he does.
Full as we were, the highlight of our moveable feast still awaited us at Table 2. That place is one of the few hot new places in town that deviates from the “Chattanooga style.” It’s more like late Gaudi - bold and metrosexual (Wro’s word, not mine) with reds and golds, velvets and crystal, open glass and open kitchens. The patio was conspicuously part of the restaurant and even had outdoor fireplaces. Semi-private booths were draped in theatrical curtains.
The kitchen professes faith to sustainable, organic and natural foods. Star pastry chef Rebecca Barron presented a wondrous array of nightcaps paired with fine dessert wines. Georgia Peach bread pudding was beautifully layered in a cocktail glass with candied pecans and home made vanilla ice cream. A strawberry rhubarb shortcake was served cream puff style with a strawberry compote and freshly whipped cream. A spicy chocolate pot de crème might have been the best we ever had - with multiple flavors of dark chocolates, cayenne pepper and strawberry coulis. We tried three excellent wines with these desserts - a Marcarini Moscato d’Asti, an 06 Chateau Roumieru Lacoste Sauternes and an 05 Four Vines Zinfandel Port, from Paso Robles.
We could barely stay awake long enough to catch a couple Three Dog Night songs at Riverbend.
A Teaching Farm
Crabtree Farms is Chattanooga’s urban teaching farm offers public tours and teaches visitors about sustainable flower and vegetable production, ecology and seed propagation. I figured it was time Wro learned that food didn’t just come out of restaurant kitchens.
Melanie Mayo showed him around. They visited mushrooms deep in woods, mosquito-filled woods. We learned that shiitakes take 7 - 18 months to grow and that morels grow near dogwoods here too. Crabtree also cultivates night velvet, bolshoi breeze, WW70, CW25 WW40 and WR72. Not as romantic sounding but just as good. “One guy inoculated his compost heap with mushrooms and got a bunch the next year,” Mayo reported.
Wro also saw paw paws, strawberries and all kinds of green foods.
Moses & the Promised Land
We went appropriately to lunch then at 212 Market, proclaimed Chattanooga’s greenest restaurant. This “Mom and Daughters” café is a labor of love by Maggie Moses and her daughters Susan and Sally. It’s also the only restaurant in downtown Chattanooga that predates the Aquarium - or as the Moses like to say “We were downtown, before downtown was cool.”
They have reputations for being the major teaching restaurant in the area, a hands-on learning center for culinary students and recent grads. All three ladies are almost always working in the kitchen or bakery. They are also a great supporter of local farms as well as green foods. This is one of the few places in America where turkey is always Bourbon Red, a legendary breed that many feel is the ultimate in turkey tasting. The menu was punctuated with other local farm brands - Sequatchie Farms, Meadow Creek Dairy, Fall’s Mill grits.
Grandma Moses (the other one) paintings in spun sugar highlighted their art work. We had some lobster bisque, made with lobster shell stock and organic cream and some carrot ginger soup. We followed that with a free range Sequatchie Cove Red Angus burger, with a slice of our first fresh tomato of the year, on a home made bun. We also tried some spinach ravioli with wild mushrooms in honor of the fungi Wro saw in the woods. The dessert tray was enticing, but we managed to stick with just two: one of the best tres leches anywhere; a chocolate mousse; a crème brulee and a bread pudding. Did I say just two? I meant just two each.
Fish We Didn’t Eat
If the Hunter is old Chattanooga, the Tennessee Aquarium represents New Chattanooga. Designed by Boston architect Peter Chermayeff, its opening in 1992 signaled the city’s intention to rid itself of a negative image from Tia-Numa‘s curse. The place first opened as the world’s largest freshwater aquarium. Today the original building showcases “River Journey,” with exhibits that follows a single drop of water flowing from the Appalachian Mountains down the Tennessee River to the Gulf of Mexico.
One popular rumor, which will never be likely die or be confirmed, is that Home Depot management bore such a grudge against Chattanooga that they donated money to Atlanta for the purpose of building a bigger aquarium. Chattanooga responded by hiring Chermayeff’s firm to build a $30 million, 60,000 square-foot adjoining building, which opened in 2005 and jumpstarted a downtown revival that also created a beautiful new ball park, the Riverfront festival grounds and the restaurant renaissance we had come to sample.
The new aquarium building showcases “Ocean Journey,” a story of the unique coral reef systems in the Gulf of Mexico. We watched 10-foot sharks, fierce barracuda and graceful stingrays glide through amazing coral formations. Other galleries showcase cuttlefish, scaly tarpons, squid, crabs and jellyfish, some of which we found on local menus.
We saw the rest of “Jellies: Living Art,” the collaboration with the Hunter that paired the artistic splendor of fine glass sculpture with the living beauty of jelly fish. In a butterfly gallery we particularly enjoyed the Tawny Owl, who did not seem to mind us at all as he sat in his black olive tree.
The aquarium boasts more turtle species than anywhere in the world. We met Oscar, a rescue turtle, who had been run over twice by motor boats. When he first came to the Aquarium, his lungs popped out when he inhaled.
Downtown Dine Around
After the overindulgence of the previous night, we decided to only hit two restaurants on our next dine around. We started with Easy Bistro, another paragon of the Modernist/Deco black & white, masonry and tile Chattanooga Style. Chef - owner Erik Niel is a Cajun country transplant who keeps a faith with both his bayou and gulf roots by blending Deep South and Continental cuisines. This was the only place in town where fried green tomatoes were not covered or stuffed with melted cheese. Erik’s were heavenly with just bacon, black eyed peas and a crawfish vinaigrette.
He also served some marinated olives, a baked oyster confit, shrimp cocktail, salad with spring mix and endive, strawberries and candied pecans. Oh, and a couple dozen raw oysters and an order of heavenly potato ravioli with local peaches and crabmeat, in brown butter with shallots and capers.
This was an occasion in which we could barely force ourselves to leave and move on with our plan. Especially since Erik’s menu offered two fish we had never tried before - triggerfish and scamp grouper. We calmed our nerves with a couple house gin specialties - a cucumber-infused gin and ginger cocktail and another featuring elderflower liquor and orange bitters. I also tried my first Sazerac, America’s oldest cocktail making revival now that absinthe is legal again.
We plunged on to Hennen’s, the sister restaurant and neighbor of Blue Plate. It’s just as a casual despite being an upgrade from diner to steakhouse. Casual steakhouses are a popular tradeoff, customers give up expectations for prime, dry aged beef in exchange for prices that range between $16 - $30. Southern style sides (wilted greens, mashed sweet potatoes, grits, etc.) were also priced low $3 - $4.
Despite all the great appetizers at Easy, we ordered carpaccio with horseradish cream and a gumbo with good roux. For entrees we tried prime rib with peppercorn sauce and some Carolina red trout. Wro’s prime rib didn’t’ come out anywhere near the promised degree of doneness, but in this economy he reasoned he was lucky to be eating beef at all and didn’t pout too much. Powdered beignets and chocolate cheesecake with fresh berries calmed his disappointment.
Since Hennen’s is actually inside the Riverbend Festival grounds, it was easier to crawl over for the music before crawling back to the Doubletree.
Quirky Roadside Attractions
We started our last day on North Shore, Chattanooga’s riverfront neighborhood and home to Coolidge Park, specialty shops, cafés, outfitters and galleries. We had Clumpies Ice Cream for breakfast. In the shop of a third-generation candy maker, Clumpies makes each gourmet flavor in small batches. We tried fresh peach and blueberry before visiting the 82-year-old steamboat Delta Queen, who began her life floating to San Francisco from Stockton. She is now a floating hotel and lounge. Then we stopped in Hanover Gallery to see the latest works of Toby Penney, a Tennessee artist who sculpts amazing fruits, vegetables and tubers from perspectives both above and below the ground.
The dreaded time had come to rent a car and drive to Boathouse, a restaurant accessible by car, bike, parachute or kayak none of which is my preferred mode. Owner Lawton Haygood patented the Tuff Grill, the standard restaurant operation for wood burning grills. He has my kind of food group philosophy, he says that his rib eyes are “flavored with fat.” Lawton put his name on a Lawtonrita, which we ordered while contemplating lunch. It was simply a classic margarita, with the best tequila and freshly squeezed lime juice. Boathouse featured “Gulf Cuisine” - meaning barbecue, wood grilled meats and fresh seafood, three of the best things in life. We sat on a shaded porch and devoured fresh oysters. Boathouse sells more fresh oysters than anyone in Tennessee - they take twice-a-week delivery of Appalachoia and luck would have it ( actually it was planned) we showed up at delivery time.
Specialties include wood grilled chicken and El Scorcho, a cioppino like soup. So we ordered them both, plus an appetizer of wood-grilled squid and rotisserie brisket while we contemplated our main order - more raw oysters. Fortified with so much gulf food, I was ready to visit Chattanooga’s most revered and quirky roadside attractions.
Located deep within the underground caverns of historic Lookout Mountain, Ruby Falls’ is among the highest waterfalls in America and has been a huge tourist tradition since 1929.
“No one knows where the water comes from, or where it goes, said tour guide Brent Wade, “in the “30th year of temp job.” He assured me that there were stairs if the elevator breaks down. People have been willing to crawl on their bellies for 17 hours to see the waterfall. Fortunately for us, pathways are pretty wide and tall now. I didn’t even conk my head. It took us just 20 minutes to walk to the amazing waterfall.
Rock City Gardens opened in 1932 and advertised on barns roofs throughout the South. On top of Lookout Mountain, it features pathways through massive ancient rock formations, gardens with over 400 native plant species, the gnome-inhabited
Fairyland Caverns, panoramic views of “seven States” and more.
Roadside attractions, not to mention driving, make us hungry so we returned downtown to Bluewater Grille. This place is a sister to two Florida seafood restaurants, with fresh fish handpicked by a team of chefs in St. Augustine Florida. We tried a lobster bisque and a crab and roasted corn chowder. We followed that with grilled grouper and mahi mahi and some Kobe beef sliders. All were matched with house made beers that had most appropriate names - Big River Lager, Sweet Magnolia Brown Ale, Southern Flyer Light Lager.
Having eaten with some restraint, we were primed to strut rather than crawl. The legendary Bessie Smith Strut is a free downtown event that features live Rhythm & Blues music on three stages. It’s known as the largest block party in the South. We walked around talking to the smokers, mostly local guys with awesome equipment. Ron Jones had the biggest smoker, long-trailer sized. He’s a Chattanooga-born guy who recently moved back from Houston. So he combines southern and Texas style Q, specializing in briskets but using an East Carolina sauce.
In the African-American Museum that hosts the Strut, we learned two amazing life stories. Bessie Smith began singing on Chattanooga streets at age 8. By age 9 she was making $8 a week singing in clubs - big money then. She beat Ma Rainey in a talent show and then stowed away on that famous blues star’s train. Ma took her in and mothered her the rest of her life. Bessie died young in a car crash in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Her grave was unmarked till Janis Joplin erected a memorial pillar.
Jimmy Winksdale was the best jockey of the turn of the last century, winning two Kentucky Derbies before the Ku Klux Klan chased black men out of racing. He moved to Russia and became the best jockey in Europe, until the Bolsheviks chased him out of the USSR. He moved to Paris and was the leading trainer there, until the Nazis chased him out of France. He moved to Charles Town in West Virginia, where black men could train and own race horses. In 1960, Jimmy was walking the streets of segregated Louisville during Derby Week when some older horse owners recognized him and demanded that the Brown Hotel lift their racial ban and permit him to drink with them in Louisville’s ultimate bar. What a life.
When is Spike Lee going to make that movie?
If You Go
407 Chestnut Street
chattanooga, TN 37402
This hotel topped the entire Hilton system for customer service in a customer poll. That showed on our stay with sensationally friendly, accommodating people - and that’s saying something as Wro can be really demanding. It’s also a green hotel, recycling everything from garbage to lighting.
Chattanooga African-American Museum
200 E. MLK Blvd.
Chattanooga, TN 37403
Bluff View Art District
411 East Second Street
Chattanooga, TN 37403
1720 South Scenic Hwy
Chattanooga, TN 37409 423-821-2544
Hunter Museum of American Art
10 Bluff View
Chattanooga, TN 37403
One Broad Street
Chattanooga, TN 37401-2048
International Towing & Recovery Museum and Hall of Fame
3315 Broad St
Chattanooga, TN 37408-3052
411 East Second Street
Chattanooga, TN 37403
800-725-8338 ext. 1
191 Chestnut St # B
Chattanooga, TN 37402-1035
1400 Cowart St
Chattanooga, TN 37408-1113
1278 Market St
Chattanooga, TN 37402-2713
232 E 11th St
Chattanooga, TN 37402-4208
203 Broad St
Chattanooga, TN 37402-1010
193 Chestnut St
Chattanooga, TN 37402-1012
Blue Water Grille
224 Broad St
Chattanooga, TN 37402-1009