EDITOR'S NOTE: It's patio weather. So Times Free Press staff writers are sharing their favorite local spots for al fresco dining in a series that will appear each week of May in Chattanooga Now.
Al fresco is my favorite way to dine. Yes, it can be hot, and sure, there are bound to be bugs, but sunshine makes food more satisfying in my book. For me, dining is an experience, not just a necessity, and patio weather and people-watching are surefire ways to enhance that experience and ground you in the act. Plus, it helps prevent you from being the couple who goes out only to sit across the table from each other with phones out, eyes down, mouths shut, seemingly disinterested in their date and their dinner, which in all honesty is one of my biggest relationship fears.
If you go
› Where: 1885 Grill, 3914 St. Elmo Ave.
› Hours: 4-9 p.m. Monday-Wednesday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday, with brunch from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturdays and 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sundays
› Prices: $8-$29 for dinner entrees; $8-$18 for brunch
› Alcohol: Full bar
› Phone: 423-485-3050
Chattanooga is blessed to have a number of good options when it comes to dining al fresco, but my favorite patio is probably 1885 Grill's. Located at the entrance to St. Elmo, it's an oasis in a never-ending flow of traffic. Cobblestoned and quaint, it's shaded by a ring of trees that shields it from the pace of the outside world evidenced by the passing motorists.
It sits directly across from the Incline Railway's lower station, and there are always throngs of excited tourists strolling the sidewalks, many with ice cream cones in hand. Their smiles are as contagious as the warmth of the sunshine, and it's easy to imagine that you, too, are on vacation — perhaps in Europe, as 1885's patio has an Old World feel.
The patio is charmingly small and extremely popular. When we arrived around 5:15 p.m. — on a Wednesday — most of the dozen or so tables were already full. In the corner, two 20-somethings were setting up their drum kit and guitar amp. The patio often hosts live music. I am not a huge fan of restaurant shows, which normally drown the chance for real conversation, but their set was subdued, adding to the ambiance instead of overwhelming it. Though I do blame them for "Wrecking Ball" running on repeat in my head the next day.
The restaurant bills itself as "Southern coastal." Down-home staples including pimento cheese and fried okra ($8) and hand-breaded chicken with Creole gravy, served with feta scallion mashed potatoes and sauteed green beans ($16), are served alongside bayou favorites like shrimp and crawfish etoufee ($16 with basmati rice or $17.50 with stone-ground cheese grits) or a quarter-pound crab cake topped with spicy remoulade and served between a fresh Niedlov's bun ($13). The shrimp and grits gets rave reviews, and apparently on Wednesdays they do a shrimp boil, which the hostess who seated us was very excited about.
In fact, every night seems to offer something special. Wednesday is also wine night, granting guests $5 glasses of select wines and discounts on certain bottles, with the added benefit of $5 dips: hummus or pimento cheese. I'd checked 1885's Facebook page the day before and it touted $2 tacos on Tuesdays.
According to my boyfriend, Jon, I am the only person in the city who doesn't like shrimp, but that hasn't changed my mind. Wanting to take advantage of the restaurant's specialty as well as something light, I opted for the mushroom and grits: wild mushrooms, wilted baby kale, lemon butter pan sauce, roasted red peppers, fried capers and fresh herbs served with your choice of stone-ground grits cakes or creamy cheese grits ($13). It can also be served "Skeeter Style," meaning it comes with a side of shrimp, for an additional $6.
Upon hearing my order, our server seemed to shake her head in satisfaction, but immediately asked if I liked citrus. The dish can have a strong lemon flavor, she warned, presumably because others have found the tartness overwhelming.
When I asked for it with the cheese grits, she offered to have it prepared with both the creamy grits and the grits cakes, presumably because she likes the cakes better. I should have taken her up on that. Instead, I switched and went all in with the grits cakes.
Don't get me wrong; the cakes were a fried feat, crispy on the outside and soft and creamy on the inside. Our server said the crunchiness paired well with the soft texture of the vegetables, and she wasn't wrong. But I needed more vegetables for a truly perfect pairing. To me, the vegetables were the main draw, the grits merely a venue, but my plate had a reverse focus. Still, the flavors played well together, the lemon butter pan sauce lending a distinct crispness that anchored the herbs and added dimension to the cakes.
I'd order it again, but probably with half and half, as originally suggested, or straight cheese grits — that is, if I didn't have the stomach for the 1885 Burger. I don't often opt for burgers, which tend to leave me in a food coma, but the single bite I took from Jon's was a show-stopper. The half-pound house-blend burger is piled with pimento cheese, homemade chow-chow, house-cured beef bacon, fried tobacco onions, Creole mayo and lettuce, all served on a Niedlov's bun ($13). The smoky chargrill of the meat was complemented by a subtle sweetness and satisfying crunch that I will likely find myself fasting for soon.
Plus, who couldn't use a mini escape?
Contact Jennifer Bardoner at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6579.