We looked. We investigated. What's transpired over the last 15 years has been dramatic.
Chattanooga is no stranger to comparisons. Boulder of the East. Silicon of the South — we've got a lot in common with some of the most influential parts of our great country. Just as there are groups focused on technology and the outdoors, there's another emergence that's, shall we say, a little more appetizing.
With a thriving local food scene, farmers markets every day of the week all over town and a seemingly never-ending list of restaurants, coffee shops and bars opening, it's an exciting time for the bacchanalians of Chattanooga. But surrounded by Atlanta and Nashville, does Chattanooga even have room to carve out its own piece of Southern food culture?
If you ask the key players behind Chattanooga's restaurant scene today, yes.
But we need some help.
Chattanooga needs an active community of restaurants, chefs and farms.
We're off to a good start with things like the Scenic City Supper Club and other one-off events, but Erik Neil, owner of Easy Bistro, says Chattanooga restaurants need to build a community. Why? It not only connects restaurants in a non-competitive way, it promotes restaurants and food as entertainment to the community and the region.
"I think we're on the cusp of having a legitimate food scene — an area that people from out of town come to eat and entertain themselves," says Neil. "We've always had great kids' and family entertainment, but the growing trend across travelers is to go and eat. I think we're close to being able to do that. When that happens and we have the regionally and recognized food scene, we have the ability to recognize more chefs and grow food culture here."
When people come together for a night of camaraderie and good food, the act of eating out is more than necessity — it's an activity. Events like the Scenic City Supper Club bring together the key players of the restaurant scene and offer people a chance to see them working together to build something greater.
If we keep this going, Neil says, Chattanooga could have a food and wine festival like Atlanta started recently — and has seen great success with. Neil knows firsthand because he's represented Chattanooga at festivals all over. His role plays into celebrating Chattanooga's food culture, but also reaching people from the surrounding areas in hopes they'll add Chattanooga to their list of places to visit. With restaurants and farms working together more than ever, a food festival would be a home run for Chattanooga, he says, if it can get off the ground.
Chattanooga needs to expand its boundaries, figuratively and literally.
Right now, if you wanted to grab a bite to eat downtown between the Southside and the North Shore, you would have dozens of options. Spanning from biscuit-making breakfast places to your pick of Mexican restaurants, the concentration of eateries in the area is overwhelming.
But not everyone lives and works in downtown Chattanooga. For as many people as there are in the downtown area, there are at least three times that number who live outside of it, in Hixson, Collegedale, Ooltewah.
Cambridge Square in Ooltewah has focused on adding locally owned restaurants like Southern Burger Co., Lupi's Pizza and Heaven and Ale to its ranks. "We aimed to bring parts of downtown that people like, here to Cambridge Square," says Jim Cheney, who represents the development. "We want the best parts of Chattanooga here for people to enjoy too."
But just as worthwhile is expanding the parts of the map from which we draw. While Chattanooga loves clean and classic American cuisine, broadening the scope of culinary offerings to include Korean, Eastern European, even South American tastes only enhances our food community.
This is starting to happen with the addition of places like Fresh Pot Cafe in Hixson, which blends Ecuadorean cuisine with classic cafe fare. And Two Ten Jack, a Nashville transplant, has brought Japanese pub-style plates to our palates, which is unlike anything in town.
It became a movement here — the awareness of seasonality; the whole local economy had to do with the local food movement. One of the greatest assests here is the local food production and [212 Market] is a part of this amazing infrastructure.
Chattanooga needs to wine and dine a little.
Chattanooga is loosening its tie a bit, and restaurants are flourishing under craft beer and wine programs.
It's taken a few decades, a hard-fought campaign and a little bit of tolerance, but Tennessee laws allowing for the distilling of whiskey in Chattanooga and the combined sales of wine, beer and liquor have come at a time when restaurants are no longer teetotalling. Wherever your morals lie, you can't avoid it — restaurants are adding craft beer (even local craft beer!) to their taps, and expanding beyond the mass-produced house wines in favor of lists of grapes from far and wide.
Melanie and Joel Krautstrunk specifically chose Chattanooga for their craft beer brewery, acknowledging the Scenic City's growing popularity and maturing of tastes. They opened Hutton and Smith Brewing Company on M.L. King Boulevard last month.
"We just fell in love with the place and really felt like this was a place we could do our thing," Melanie says. "So far we couldn't have asked for more love from the community. We definitely think people are going to like our product here."
Places like the Southside's Flying Squirrel are just as known for their drinks as their food, and they expand their menu with seasonal cocktails, infused liquors and more. It's as creative as you can get when it comes to playing with booze. And if the crowds outside of the Squirrel every summer night (and Sunday brunch) are any indication, this is a step in the right direction.
Chattanooga needs to play well with others.
Chattanooga has a very healthy local food scene. And while locally owned businesses are great for the economy, it's even better when local restaurant owners break into other cities. The advent of regional restaurants opening branches here shows there is an eye on the Scenic City. Beloved Tupelo Honey, an Asheville-based Southern restaurant, opened at Warehouse Row in 2013, not because they were just opening all over, but because it was a targeted decision.
"We looked. We investigated [downtown Chattanooga]," Tupelo Honey owner Steven Frabitore said when plans to open in Chattanooga were announced. "What's transpired over the last 15 years has been dramatic."
The founder of Maple Street Biscuit Company, which primarily has locations in Jacksonville, Florida, was convinced by a friend who went to the University of Tennessee - Chattanooga that the Scenic City was a worthy place to open another shop — 8 hours away.
And then there are restaurants like Puckett's, which is opening right next to the Tennessee Aquarium on Chattanooga's riverfront, that have been looking to break into the scene for years. Joining the burgeoning music scene with customer approved barbecue, the Middle Tennessee-based company thinks it's found the winning combination, which primarily includes being located in the epicenter of activity in Chattanooga.
More of this, and Chattanooga will draw families looking for a little piece of home in another setting.
Meanwhile, a little piece of us is being spread regionally. Daniel Lindley of Alleia has opened his new restaurant, 5th and Taylor, in Nashville, and the Monens operate a Taco Mamacita and a yet-to-open Clyde's on Church in Nashville.
Chattanooga restaurateurs should take risks — and aim to do things differently.
It's hard to say where Chattanooga would be if 212 Market never opened its doors years and years ago. First, owners Sally and Susan Moses dared to enter the downtown area when there was nothing and open a higher-end restaurant. Second, they are arguably Chattanooga's first foray into farm-to-table cuisine, focusing on bringing area farms' produce and meats to the tables of Chattanoogans. Third, and most significantly, they are still doing it more than 20 years later.
Off of 212's success, it's hard to find a local chef or restaurant owner who doesn't cite them as inspiration for what they do each day.
"It became a movement here —- the awareness of seasonality, the whole local economy had to do with the local food movement." Neil says. "Farmers have totally played into restaurant scene. One of the greatest assests here is the local food production and [212 Market] is a part of this amazing infrastructure."
Chattanooga's food scene has evolved, no doubt. Just look at things like the Harvested Here Food Hub, which aims to get as much locally grown produce in restaurants around town as possible — and is flourishing, making supporting local farms a cornerstone of our food culture today.
While 212 Market has been imitated and admired for years, where is the next culture-changing restaurant that will propel the restaurant scene forward? 212 Market was followed by Easy Bistro 10 years ago this summer, and while more and more have restaurants opened up downtown, it's time for a new and transformative restaurant, be it cuisine, atmosphere or approach, to come and reset the cycle all over again.
That's where Chattanooga should look to other cities for ideas. As we capitalize on what's great about our city, we should always be looking forward and anticipating what's next.