If it's been a while since you've been to Gatlinburg, a lot has remained the same.
The stunning mountains haven't moved. The river that flows through town hasn't changed course, and some of your favorite inns, such as the Greystone Lodge on the River, is still family owned. And the townsfolk are still as friendly and welcoming.
What's changed? The food offerings have risen well above saltwater taffy and fudge.
"It's become a popular destination in large part because we have many dining options, including everything from walk-up windows to family fare and fine dining." says Marci Claude, public relations manager for the Gatlinburg Convention & Visitors Bureau. "So if you're planning a family-friendly trip, romantic getaway or a girls trip, you have many restaurants to choose from."
The winter months, especially January and February, are significantly less crowded, so you could improve your chances of getting a table with little wait time by visiting in the off season, Claude adds.
"Gatlinburg is experiencing the same labor issues as everywhere else across the country, so planning ahead is your best strategy," she says.
When planning your itinerary, Claude advises planning your dining schedule as well. To shorten or eliminate wait times at restaurants, use online apps like Resy or Open Table for call-ahead seating or booking reservations.
Gatlinburg is home to the only ski resort in Tennessee, Ober Gatlinburg Ski Area and Amusement Park, which offers snowboarding, skiing, snow tubing and ice skating, so there's plenty to do to expend some of your pent-up energy.
Or take a drive around the Great Smoky Mountains National Park — its just as beautiful in the winter as the other seasons. Just be sure to check the weather and road conditions on sites such as visitmysmokies.com. The city, Claude adds, is also prepared for inclement weather and is experienced in clearing roads quickly.
Here's a quick tour of the city's restaurant scene.
Hours: 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday
I must have passed the Chicken Guy half a dozen times before I found it in a small shotgun-style restaurant in the same complex as the big Arcade City. The arcade is hard to miss, so once you spot it, you'll know you're in the right place.
The area around Chicken Guy gets pretty hectic at the height of tourist season, so I think celebrity chef Guy Fieri knew what he was doing. The smell of fried chicken draws you in.
The restaurant serves its fried chicken in several ways: on a sandwich, in salads or as a combo that includes three or five tenders with one side item and a drink. It's a pretty simple menu, so you can make a decision quickly if it weren't for the sauces. There are 22 from which to choose, and the combo plates come with two, such as chipotle ranch, Nashville hot honey or Donkey Sauce, a mild lemon-garlic mayo sauce. Once your order is placed, take a number and a seat, and your food will be delivered to your table. You're on your own for cleanup, and then you'll be out the door and on to your next Gatlinburg adventure. It's a straightforward process that works well considering the crowds of people that descend upon Parkway, Gatlinburg's main street, during the lunch hour.
The restaurant opened in October and has a few tables with banquette seating and chairs, as well as tall tables that you'll share with people you may not know, but that's OK. The place is noisy, and music plays loudly so if that bothers you, you might want to go someplace else. But for a quick in-and-out and some good hand-breaded fried chicken — or if you're a Fieri fan — you might want to give this place a try.
THE GREENBRIER — A FOOD AND SPIRIT OUTPOST
370 Newman Road
Hours: 4:30-9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 4:30-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 4:30-9 p.m. Sunday; bar opens at 4 p.m.
Since opening three years ago, The Greenbrier — A Food and Spirit Outpost has become one of the most sought-after reservations for fine dining in a casual atmosphere. After a full day in the mountains hiking, biking, skiing, snowboarding, ice skating at Ober Gatlinburg or zip lining, and if you just can't get the thought of a big juicy steak out of your mind, make haste to The Greenbrier. It's known for its dry-aged steaks, seafood, wines and top-shelf bourbons — "a hidden gem with the largest collection of bourbons in the state," says sommelier David Kibler.
Whiskey tastings are offered the third Thursday of every month, and the Women of Wine social is a popular event on first Thursdays. Wines are half price every Thursday as well. But every day is a celebration of food from Greenbrier's chef-driven menu.
There's just something about a steak done simply, with no over-the-top adornments, that's perfect. You hear about filets that are fork-tender? Try for yourself. Greenbrier's filet is a good place to start. And if you question the claim of dry-aged steaks, you can see for yourself. They're stacked in a drying cabinet near the Chef's Table, a private room that seats up to a dozens guests at a large table off the kitchen.
Greenbrier is tucked away in the forest on the side of a mountain in a cabin built in the 1830s. It has a no-frills feel that's casually elegant and peaceful — a perfect ending to your day in the mountains.
CROCKETT'S BREAKFAST CAMP
Hours: 7 a.m.-1 p.m. seven days a week
A bountiful breakfast on the wild frontier, a.k.a. downtown Gatlinburg, is what awaits at Crockett's. One might think it's named after Tennessee native son, Davy, but no. It gets its name from another Tennessee guy. David C. "Crockett" Maples was a frontiersman and soldier who, after being discharged from the 9th Tennessee Cavalry, became a mountain guide and, with wife Mary, ran Crockett's Camp, serving home-cooked breakfasts to weary travelers passing through.
The same is done today at the new version of Crockett's Breakfast Camp where hungry travelers — and locals, too — find bodacious breakfasts of French toast prepared one of three ways. You can get Crockett's thick French toast; French toast stuffed with cream cheese and fruit or peanut butter and jelly; or Grandma Hattie's French toast topped with berries and served with warm maple syrup. One of those is bound to get your motor running. If not, go for the steak and eggs, huevos rancheros, corned beef and hash, the Elk Mountain grand breakfast burrito or pan-fried pork chops. The possibilities for filling your belly are endless. All egg dishes are served with Cherokee Sweet Corn Pone on the side, along with your choice of candied apples, fresh fruit, grits or hash. And don't forget about the cathead biscuits. If this place doesn't put a little South in your mouth, nothing will.
The atmosphere is warming. It's hard to miss the massive, double-sided stone fireplace surrounded by a wide hearth where you can sit and let the fire make you good and toasty before continuing on to peruse the menu. Printed on newsprint, it's like sitting at home with a hot cup of coffee to read the morning paper. Crockett's exudes comfort, from its decor to its food. Get there early to avoid the lines — this is a popular spot.
GATLINBURG BREWING CO.
Hours: Noon-1 a.m. daily
In an area known for its white lightning and other spirits, there were few places crafting beer. That's what gave Steve Wilson, an admitted beer lover, the idea to start making his own and open a brew pub. Now, it's the place in town for cold craft beer, but it all started with pizza.
Long story short, Wilson owned a pizza place, it closed, he began brewing beer and needed food in order to open a new restaurant and start selling beer. "I was familiar with pizza, so we added that," he says. The menu now goes beyond pizza with salads, some barbecue, appetizers handmade burgers and, oh yeah, pizzas baked in brick ovens. All pizzas are 10-inch, so just enough for sharing. Choose from cauliflower or hand-tossed crusts, then add your own selection of toppings or choose from several specialty pies.
Gatlinburg Brewing Co. beer is now found around Sevier County in 26 restaurants and bars, the latest at Anakeesta. But if you go to the downtown brewery/restaurant, you can get your pick of 16 brews, 12 made by Gatlinburg Brewing and four guest taps from area breweries. Beer choices range from IPAs to pale ales, hearty stouts and a few fruit-based brews. Can't decide? Order a flight, then make your choice.
The pub is on the north end of the city, where restaurants were once lacking. The opening of Gatlinburg Brewing, Claude says, helped connect north to south. Now others have joined the party, such as Blake Shelton's Ole Red and LandShark Bar and Grill at Margaritaville.
Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. seven days a week
High above Gatlinburg, way up in the treetops, is Anakeesta, an exciting, award-winning aerial adventure park with botanical gardens; a Treetop Skywalk with hanging bridges; a tower that, at its top, is almost 2,000 feet above sea level offering 360-degree views of the mountains and downtown Gatlinburg; a zip line; mountain coaster; shopping and dining So many things to do, you'll want to make a day of it.
Snack bars, a bakery and bars serving adult drinks are located across the 70-acre property, and there are two full-service restaurants, the Smokehouse and Cliff Top. Smokehouse is perched on the edge of the mountain with garage-style doors on two sides and floor-to-ceiling windows at the end of the dining area. On warm days, the doors and windows open to make for an amazing open-air dining experience. In winter, they are closed, but still offer stunning views of the surrounding mountains. The menu focuses on house-smoked meats and all the sides you need to go with them — baked beans, coleslaw, mac and cheese, and chips.
Cliff Top affords a more-elevated menu with modern-American cuisine, such as short ribs over cheesy grits; bourbon-glazed salmon; fried green tomatoes with bourbon bacon and jalapeno jam; shrimp and grits; and a 12-ounce rib-eye with boursin-whipped potatoes. Cliff Top also has a nice wine list, craft cocktails and jaw-dropping views of Mount LeConte and its neighboring mountains.
Dining with a backdrop of the Smokies doesn't get much better than what you'll find at Anakeesta.
There are two ways to arrive at the top of the mountain. You can take the Chondola — a combination chairlift/gondola — or hop aboard the Ridge Rambler, an adventure vehicle with multiseating. Parking and tickets for Anakeesta, translated from the Cherokee language to mean "the place of high ground," are at the bottom of the mountain along Parkway.
SPLIT RAIL EATS
849 Glades Road
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday brunch
Located in Gatlinburg's arts and crafts community, Split Rail Eats has an interesting mix of flavors and dishes on its menu.
It's a little Southern, a little Tex-Mex, some Asian — a real hodgepodge of offerings that give every palate a tremendous choice.
You can go to Split Rail Eats for its burgers and salads — and there are plenty of choices. But where else can you get a Reuben made with grilled kielbasa or a Hot Seoul sandwich with thinly sliced sirloin marinated in Korean marinade? The tater bowls are a specialty of the house, made with tater tots or crispy fries with ingenious toppings that range from the Cheeseburger Bowl to a Buffalo Bowl, Taco Tater Bowl or the Greek Bowl with feta cheese, tomatoes, roasted peppers, lettuce and green onions drizzled with tangy tzatziki sauce.
Split Rail is in Gatlinburg's Great Smoky Arts and Crafts Community, an area about 6 miles off the main drag that is reminiscent of a bygone era when the town was a haven for artists of all mediums. Now, they have gathered in this small area with shops and eateries, such as Split Rail, owned by partners John Mistriotis and Corbin Deberry. Deberry cooks, and Mistriotis mans the front of the house. The menu, says Mistriotis, is a play on familiar favorites, an international smorgasboard. When creating the menu, "We tried to hit places from around the world," Mistriotis says.
Split Rail opened in 2018 and has already expanded with extra seating that includes a fireplace with a seating group around it where you can sit and enjoy a cappucino or other fabulous coffees and a cookie, one of dozens made from scratch daily.
OTHER NEWS OF NOTE
Gatlinburg is a Tennessee treasure that brings in millions of tourists annually. And restaurateurs have taken note. Here are some other new ones that show the diversity of palate-pleasing eateries to be found in the "Gateway to the Smoky Mountains."
* Smoky Mountain Creperie: A walk-up beside the Space Needle on Historic Nature Trail/Airport Road. FYI: There is no airport in Gatlinburg. The road gets its name because an airplane once landed on it.
* Waffle De Lys: An authentic Belgian waffle shop in Reagan Terrace Mall.
* Ole Red: A Blake Shelton-inspired restaurant with live music daily along the north end of Parkway.
* Chesapeake Seafood Restaurant: Part of the Copper Cellar restaurant family serving seafood with brunch and happy hour close to Margaritaville.
* The Crazy Mason Milkshake Bar: A place along Parkway with enormous milkshakes in a jar. Order one with a cupcake on top.
* Ruby Sunshine: A restaurant on the corner of Parkway and Reagan Drive offering New Orleans-style brunch and known for generous mimosas, sweet and savory dishes.