Food Pilgrimage is a series where we explore new places with the goal of finding something wonderful to eat or drink
I am not a spontaneous person. I research, plan, set goals, and then execute (somewhat stubbornly). It’s not that I don’t trust fate to bring me great experiences, it’s just that I kinda believe we make our own fates. However, a recent fourteen hour stopover in Chattanooga, Tennessee has me rethinking this whole spontaneity thing. My husband and I decided to spend a night in “The Scenic City" to break up a very long (25 hour!) drive to New Orleans for our friends’ wedding. We were immediately wowed by the dramatic Appalachians, the winding Tennessee River, and the clean mountain air. The artsy, energetic vibe and genuinely nice people sealed the deal; before we knew it what started as a brief aside turned in to the highlight of the whole trip.
If you find yourself there for longer than the mere fourteen hours we had I’m sure you’ll uncover much more, but if you’re just passing through I think these spots will both give you a sense of this evolving, progressive Southern city and keep you delighted, stuffed and buzzed (see what I did there?).
Check in to the hotel and head to…The Pickle Barrel. The beers (many craft and a few local) are cheap, the food good, and the service friendly. We felt right at home with the part pub and part dive bar vibe. Climbing the narrow spiral staircase had me holding down my dress lest the guys at the bar below get a free show, but the upstairs patio was worth it. They of course sell one of my favorite bar foods, fried pickles, in sphere form. That’s a big deal because fried pickle chips are bullshit- if the burning acidic juice (retained by the mighty sphere) doesn’t burn the roof of your mouth what the hell are you even doing?
Drink your coffee loving heart out… West Main Street is where it’s at. For a city of Chattanooga’s size they have a surprising number of coffee shops, but the real innovators are located in the Southside neighborhood- a shining example of the possibilities of urban revitalization. Across the street from the old Farmer’s Market site is newly opened Mean Mug Coffeehouse. Despite it’s hipster appearance it’s a true neighborhood spot with a diverse clientele. They’ve got something for everyone: ironic magazines and board games for hanging out and a bar (if you’re into watching Kyoto slow drip or pour overs in action), comfy vintage couches, or an ultra modern patio for lounging. Rachel, a transplant from Maine, is not only a great barista but a wealth of information on all things Chattanooga.
Mean Mug is also unique in that they feature local mico-roaster Velo Coffee. Located just down Main Street, founder Andrew Gage delivers most of his beans via bike ("velo" in French…get it?). While he can only accommodate limited retail hours due to the demands of roasting, Andrew graciously invited my husband and I over for a tour of Velo headquarters. “We’re primarily focused on education," he says. Not only does Velo hold frequent public cuppings, but they offer beginning and advanced brewing classes and beautifully designed grinding guides and tasting books aimed at the average coffee consumer. “Passion" and “accessibility" are the two words I’d use to most describe Andrew’s venture. “Hopefully all this will show people we’re taking a difference angle," he explains. On the eve of Velo’s two year anniversary Andrew is working on “an aroma lab" as well as expanding Chattanooga’s knowledge of the seasonality of coffee (they do a custom blend for Mean Mug but are primarily focused on single origin) and retrofitting brewing equipment for ease of travel, especially when on a bike…
Another local innovator is The Camp House- a combination coffee shop, vintage store, music venue, and meeting space. They host everything from singer-songwriter competitions to Sunday church services (during which they serve Velo espresso). The only place around serving Counter Culture, The Camp House also has my new favorite DRY Lavender Soda. To sit in their cavernous yet cozy space (which used to be a sculptor’s studio…a theme, apparently) is to be inspired with a sense of “Why not?"
Grab some baked goods with a side of pun…at Niedlov’s Breadworks. Not only do they supply most area restaurants with organic, naturally leavened breads but like Velo they are heavily invested in the community. If that’s not reason even to go they make a mean cinnamon roll that moved my ordinarily generous husband to greed.
Go hog wild…at Link Forty-One. Back bacon, jowl bacon, regular bacon, brats, breakfast sausage, smoked sausage, “baconage" (a mixture of smoked bacon and sausage), “potstickers" ("a link sausage version of the inside of an asian dumpling")…they’ve got everything pork lovers dream of and then some.
All the meat is locally raised, not because farm to table is trendy (although I’m sure it doesn’t hurt) but because it’s authentic to the Southern pork tradition. There’s even a window where, if you were obsessed enough, you could watch them stuff the casings. Doesn’t get my rocks off but if that’s your thing…
If anyone ever asks me (probably somewhat suspiciously) “What’s in Chattanooga?" my answer will be, “A shit ton of awesome."