Charming Chattanooga

Fresh breads, steak to die for, clever menus, and fabulous wines await in this city.
Morgan Murphy

St. John's Restaurant

This restaurant cooks--no, really boils--with startlingly fresh local vegetables and the finest meats, a 210-bottle wine list (40 of which are less than $30), a career waitstaff with a deep knowledge of the menu, and a genius in the kitchen. Chef/owner Daniel Lindley, a Chattanooga native, worked in some of New York's most famous kitchens before moving home to found St. John's. The result is a blessing. The menu, which changes daily, contains dishes that are inventive but don't strive so hard for uniqueness that the result looks like a food challenge from a reality TV show. To start my meal, I ordered Scottish pheasant soup with a touch of cognac and topped by a light puff pastry ($9). I followed the devilishly rich concoction with an entrée of sliced Kobe beef atop pureed kohlrabi (a sweet turnip) and alongside roasted potatoes ($32). The beef itself was as soft, tender, and as easy to cut as a pat of butter. Don't miss the unbelievably decadent banana split, made with homemade ice cream ($7). If dinner at St. John's would blow the household budget, go next door to St. John's Meeting Place, a more casual dining room where prices range about a third lower. 1278 Market Street; (423) 266-4400. Entrées: $18-$32.

Bella Bellagio
Intimate and charming, this small restaurant gives St. John's strong competition. Just across the street, Bella Bellagio, too, uses incredibly fresh vegetables and meats. I was awed by an appetizer of tiny sweet peppers, cut to resemble miniature pumpkins and stuffed with goat cheese, pine nuts, golden raisins, and breadcrumbs ($8). I sampled the restaurant's rabbit, Kobe beef, and bigeye tuna entrées, all of which were outstanding in their freshness and presentation. Bargain on the menu: The three-course "Chef's Tasting" menu for $35 (or $50 with a wine pairing) is well worth the money. Absolutely opt for dessert--the Brazilian vanilla bean ice cream is an explosion of dense, intense flavor. 1269 Market Street; (423) 634-7731. Entrées: $16-$30 .


Southside Grill
Here's the place that started Chattanooga's restaurant revolution, and no listing of the Choo-Choo city's must-eat spots would be complete without it. (The owner of St. John's started his restaurant career here as a busboy.) The large dining rooms of the Southside Grill blend warm tones of brick, dark woods, and sumptuous fabrics. Lunch menu items tend toward sure-fire winners such as the Smoked Ham and Shrimp Hash, which was served amid a delicious goo of grits, poached eggs, and Hollandaise sauce ($11). Southern classics along the lines of collard greens and fried green tomatoes show up in most of the listings. Though the menu touts a soup that changes daily, a mushroom velouté ($5) was served the two consecutive days we visited. 1400 Cowart Street; (423) 266-9211. Lunch entrées: $9-$12, dinner entrées: $18-$29 .

Tony's Pasta Shop and Trattoria
This delightful dining spot overlooks the river in Chattanooga's Bluff View Art District. Don't come to Tony's if you're on the Atkins diet, as it will be painful to pass up this restaurant's best fare: breads and pasta. Breads are light, earthy, and have perfect crusts. The pasta I ordered arrived al dente; both it and the sauce clearly had been made fresh. The traditional Bolognese meat sauce and the remarkably pungent (but good) garlic-Gorgonzola sauce took me back to northern Italy; all for about $8 each. 212 High Street, (423) 265-5033, ext. 6. Entrées: $8-$13.95 .

This article is from the March 2005 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.