Editor's Picks: Best of the Smokies
1. Best restaurant for families: The Park Grill in Gatlinburg. Has a "National Park" theme with waiters in ranger uniforms. Food is average, but atmosphere is fun.
2. Best restaurant for a romantic dinner: The Lodge at Buckberry Creek in Gatlinburg. It's the only cuisine meal I've had in the Smokies. The brand-new lodge has Adirondacks-style architecture and is very charming, not kitchy, like most cabins.
3. Best fine dining: The Foothills Milling Co. moved from Wears Valley to Maryville, to the grave disappointment of many Wears Valley locals. Try the Vidalia onion-and-goat cheese tart and crème brûlée served in a teacup with a banana spring roll resting in the handle.
4. Best day outing: Dollywood. Theme parks don't get much more Southern, but it's all very well done. See carolers in period costumes, free musical shows, and lots of lights. The food is surprisingly good for a theme park, with options including a sit-down turkey dinner. Working glassblowers, wood carvers, and blacksmiths make crafts you can buy.
5. Best crafts shopping: A tie. The Old Mill Restaurant (good breakfasts here) is surrounded by shops including Pigeon River Potting Shed, Old Mill Candy Kitchen, Old Mill Toy Bin, and Twisted Vessel. The Smoky Mountain Arts & Crafts Community, in Gatlinburg, is the nation's largest community of independent artists and craftspeople. Don't miss Paul Murray's unassuming gallery―this portrait artist has done some impressive sketches and paintings of the people of Appalachia. Wild Plum is a nice tea room with fantastic soups and light lunches.
6. Best non-craft shopping: Walden's Landing in Pigeon Forge. Has some nice shops without a carved black bear in sight. Women dig Verbena's selection of imported lotions, soaps, and bath products, with many hard-to-find European brands. The Color Bar & Spa next door has upscale boutique makeup brands and spa products. There's also a nice shoe store and Harley-Davidson shop nearby.
7. Best pizza and beer: Smoky Mountain Brewery (also at Walden's Landing). Fantastic pizza and good microbrews, all with an Appalachian twist (e.g., Appalachian Pale Ale). They don't deliver, but they do offer take-out. Plus, you can build your own six-pack by choosing from the many microbrew flavors and take it to go.
8. Best dinner show: Everyone, locals included, raves about Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede. No utensils―just eat with your hands. Lots of trick riding and rodeo stunts. Everything Dolly does here is good, so make sure to check it out.
9. Best hidden gems: Lodge, the only American maker of cast-iron skillets, has a shop with a great selection of cookware. If you're driving up from Chattanooga, make a detour to Benton's Country Hams on U.S. 411 for the best dang bacon you'll ever taste in your life, plus fantastic country hams and country prosciutto.
10. Best way to escape the crowds: Stay in your cabin and soak in the hot tub. Or, go for a hike in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. If you avoid the most famous spots (Cades Cove, Laurel Falls) and hike more than 100 yards from the trailhead, the crowds thin considerably. You might see snow up here some winter days.