Sorry Cronkite, Chattanooga Might be the Cleanest City In America
From a chorus of voices: “Don’t mention the Walter Cronkite thing. Everyone who writes about this city uses it as the lede. I mean, he said it in 1969. Let’s move on!”"
The late broadcaster isn't a popular man in Chattanooga, because a long while ago he said some fairly unkind things about the city. These things don't need to be reproduced but things that seem to act as coal burning in the hearts of those making the city what it is today--what it's been since the state made a declaration of support by opening the Tennessee Aquarium in 1992. The Aquarium anchors downtown on the Tennessee River. On a Friday afternoon, the walking bridge extending over that river is filled with people watching the kayaks dotting the waterway like ants on a log.
"Does this look dirty to you?" I'm asked by literally everyone I meet. "Or does it surprise you?"
She says this in the midst of proving it on a walking tour of Southside. Here are a few of my favorite stops from the tour.
TerraMae Appalachian Bistro
The simple, elegant TerraMae went through a few chefs before it found a stronghold in executive chef Shelley Cooper. She'd cooked on the West Coast, both of the non-continental U.S. states, and New Zealand before finding a permanent home in Chattanooga. That background informs her Appalachian take on New South cuisine.
Megan and I poke our heads in the closed restaurant for a quick peek, and before we can gasp "Oh, this is beautiful," Shelley has cleared a table of its dinner settings and replaced it with peach bourbon-champagne cocktails and a sampling of her famed menu item, Appalachian Lunchable ($16).
This is not the stuff of brown bagging. It has as little to do with its namesake as Chattanooga does with Cronkite's comment. Light but spicy deviled eggs sit alongside benne seed bacon--which is covered in sriracha, maple brown sugar, and benne (think sesame) seeds before baking and acquiring a texture not dissimilar to jerky--and bleu pimento cheese.
That Shelley fired up a slumbering kitchen to share her craft is fitting with the Chattanoogan spirit. People here are proud of what they produce, and they want you to enjoy their wares.
This is obvious later in the day, when visiting Warehouse Row, a row of high-end stores, boutiques, restaurants, bars, and the best coffee that this journalist (i.e. coffee guzzler) has ever had.
Matt Ladwikowski didn't know how he would work with the world's coffee farmers. He just knew he would. Over the years, he forged relationships with farmers in small towns (sub 500 people) in El Salvador and Ecuador. We're talking first-name basis, and those first names are honored on his coffees. After a few years with Octane in Atlanta, he decided to do what would later seem obvious: open a coffee shop named BRASH and sell the coffee grown by those very farmers. After a cup of Henry's Joe, a Starbucks Venti might as well be a large cup of water. I must repeat myself: It's the best I've ever had. Yes, them's fightin' words, but try one sip of BRASH's brew, and you'd be hard-pressed to disagree.
I end up having a cup of coffee, a cup of iced coffee for the next day's drive, and a shot of espresso. The latter tastes like butter, and not because anyone put a stick of butter into the coffee. Each cup is made by hand. The beans are ground, and the coffee is dripped individually, right in front of you. Though the name may suggest otherwise, BRASH isn't in hurry. Customers mull around the coffee shop. One has had ten shots of espresso, attempting to break a record. He ends up drinking eleven, then decides to take a nap (figure that one out).
The shop is lit almost exclusively through giant windows at the edge of the Warehouse, a collection of high-end stores, boutiques, restaurants, and bars. It's a place out of time, where coffee comes in 9-ounce cups and tastes like a forgotten elixir, beans hand-picked from around the world. At $2.50 for a cup of coffee and a happy hour deal with $1 espresso, it's difficult not to feel like you're taking advantage of them.
The Social The Social, on the other side of Warehouse Row, is a small plates and cocktail bar attached to the fine-dining institution Public House. The latter offers meals like Barton Creek Farms beef carpaccio and grilled beef short ribs kimchi with fried bread. The former is a chicken-fingers affair with cheap shots of Fireball Whisky available every time a fire truck from the nearby station passes (a bell is run to signal the deal). All of the cocktails are named after songs by Pixies, the seminal '80s post-punk band. Much like the band, the drinks push the envelope--one, Gigantic, includes smoked cider and apple butter while another, Wave of Mutilation, includes black paper and beet blood.
Urban Stack The care put into BRASH's coffee isn't an anomaly. At Urban Stack, a stone's throw from Warehouse Row, burgers are treated with the same attention to detail. The beef--Waygu for a $3 upgrade--is carefully seasoned and cooked to order. Mine was topped with bacon-onion compote and gruyere and blue cheese sauce. On the side was the obvious choice: crunchy, rich gouda creamed corn.
Urban Stack plates a wonderful meal, but be sure to eat there only if the opportunity to nap is in the near future.
Chattanooga Choo Choo
Thanks to The Glenn Miller Orchestra, I'd long heard of the Chattanooga Choo Choo, that famous train station that once served as the gateway to the West. It now serves as a landmark, surrounded by bars and restaurants, such as its former terminal, fitting called The Terminal. It's a brewhouse with burgers and beers of all stripes (though I recommend an Oatmeal Stout and the Philosopher's Burger, a cinnamon-laden lamb burger with candied red onions and feta aioli).
A short walk from there is the Flying Squirrel, a bar attached to an adult boutique hostel concept called the Crash Pad. Around me are Chattanooga entrepreneurs, all millennials. Tim Piersant of Chattanooga Whiskey, which opens a downtown distillery next year, created the whiskey in my drink (after overturning the state's prohibition-era laws concerning distilling in the state). Married couple Matt and Tiffany Rogers of Pure Sodaworks created the soda. And the man in front of me created this bar after spending time in an accelerator program with the soda makers.
Again, this shouldn't be surprising. To my left is Chris Dortch II, who founded the Chattanooga Film Festival after attending film school in Nashville. He never intended to return to Chattanooga, eschewing the city to seek out the film community he desired. Later, it seemed obvious: Build it, and they will come.
Heck, even my cab driver en route to The Terminal was an entrepreneur. He and his father started the company two years ago, after he returned from Atlanta with his MBA and a desire to settle in Chattanooga.
And everyone I chat with mentions that darned Cronkite quote.
To my right are Joy and Ellis Smith, a recently married couple who cover city politics and business, respectively, for the Times Free Press. Ellis points to the street in front of the bustling Flying Squirrel and tells me it used to flood. Constantly. Standing water wasn't a surprising sight, but you'd never guess it now. Because the citizens of Chattanooga decided that the forces of water and public opinion wouldn't stop them. And what's left is a beautiful city.
Maybe the cleanest in America.