Long Weekend: Chattanooga, Tennessee

Among the banjos, bikes, and chili peppers of a great Tennessee river town.
Cruising on the Southern Belle

Photograph courtesy Chattanooga Convention & Visitors Bureau

If we know anything about Chattanooga, it’s possibly due to that song, the one about the choo-choo train. Something classic and a little out of date is the image, but it could hardly be less accurate. This booming city on the banks of the Tennessee River has become one of the most energetic and fun cities of the South. So whether you are taking a ride on the Lookout Mountain Incline Railway, or taking a cruise on the Southern Belle riverboat, we strongly suggest you follow the command of one of Chattanooga’s leading citizens, Samuel L. Jackson, who said in Jurassic Park, “Hold onto your butts.” You don’t know the half of it.

Take a look at The Dwell Hotel, which twists Southern hospitality into a brand new shape. Until last year, this was the Stone Fort Inn, a venerable 100-year-old brick-and-stone building that was a bastion of Appalachian charm.

The Dwell Hotel

Photograph courtesy The Dwell Hotel

Then new owners came along, rebooting the rooms and stocking them with antiques and kitschy delights. Dwell’s restaurant Terra Mae looks past the region for a mélange of global tastes, and the Mid-Century Modern tiki bar, Matilda Midnight, features an ambitious drink menu that uses esoteric ingredients like smoked paprika rye, ancho reyes, cardamom bitters, and oleo saccharum. They don’t serve your daddy’s Mint Julep.

Ross’s Landing is the 19th century river spot downtown where the city was founded. Right next to this historical point is The Blue Plate, a restaurant that straps a jet pack on the idea of comfort food and blasts it into the 21st century. Blue Plate features Southern staples like fried chicken, pulled pork, and the Hot Brown, but reimagines them as farm-to-table discoveries worth fresh attention.

That’s one vision of the South, but Chattanooga is cosmopolitan enough to support a booming subculture of tastes. Like Taconooga, a low-key explosion of Mexican street cuisine with heartfelt aguas frescas and sauces made fresh daily. Then there’s Opa, a quirky Greek restaurant run by a slightly imperious and staggeringly gifted owner. And across the river and up a steep hill is a small, slightly disreputable bar called Aretha Frankensteins: the music is loud and soulful and so is brunch. Chattanooga is the old South and the next-South, too: welcoming and celebratory of what it has.

Downtown Chattanooga is in motion thanks to an imaginative local nonprofit called River City Company that has fund-raised and forged creative development agreements. There are hotels and restaurants and museums and tons of places to eat and walk on both sides of the riverfront. And there is a top-notch network of bike trails and a robust bicycle transit system that makes it easy to pick up—and drop off—a two-wheeler around town.

One place to ride to is Wayne-O-Rama, a gallery and performance space, a testimony to both the city and to the Chattanooga artist, Wayne White, who made it. White is an illustrator, sculptor, painter, and maker of puppets, and his work—spilling off the walls, filling several rooms from floor to ceiling—is a whimsical history of Chattanooga. (Hurry, it closes at the end of this month!)


Photograph by Mark A. Herndon

There is the Lookout Mountain Incline Railway, chugging steeply up the mountain, and there is a miniature Rock City, a roadside attraction just out of town populated by gnomes. The art is fun and startling and references everything from half-forgotten local TV celebrities to Bessie Smith. And filling one whole area is a larger-than-life puppet of Samuel L. Jackson, in his suave, not snarling mode, so benevolent he almost seems to be handing out keys to the city to those who find their way here.

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