Feature photo: Guests enjoy The Whiskey Thief – The Edwin Hotel’s rooftop bar. Photo by David Danzig.
Chattanooga Chow Chow
Five decades after being declared the “dirtiest city in the United States,” Chattanooga has become one of the cleanest, hippest, most effervescent destinations in America.
Story and Photos by David Danzig
Exactly 50 years ago, the EPA declared—and Walter Cronkite famously reported on the “CBS Evening News”—that the city of Chattanooga had claimed the mantle as “the dirtiest city in the United States.” Reports of cars running headlights day and night due to the factory-generated soot and smog painted a bleak picture of a town once known as the inspiration for the wholesome WWII-era song, “Chattanooga Choo Choo.”
But what a comeback story Chattanooga has become! Transforming itself into one of the cleanest, hippest, and most effervescent tourism destinations in the country, Chattanooga blends its rich history, a gorgeous landscape, smart urban planning, and a fountain of artistic youthful exuberance to once again reign as a darling of the south. And do you hear that? That buzz coming from up I-75 is the sound of Chattanooga’s burgeoning food scene, a breeding ground for young chefs with the talent and freedom to execute top-quality creative concepts.
Here are a few places to “chow chow” right now…
Slurp up ramen noodles, along with many other Japanese delights, at Two Ten Jack located in the Warehouse Row development at the site of the Civil War-era Old Stone Fort. Descend into the building’s basement and find a cozy Far East motif that extends into the building’s multi-story atrium with long communal tables. This izakaya (a Japanese neighborhood pub) also dishes yakitori (skewered and grilled chicken), sushi, and other Japanese-inspired comfort food sourced from local purveyors. The lively atmosphere is further fueled by the drink menu, which includes local craft and Japanese beers, cocktails-on-tap, sake, and Japanese whiskey.
Gourmet burgers are the name of the game at Urban Stack, a gastropub operating out of one of the city’s oldest buildings, once used as the former baggage room for the Alabama & Chattanooga Railroad lines. Order up one of more than 20 different types of burgers including several “Urban Classics,” hormone-free beef burgers enhanced by everything from bacon and eggs to pastrami to chorizo. Or, if red meat is not your thing, try a “Specialty Stack” built on an alt-beef base of hot fried chicken, lamb, or a vegan mushroom patty.
Located steps from the iconic Walnut Street Bridge in the ground floor of the new Edwin Hotel, White Bird ruffles culinary feathers with an upscale homage to the Tennessee River Valley and the surrounding region. With views of the Tennessee River, the bright, modern aesthetic of the dining room pairs well with the restaurant’s locally-sourced, seasonal menus. These rustic dishes are impressively cheffed-up, coming across as sophisticated while retaining a down-home feel. The menu features creative spins on Appalachian classics, including rabbit and dumplings, pulled and pressed pork, and a whole chicken lacquered in honey and tea with mushroom fricassee. For dessert, the “Moonpie of Sorts,” a reimagined version of the original confection Chattanooga made famous, is a must.
Take a casual stroll across the Tennessee River on one of the city’s bridges to the North Shore and arrive in the land of Milk & Honey. This happening casual café serves gourmet breakfast and lunch items all day, every day from 6:30 a.m. – 10 p.m. Nosh on sweet and savory breakfast treats like Kentucky-based Shuckman’s smoked salmon on a bagel, farmhouse biscuits with Benton’s bacon, buttermilk waffles, and sourdough French toast. Also available, of course, are espressos and coffee, including the super-smooth Milk & Honey Latte sweetened with fresh milk and local honey. For a sweet snack, grab a fresh-baked pastry, a scoop of their homemade gelato, or a frozen paleta, a Latin-style fresh fruit popsicle.
Award-winning architecture is just part of the quirky allure of Flying Squirrel, a fascinating edifice of steel, glass, and weathered woods. Known as one of Chattanooga’s premier cocktail spots with house-made infused spirits (think smoked peach whiskey) and an extensive beer list, the Squirrel’s food also turns heads with one of the most globally eclectic menus south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Matzoh ball pho, fried chicken bao buns, Cuban tacos, and a falafel sandwich are a few of the intercontinental comfort food dishes with which restaurant-goers can pair the Squirrel’s unique libations. The bar is 21+ except on Sunday mornings when the whole family is invited to brunch. Brunch dishes include 5-Spice French Toast, spicy chicken biscuits, and roasted potato hash, which you can wash down with a Sriracha Bloody Mary.
Things to do in Chattanooga besides chow…
Gnome and fairy sightings are frequent at the delightfully kitschy Rock City located at the top of Lookout Mountain, six miles from downtown Chattanooga. Out of the ground come massive granite formations creating an “Enchanted Trail” through narrow passages and a swinging bridge that culminates at Lover’s Leap (aka Eagle’s Nest), a dramatic cliff where, on a clear day, you can see seven states. Be sure to grab an iconic bird house from the gift shop, designed to mimic advertisements painted on barn roofs in the 1930s when the attraction first opened. At one point, these advertisements could be seen on barns as far west as Texas and as far north as Michigan.
Having just welcomed their 25-millionth guest, the Tennessee Aquarium has set the standard for a fresh and saltwater aquarium experience for the past 27 years. The latest buzz comes from the new Island Life gallery, which is scheduled to open in March inside the Ocean Journey building. The new exhibit will include flashlight fish, colorful chameleons, and a wave machine that will crash against a viewing window where guests can watch the hypnotic cadence of cold-water fish splashing into brightly colored anemones and sea stars. Also, be sure to buy a package that includes one of their jaw-dropping IMAX nature films.
Perched atop a bluff overlooking the Tennessee River and just steps away from the Tennessee Aquarium, Walnut Street Bridge, and Hunter Museum of American Art, The Edwin Hotel captures the current local spirit of Chattanooga, emanating the personality and uniqueness of a boutique property with the services of a major chain. This 90-room stunner boasts luxe rooms that are awash in local art. Hit White Bird downstairs for meals, and the rooftop bar, Whiskey Thief, for evening drinks and Instagram-worthy views of the Tennessee River and Walnut Street Bridge.