Phillip Fulmer is a devoted grandfather, an avid gardener, a beekeeper, and a fan of motorcycles. He’s also a household name in college football, and one of the most recognizable faces in Knoxville, Tennessee. A native of the Volunteer State—Fulmer grew up in Winchester—Fulmer joined the University of Tennessee football team in 1968 as an offensive guard, and made the Knoxville area a more permanent home in 1980, when he returned to the school as the Vols’ offensive line coach. Fulmer was appointed head coach in ’92 and led the Vols for 13 seasons, amassing more wins than almost any coach in Tennessee history and clinching a national title in ’98.
With so much time spent in the rising Southern food city, UT’s former coach and current athletic director is an expert on planning a Knoxville to-do list—even if he himself wasn’t so keen on picking favorites. “You’re gonna get me in trouble with all my friends here,” he says with a laugh. Of course, there’s little debate about where he’d send an out-of-towner first: “They’ve got to come on the UT campus, from Ayres Hall to the stadium to Pat Summitt Plaza,” he says. “That’s just a great walk.” We asked the college football great where else in Knoxville he’d recommend—and he came back with some classics.
Rise and Dine: Fulmer’s breakfast recs are all about location. “If you live close to campus, it’s Long’s Drug Store. If you’re downtown, it’s Pete’s. And if you’re out west, it’s Sami’s.” All three offer traditional Southern breakfast fare, and the menus are simple and affordable. But that’s just the half of it. “They’re meeting and gathering places for people,” Fulmer says. “They’re comfortable, and of course all of them are locally owned—the owner’ll come out and visit with you. They’re just good, home kind of places.”
Browse Market Square: “Downtown Knoxville has really changed, particularly the Market Square area,” says Fulmer. The downtown block between Wall and Union Avenues has been a gathering place since the 1850s, when it held a market house for local farmers to sell their goods. Now, it’s an open-air pedestrian square complete with shopping, food, and events, like farmers markets and festivals. “There are some great restaurants down there—the Oliver Hotel and its restaurant, Oliver Royale, are fabulous, the Lonesome Dove is exceptional—and there are concerts and movies. It’s a great people-watching place, too.”
Hit the Strip: For lunch, Fulmer keeps it close to campus—Copper Cellar on the Cumberland Avenue “strip” has been one of his regular haunts for decades. “We took prospects there when I was an assistant and when I was a head coach, and I still have lunches there all the time,” he says. Its sister restaurant, Calhoun’s on the River, is another midday favorite for its waterfront views and hickory-smoked baby-back ribs. “The owner, Mike Chase, is a great friend,” he says. “All of his restaurants are fantastic.”
Go Out (of Town) to Dinner: According to Fulmer, the best restaurant in Knoxville isn’t actually in Knoxville. “Foothills Milling Company, in Maryville, is special. It’s one of the great places to go—quaint, boutique, and the food is fabulous,” he says. The family-owned establishment has white tablecloths and an upscale menu, but Fulmer doesn’t come to dine on lobster tail or filet mignon. “I am mostly a fish guy, but at Foothills Milling, I get the meatloaf—they have the best meatloaf you can imagine.”
Toast a Knoxville Institution: “I’m not in the bar scene too much anymore,” Fulmer says. “But Toddy’s is a hangout. Even I’ve been to Toddy’s.” Toddy’s Back Door Tavern certainly has its fans—when the decades-old dive bar tried to close its doors in 2017, a group of loyal regulars quickly raised some cash and made a business plan to keep the watering hole afloat. Thanks to them, you can still grab a beer and watch a game at its Kingston Pike location.
Don’t Go to Bed Hungry: College towns abound with late-night food, and in Knoxville, the time-tested winner is Gus’s Good-Time Deli. “When you’re hungry, you’re headed home, and you want something that’s, well, probably not the healthiest thing in the world, but really good, it’s a neat stop,” Fulmer says. The greasy spoon near the campus library has been in Knoxville almost as long as Fulmer has—it opened in 1981, one year into his tenure as the Vols’ offensive line coach. “I’ve eaten at Gus’s for a long time. I still get the pastrami.”
Bonus Points—Take a Hike: “We’ve got the mountains, we’ve got six lakes surrounding the city—Knoxville really is a great family place,” Fulmer says. He insists that visitors make time to see the Great Smoky Mountains, an easy day trip from downtown. “There are a few places in particular I love to go. One is Greenbrier; We actually have a mountain home close to there,” Fulmer says. The area, near Gatlinburg, is an ideal spot for picnics and enjoying wildflowers in the spring. “Ramsey Cascades is also a great hike,” he says. “And if you don’t want to hike, you can go to the other end of the mountains and drive around Cades Cove.”