Food & Drink

Good Eats in East Tennessee

Two Volunteer State restaurants doing comfort food right

The people of East Tennessee make some of the best comfort food in the country. Think soup beans, beef stew, chicken and dumplings, hot apple pie. All best home-cooked, of course, but, should you find yourself on that side of the mountains this fall or winter, two of my favorite restaurants can help take the chill off.

Ridgewood Barbecue is wedged on the shoulder of the old Elizabethton Highway, against the slopes of quiet Bullock Hollow. It’s a cozy little place, especially this time of year, alone in the hollow but always full of customers. It’s not unusual to see a line outside the restaurant before it opens, or to wait half an hour for a table at dinnertime.

A line forms outside Ridgewood at 10:45 a.m.—fifteen minutes before opening time—on a Monday.

Though locals will tell you that Ridgewood has the best barbecue in the country, outsiders might not even recognize what the restaurant serves as barbecue. Founder Jim Proffitt based his recipes and technique in part on memories from a family trip to Florida, but did not replicate what he ate there exactly. Ridgewood serves lowland barbecue filtered through an Appalachian lens.

A barbecue platter, with homemade fries, at Ridgewood.

The people at Ridgewood smoke hams, first of all, not pork shoulders or whole hogs. The hams are hickory-smoked, then sliced. Handfuls of the sliced meat are portioned onto the griddle in the back of the restaurant, where they’re heated and brushed with a thick, sweet barbecue sauce before they go out on platters or sandwiches. Those in the know complement the sauced meat with blue cheese dip and steamy, onion-heavy baked beans.

The ramshackle former grocery store that houses The Bean Barn, an hour to the south in Greeneville, Tennessee, may not look like much, but all those cars parked outside the restaurant from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Friday, are there for a reason.

Beans All The Way, with cornbread.

The Bean Barn is best known for “Beans All The Way,” a piping-hot mixture of soup beans, beef stew, and chopped raw onions, but the juicy Hobart burger—a double cheeseburger with hickory-smoked ham—is not to be missed either.

The “Junior” Hobart burger—one patty, cheese, lettuce, tomato, and a slice of ham.

Jerry and Donna Hartsell have grilled the burgers, made the beans, waited on customers, and done most everything else at the restaurant for 31 years, since they took over from the Britt family, who pioneered Beans All The Way back in the 1950s.

Jerry Hartsell poses, reluctantly, for a photograph.

“We have local people who come in here for breakfast and lunch,” says Jerry. Come for the food, stay to make conversation with the Hartsells and their regulars.