East Tennessee's best: Dining and drinking

BEST CHEF:

STEVE PULEO, Puleo's Grille

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Puleo's Grille

(865) 673-9101

Not every chef can run a restaurant. It's one thing to be able to make a mean bowl of pasta or a steak that makes the mouth water. It's another thing entirely to devise a restaurant concept and get hungry people coming to your establishment night after night. You don't see the famed Muppet Swedish Chef doing that, now do you?

Executive Chef Steve Puleo is the type of culinary artist who can do that. Puleo is part of the brains and stomach behind Puleo's Grille, a restaurant that marries Southern, Italian and American cooking. Fusion cuisine is a popular notion these days. We like to think that Puleo started the trend back in 2002 when the first Puleo's Grille opened.

Runners-up: Jesse Newmister, Northshore Brasserie; Justin Holemann, Nama Sushi Bar



BEST SERVER:

ALAN GRISSOM, Aubrey's Restaurant

Alan Grissom was voted best server in the 2009 East Tennessee's Best Reader's Poll. He is pictured Sept. 18, 2009, at Aubrey's restaurant in Powell.

Photo by Chad Greene

Alan Grissom was voted best server in the 2009 East Tennessee's Best Reader's Poll. He is pictured Sept. 18, 2009, at Aubrey's restaurant in Powell.

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Aubrey's

865-938-2724

Remember Gil Grissom from the original, never-ending "CSI"? Witty, brilliant and great at his job (up until he started losing his hearing and being a Grouchy McJerkypants), Grissom always knew what to do and how to save the day.

Even though Aubrey's Restaurant server Alan Grissom bears no relation to Gil, they're a lot alike (although Alan isn't the cranky type). "He's a good server," says Aubrey's Emory Road General Manager John Cole. "He does his job well. He's a professional with his tables."

Yep, just like his crime-fighting counterpart, the Aubrey's Grissom is always on the case with a refilled beverage, extra napkins and a superb tableside manner.

Runners-up: Jody Haynes, Pete's Coffee Shop; Lisa Margle, Chez Guevara/Sherry Bowlin, El Chico Cafe (tie)








BEST CHINESE RESTAURANT:

P.F. CHANG'S CHINA BISTRO

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P.F. Chang's

(865) 212-5514

It's no surprise that P.F. Chang's is a slightly Americanized version of Chinese cuisine. The P.F. even stands for Paul Fleming, notes writer Jennifer 8. Lee in her book "The Fortune Cookie Chronicles." (As the innovator behind the Chinese chain, Fleming is also one of the creators of Outback Steakhouse.)

But that's no matter. The restaurant still has a wonderful Chinese menu with upscale, bistro service and decor. It was also named one of "the 10 Best Family Restaurants" in the July 2009 issue of "Parents Magazine."

P.F. Chang's believes in the harmony of food. The idea is to synchronize taste, texture, color and aroma using the Chinese principles of fan (rice, noodles, grains and dumplings) and t'sai (vegetables, poultry, meat and seafood). The food also seems to be meant to be shared with those you're dining with, so make sure you nibble on a few morsels from your neighbor's plate.

Runners-up: Wok Hay, Mandarin House


BEST DELI:

JASON'S DELI

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Jason's Deli

(865) 357-3354

Jason's Deli helps us eat healthy because everything they serve is pretty healthy. The food contains no trans fats, no MSG, and no high-fructose corn syrup (except in the fountain drinks, and they're even considering phasing the corn syrup in them out). Order a sandwich, wrap, soup or salad and you'll know you're getting food that's good for you.

Jason's Deli is convenient, too. You can eat there, of course, but they make takeout so easy. Ordering online is especially smooth. Go to www.jasonsdeli.com, place your order, and they'll deliver it to you, or you can pick it up at the deli. You don't even have to go through the annoying process of registering an account at the Web site.

Then again, if you dine in, they have free ice cream. All the time.

Runners-up: Garrett's Deli, Firehouse Subs


BEST ETHNIC RESTAURANT (BESIDES CHINESE, ITALIAN AND MEXICAN):

WASABI JAPANESE STEAKHOUSE & SUSHI BAR

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Wasabi

(865) 584-4898

You're familiar with the Japanese cooking style of teppanyaki, even though you may not recognize the name. Teppanyaki refers to cooking on a small stove or iron hot plate (sometimes called a hibachi in North America). The name comes from the word teppan (meaning iron plate) and yaki (meaning grilled or pan-fried). Teppanyaki in Japan includes the preparation of steak, shrimp, as well as dishes less known in the United States like okonomiyaki.

In other words, it's the kind of dinner where Japanese chefs throw eggs in the air.

Wasabi is a Japanese steakhouse specializing in this type of cooking. Choose your entree, be it seafood, steak, chicken or vegetable. Then watch it prepared and juggled before your eyes. If you're not up for someone else playing with your food, you can also choose from many varieties of sushi: nigiri, temaki, sashimi and sushi rolls.

Wasabi has grown so popular that it's even migrated south. Locations are now open in Florida and South Carolina.

Runners-up: Taste of Thai, Stir Fry Cafe

BEST ITALIAN:

NAPLES ITALIAN RESTAURANT

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Naples Italian Restaurant

(865) 584-5033

It was a tough year economically. The word recession popped up a lot, and jobs disappeared in numbers not seen in decades. There was also considerable talk about staycations (the idea being to stay at home instead of going elsewhere for vacation).

If finances ever prevent you from visiting Italy, Naples Italian Restaurant is the next best thing. Located at the corner of Kingston Pike and Homberg Drive in Bearden, stepping into Naples is a bit like stepping into a family restaurant in Italy. The wine is plentiful, as is the pasta, and the prices are as good as the food. Specials are offered throughout the week, and vary between the likes of $4.99 spaghetti and half-price bottles of wine.

Runners-up: Altruda's Italian Restaurant, Olive Garden



BEST VEGETARIAN:

TOMATO HEAD

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The Tomato Head

(865) 637-4067

Less can sometimes be more. When you're forced to work with less, the resulting creativity often eclipses anything you could have done with all the resources in the world.

Throw out meat, for example. When you don't have meat to anchor a dish, you've got to think a little harder about how to replace a taste that people expect.

Tomato Head has more than its share of such culinary creativity. Founded in 1990 by Mahasti Vafaie, Tomato Head has plenty of meatless dishes that don't skimp on flavor.

The Kepner Melt packs on fresh spinach, organic baked tofu, Monterey Jack cheese, herbed tomato, pineapple, roasted onion, walnut, pesto and mustard, all heated to perfection. The Pasta Salad mixes pasta, broccoli, artichoke hearts, mushrooms, red onions, cucumber, tomato, black olives, green peppers, carrots, red cabbage and sprouts. Or see what sort of a wizard you are by creating your own pizza or calzone.

The only thing that could make the combination better is you, a beer and noon.

Runners-up: Sunspot, Stir Fry Cafe

BEST MEXICAN RESTAURANT:

ABUELO'S

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Abuelo's

865) 966-0075

It's strange that more Mexican restaurants don't go for a more upscale approach. Mexican restaurants have a stereotypical reputation for being hole-in-the-wall eateries. Not that there's anything wrong with that; some of the best restaurants you'll ever dine in are more than a little off the beaten path. Still, a more chic look never hurts every once in a while. Abuelo's has more of that trendy feel to it, but does so without coming across as too prim and proper.

Abuelo's is at Turkey Creek, so after a hard day of shopping you can dive right into some salsa and queso. El comida is plentiful, with several variations of tacos, quesadillas, fajitas and other Mexican standards. The house specialties are a little more fancy, with dishes like Salmon Santa Cruz and Sauteed Chicken Zucchini. There are several meals especially for seniors as well.

Runners-up: Chez Guevara, El Chico


BEST RESTAURANT WHEN SOMEONE ELSE IS PAYING:

RUTH'S CHRIS STEAKHOUSE

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Ruth's Chris Steakhouse

(865) 546-4696

There are several beautiful four-word sentences in the English language: "I love you, too." "Your song was great." "You won the lottery." "I've got the check."

That last one might be the best, especially at Ruth's Chris Steak House. Ruth's Chris is a fine-dining restaurant beside the Tennessee River on Volunteer Landing. The restaurant specializes in juicy, tender steaks (seared to 1,800 degrees and topped with butter) like the Filet and the Porterhouse for Two. Add a glass of the Feudo Arancio red wine and the Creme Brulee (topped with berries and mint!) for dessert if the paying party hasn't had second thoughts yet.

Runners-up: The Melting Pot, Regas Restaurant




BEST PIZZA PLACE:

BIG ED'S

Kyle Beanblossom tosses dough into the air at Big Ed’s Pizza as Danielle McNeill, left, and Schuyler Barker look on. The Oak Ridge pizzeria was voted Best Pizza in our poll.

Photo by Bob Fowler

Kyle Beanblossom tosses dough into the air at Big Ed’s Pizza as Danielle McNeill, left, and Schuyler Barker look on. The Oak Ridge pizzeria was voted Best Pizza in our poll.

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(865) 482-4885

All this debating what to do about health care reform has made us hungry. Sounds like it's time for a little slice to mouth resuscitation.

Big Ed's in Oak Ridge will revive famished taste buds in seconds. Found on historic Jackson Square, Big Ed's has been family owned and operated since 1970. The restaurant is simple, and therein is the charm.

Walk in, choose a table topped with a red-and-white-checkered cloth, and order from a tiny menu barely bigger than a business card. Choose from standard ingredients like sausage, mushrooms, green onions or pepperoni. Soon you'll be eating some of the best pizza you've ever put in your mouth from a little paper plate and washing it down with a cold pitcher of beer. Sorry Chicago and New York; Oak Ridge-style pizza is here to stay.

Runners-up: Mellow Mushroom, Tomato Head








BEST SPORTS BAR:

WILD WING CAFE

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Wild Wing Cafe

(865) 777-9464

Sports and wings go together somehow. Maybe it's got something to do with testosterone and angst. You need those to get into a college football game. You also need them to tear barbeque-coated chunks of chicken meat off the bone with your teeth. Add in some beer, potato skins smothered with cheese, bacon and jalapenos, and maybe some good-old-fashioned grunting and high-fiving, and you're well on your way to being a cave man. Or a sports fan.

Wild Wing Cafe specializes in the wings, and also in the football. Saturdays, Sundays and Monday nights in particular are a madhouse of suds, hard-hitting tackles, 50-yard sprints and game food. There are different drink specials every day, not to mention live, local bands several nights of the week.

Runners-up: Bailey's Sports Grille, Rooster's Bar and Grill


BEST WATERFRONT DINING:

CALHOUN'S ON THE RIVER

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Calhoun's

(865) 673-3355

Familiarity breeds indifference. The first time you flew on a plane it was amazing. Now you may not even look out the window.

The same is true of the Tennessee River. It's a freaking river. It flows through downtown. It's kind of a big deal. Author Mark Twain would think so. Do you think you're better than Twain?

Calhoun's has forged great success since it first opened in 1983. It's now nine locations strong: seven are in Knoxville, two in Nashville. As with other locations, there's micro-brewed beer, award-winning ribs and smoked pork barbecue. But it's still the Calhoun's on Volunteer Landing with its spectacular patio view overlooking the river that really hits the spot. Bonus points to you if you arrive in a powerboat, "Miami Vice"-style.

Runners-up: Lakeside Tavern, Ruth's Chris Steak House


BEST ROMANTIC DINING:

THE MELTING POT

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The Melting Pot

(865) 971-5400

When planning a first date, you want something that stands out. You want to go and do something that neither of you does every day, something that's fun, something that can spark interesting conversations, and maybe something that has the potential to melt off a portion of your flesh. The Melting Pot will totally call that kettle black.

The Melting Pot is an upscale fondue restaurant in downtown Knoxville in the heart of the Old City. A Swiss culinary tradition, fondue allows you the chance to dip your food in sauces and oils to prepare it for eating.

In the case of The Melting Pot, you get four courses: cheese fondue, salad, entree and chocolate fondue. You'll spend the evening awkwardly dropping your pound cake in the chocolate and wondering how long to cook the chicken. But with a little luck you'll make it to first base.

Dinner isn't cheap (the standard Big Night Out will set you back $70 and nearly two hours), but it's a one-of-a-kind meal you aren't going to find at the nearest Burger Barn. Reservations are recommended.

Runners-up: Regas Restaurant, Naples Italian Restaurant

BEST OVERALL RESTAURANT:

PULEO'S GRILLE

Various locations

Rather than blathering away about how great Puleo's Grille is, we thought we'd let random commentors from the aggregated reviews at the restaurant's Google Maps page do the talking:

"Puleo's is one-of-a-kind," writes the notorious Ann P. "Okay, maybe not, since they have started making it a chain. But it's great anyway! They are a mix of Southern (cheese grits) and Italian (pasta). The steaks are phenomenal - very flavorful."

"I took my parents to Puleo's two weeks ago as they passed through Knoxville," writes a reviewer at Dine.com. "They were blown away by the service and food."

"While it is a 45-minute drive (for us), we like the Puleo's in Straw(berry) Plains," writes a TripAdvisor member. "The spinach and artichoke dip as an appetizer is excellent. I like the scallops. I could take a bath in the sauce, it is so good."

Yes, Puleo's Grille is so amazing the food can be eaten or wallowed in. Take it to the bank, East Tennessee.

Runners-up: Aubrey's Restaurant, Ye Olde Steak House

BEST LATE-NIGHT RESTAURANT:

WAFFLE HOUSE

Various locations

"As long as there's broken hearts and dreams/ and all of this highway in between/ the Waffle House will never close," croons North Carolina-based songwriter David Wilcox in one of his most popular live numbers. Yes, you pretty much know that a roadside diner is worth its salt (not to mention its sugar and fat) when a folk singer has written a hymn about it.

If you've ever seen those iconic yellow Scrabble-like letters through your bleary eyes at three in the morning, you know the truth of those words. Profound late-night conversations really do go best with a bowl of Bert's Chili or a Toddle House Ham & Cheese Omelet. Just sayin'.

Runners-up: IHOP, Krystal

BEST LOCAL DINER:

LITTON'S MARKET & RESTAURANT

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Litton's Market & Restaurant

(865) 688-0429

Presumably this category means the place where one is dining, not the person who is dining (though we did get a few votes for cheeseburger enthusiast Harold T. Higgins). Fickle language, that English.

Still, Litton's does have the makings of a good local diner. Litton's is in Fountain City, a community in North Knoxville that still has elements of small town to it. The restaurant feels homey and welcoming, and it's packed with folks from all over town who come to discuss local sports and politics. You can get a sandwich or one of the famous burgers, a bowl of homemade chili, and a cup of coffee or a beer. When you're finished, walk across the road with some leftover bun and feed the ducks, or just stay and shoot the breeze for hours.

Runners-up: Pete's Coffee Shop, Golden Girls Restaurant


BEST BREAKFAST:

CRACKER BARREL OLD COUNTRY STORE

Various locations

Whoever the mysterious "they" is that tells us things, they have told us that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Breakfast gives both your brain and your muscles energy for the day (and ideally some sort of nutrition). Eating a hearty breakfast also means you won't be as hungry at lunchtime. Also, most breakfast foods are delicious, which is hardly a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.

At Cracker Barrel they let you eat breakfast all day long, meaning it can also be a meal you eat three times a day. From the Wild Maine Blueberry Pancakes to the Old Timer's Breakfast (two eggs, grits, sawmill gravy, buttermilk biscuits, butter, preserves, fried apples or hash brown casserole, AND sausage or bacon), Cracker Barrel knows how to start the day right, even if they technically never stop starting it.

Runners-up: IHOP, Pete's Coffee Shop

BEST SUNDAY BRUNCH:

CREAMERY PARKE GRILLE

Jeff Patin, owner of the Creamery Parke Grille in Fountain City, shows off some of the dishes that earned his restaurant the 2009 award for Best Sunday Brunch. Entrees include, from left, banana Foster's waffle, eggs Benedict and apple stuffed French toast croissant.

Photo by Saul Young

Jeff Patin, owner of the Creamery Parke Grille in Fountain City, shows off some of the dishes that earned his restaurant the 2009 award for Best Sunday Brunch. Entrees include, from left, banana Foster's waffle, eggs Benedict and apple stuffed French toast croissant.

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Creamery Park Grille

(865) 688-4607

Tucked away down a sidestreet off Broadway Avenue in Fountain City is the Creamery Park Grille. It's a two-story, family-owned and operated restaurant in a historic building, just across from Fountain City Park. It's one of those best kept secrets sort of places, the kind you say to your friends, "I bet that place is wonderful." Inside you'll find burgers, soups, sandwiches, salads and Southern food, as well as ice cream by the scoop.

The Sunday brunch isn't half bad either.

Sundays 11 a.m.-2 p.m. you can choose from fare like steak and eggs, crab cake Benedict, Belgian waffles or apple-stuffed French toast croissant. Sides include mini patty cakes, scrambled eggs, breakfast ham, bacon, vegetable medley and cheese grits.

Runners-up: Copper Cellar, Tomato Head








BEST APPETIZERS:

BONEFISH GRILL

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Bonefish Grill

(865) 558-5743

You may remember from Robert Fulghum's "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten" to share everything. It's sensible advice, especially when it comes to dinner.

Case in point? The appetizers at Bonefish Grill. You could hog the entire appetizer for yourself, but by the end of the night's meal you'll be overstuffed, miserable and wishing you had parents who had taught you better.

Seeing as how Bonefish Grill is a seafood restaurant, the appetizers on the menu are mostly of the seafood variety (except for the Cajun Chicken Egg Roll; we aren't sure where that one came from). Taste treats like the spicy Bang Bang Shrimp, the sauteed Mussels Josephine or the flash-fried Crispy Calamari. Spread the wealth around, and maybe you'll have room for dessert.

Runners-up: Chili's Grill & Bar, Puleo's Grille



BEST RIBS:

CALHOUN'S

Various locations

How good are the ribs at Calhoun's? Let's just say that you could pull one from the slab, rub it in the dirt and create a third gender, Garden of Eden style.

Well, you could. But that would be totally wasting it.

See, Calhoun's hickory-smoked baby-back ribs won the title of "Best Ribs in America" less than a year after the restaurant opened back in 1983 at the National Rib Cook-Off. Visit one of the eatery's nine East Tennessee locations to find out exactly why these slow-smoked, grill-basted ribs are the talk of not just the town, but the entire country.

Runners-up: Famous Dave's, Texas Roadhouse

BEST BARBECUE:

BUDDY'S BAR-B-Q

Various locations

If you've spent time in other parts of the country, you've come to appreciate the beauty of regional restaurant chains. A visit to the Chicago suburbs, for example, necessitates some fish tacos from Taco Fresco. An adventure in California is not complete without an Animal Style Burger from In-N-Out Burger. And East Tennessee is more delicious with a trip - OK, several trips - to Buddy's Bar-B-Q.

Buddy's Bar-B-Q is representative of East Tennessee in a number of ways. For starters, the food is barbeque, which the South knows a little something about. Buddy's was started right here, too.

The restaurant's first incarnation was in Seymour as a tiny family-owned country buffet called the Pixie Drive Inn. Before long, the Smothers' clan decided to specialize in barbeque. They moved the restaurant to Kingston Pike, renamed it Buddy's and found the food courted by local politicians and bluegrass musicians.

Buddy's is still known for that barbeque. Choose from pork, chicken, ham, beef, turkey or ribs, and combine it with hush puppies or a bun, and two countrified sides for a filling dinner that will make you think of barbeque and a guy named Buddy when you think of Appalachia.

Runners-up: Famous Dave's, Sweet P's BBQ

BEST SALAD:

PATIN'S FIELD OF GREENS

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Patins Field of Greens

(865) 546-4565

Patin's Field Greens is a gem hidden in plain sight behind Gay Street in downtown Knoxville. It's a tiny establishment, so small it could arguably fit in one's pocket, but the idea appears to be that lunch takeout is the way to go (Patin's is only open 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m Monday-Friday).

Patin's is "gourmet salad," but there are sandwiches, too. The food is fresh, with produce delivered daily. Cooked food is prepared each morning, and dressings and soups are made from scratch. Even the croissants (served with each salad) are baked daily. Organic and locally grown goods are often used.

The salads range from the Strawberry ("mixed field greens, garden-fresh strawberries, toasted pecans, feta cheese, and our raspberry-walnut vinaigrette") to the Southwest BBQ ("Romaine lettuce, red peppers, red onions, Roma tomatoes, corn, black beans, cheddar cheese, and tortilla strips, served with our chipotle ranch dressing").

That's a salad even the most carnivorous among us can get behind.

Runners-up: Aubrey's Restaurant, Ruby Tuesday

BEST SEAFOOD:

CHESAPEAKE'S

Our readers chose Chesapeake’s as East Tennessee’s Best Seafood Restaurant, with delicacies such as the platter presented here by server Chasta Foust.

Photo by J. Miles Cary

Our readers chose Chesapeake’s as East Tennessee’s Best Seafood Restaurant, with delicacies such as the platter presented here by server Chasta Foust.

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Chesapeake's

(865) 673-3433

Contrary to what Chesapeake's might lead you to believe, Tennessee is in fact a landlocked state. Also, the river here does not contain shrimp or lobster.

Nope. The seafood at Chesapeake's is just that fresh.

Evocative of a New England seafood eatery tucked into a bay, Chesapeake's is decorated with traditional maritime paraphernalia (but sadly no pirates). Specialties include Maryland crab cakes, fried fish and live Maine lobster at market price. Seasonal seafood is flown in daily, including Alaska salmon, red snapper and swordfish, and filleted fish is prepared on the spot. There's even free WiFi, so should you be unable to tear yourself away from Mafia Wars even for dinner, there's also that.

Oh, and if you're one of those strange people who goes to a seafood restaurant and orders the beef, that's flavorful, too.

Runners-up: Bonefish Grill, Red Lobster











BEST HAMBURGER:

LITTON'S MARKET & RESTAURANT

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Litton's Market & Restaurant

(865) 688-0429

Back in April of this year, Anthony Bourdain, host of The Travel Channel's "No Reservations" and author of "Kitchen Confidential," visited Knoxville where he hosted an evening at the Tennessee Theatre. Previous to his arrival, our very own Randall Brown conducted a poll at Knoxville.com, which asked readers, "Where should Anthony Bourdain make his nonreservations when he comes to Knoxville?"

A week and a half and 2,270 votes later, more than a third of the voters had chosen Litton's. Apparently Litton's represents more than just a great burger. It's also a place where people bring out-of-town visitors to show off Knoxville dining.

Litton's burgers are made from choice beef that is ground fresh each day. Held in a homemade bun with lettuce, tomato and sweet onion, it's a pretty simple combination. But also a tasty one. Get fancy by making it a Chili Burger or by adding bacon and cheese. Or just leave things be. Either way, you'll be coming back, and bringing friends from far away.

Runners-up: Five Guys Burgers and Fries, Sam & Andy's



BEST HOT DOG:

DAVE'S DOG HOUSE

Various locations

Knoxville may never be a "real city," at least not the way some people think of such places. It's doubtful whether Knoxville will ever be home to an NFL team or if commuters will one day take the West Metro line from Farragut to the University of Tennessee.

But if there's one thing Knoxville has that bigger cities do, it's street venders. You may not see them every day, or in the most conspicuous places. They're out there, though, dishing up hot dogs and Mexican food as if East Tennessee were New York or Chicago.

Dave's Dog House is one of those businesses. The hot dog catering enterprise is owned by David and Brenda Forsythe. Featuring a fleet of seven hot dog carts, Dave's serves all beef hot dogs, smoked sausage and assorted chips and drinks to hungry folks all over town. You'll find a Dave's cart on Market Square downtown Monday-Friday (weather permitting). You may have also seen them at Alive After Five, at Farragut junior varsity football games, at Lowe's on North Peters Road, or at last year's Movies on the Square. Or you can hire them for your own event, be it a baby shower, wedding, family reunion or company picnic.

Runners-up: Vol Market, Buddy's Bar-B-Q

BEST STEAKS:

YE OLDE STEAK HOUSE

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Ye Olde Steak House

(865) 577-9328

We've got a bone to pick with Ye Olde Steak House. There we were trying to go vegetarian. Then we started thinking about steak. We thought about how tender it is, and how cuts of beef practically dissolve in the mouth. Then we started drooling. Before we knew it, we were driving down Chapman Highway like zombies, chanting and fantasizing about beef.

Ye Olde Steak House has been tempting vegetarians for more than 40 years. Family-owned and operated, the establishment serves Iowa grain-fed beef ranging from eight to 20 ounces (or order the Steak on a Skewer). Entrees are served with generous portions of house salad, a side and hot homemade bread. Visit today to see why the restaurant has been named everything from the No. 1 restaurant in the Southeastern Conference to one of the three best places to dine after football games.

Runners-up: Ruth's Chris Steak House, The Chop House

BEST SUSHI BAR:

NAMA SUSHI BAR

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Nama Sushi Bar

(865) 633-8539

If you didn't know any better, you'd swear the words sushi and Knoxville make as much sense together as coherent and Paula Abdul or faith healer and receding hairline.

In fact, Knoxville will surprise you on this one. There are sushi restaurants in abundance here. Nama is the best of the lot, chopsticks down.

Located both in Bearden and on Gay Street's historic 100 block in downtown Knoxville (yep, even with the current minefield of construction), Nama specializes in sushi for American tastes. You're apt to find traditional sashimi and to burn out your nose hairs with wasabi. But you'll also uncover local specialties like the Maui Wowie (think crunchy shrimp roll plus yellowtail, avocado and pineapple salsa) and the Tempura (it's fried and has cream cheese) or semi-secret off-the-menu treats like the Soy Joy. Nama is the perfect way to kick off a trendy night on the town in Knoxville.

Runners-up: Wasabi Japanese Steakhouse & Sushi Bar, Tomo Japanese Restaurant

BEST WINGS:

WILD WING CAFE

Server Ashley Bain shows off the 2009 choice for Best Wings at Wild Wing Cafe in Farragut.

Photo by Amy Smotherman Burgess

Server Ashley Bain shows off the 2009 choice for Best Wings at Wild Wing Cafe in Farragut.

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Wild Wing Cafe

(865) 777-9464

Here's a controversy you never hear about: chicken wings or chicken nuggets? Since no one is talking about this important topic, we will. We'll also go ahead and throw down in favor of the wing.

Sure, they have bones. But that's half the fun. Nibbling in between the parts of the wing, then biting away at the leftover chunks clinging to the endoskeleton, fingers gooey and face smeared with sauce. You don't get that sensation from dipping a nugget in sweet and sour sauce.

Wild Wing Cafe in Farragut satisfies those cravings. Choose from eight, 12, 16, 20 or 50 wings, served with celery and homemade bleu cheese or ranch dip. The wings come in 33 distinct flavors, covering six degrees of hotness. Try something mild like Honey Mustard or Garlic, or, if you don't need the inside of your mouth anymore, go all out with the Habanero Hots. If you can't decide, get the 25-wing sampler platter, which lets you pick five flavors.

It may be the only place in East Tennessee where you won't feel ashamed to eat while wearing a bib.

Runners-up: Hooters, Buffalo Wild Wings



BEST DESSERTS:

LITTON'S MARKET & RESTAURANT

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Litton's Market & Restaurant

(865) 688-0429

Not only did Litton's get mad props from Knoxville.com readers this year (see Best Hamburger for details), but "The New York Times" even made a point of stopping by just for some Litton's dessert. OK, maybe not just for the dessert. But it was worthwhile enough to warrant a mention in an article entitled "36 Hours in Knoxville" in that paper's Travel section.

"Known for its burgers and desserts, Litton's is not the place to come if cholesterol is a preoccupation," wrote the article's author Allison Glock. "Go for … a slice of red velvet cake … large enough to choke a goat."

That honestly seems like a strange thing to do with a piece of cake. If Alison Glock and the "Times" want to waste perfectly good cake on domesticated farm animals, that's their business. We'll stick to devouring Lynda Jones' creations whole in seconds flat. If the red velvet cake isn't your thing, try a slice of White Chocolate Pumpkin Cheesecake or the Chocolate Chess Pie. Goats especially love those.

Runners-up: Gondolier Italian Restaurant & Pizza, The Melting Pot

BEST BAKERY:

MAGPIES CAKES

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Magpies Cakes

(865) 673-0471

What's the secret to a moist, sweet, savor-every-bite piece of cake? Apparently it's butter. Lots and lots of butter. That's Magpies slogan anyway: all butter, all the time. Well, whatever they're putting in those cakes, it's working, maybe a little too well.

Magpies is a bakery that knows cakes. It specializes in them. Magpies makes wedding and groom's cakes, Classic, Deluxe and SuperDeluxe cupcakes, as well as custom celebration cakes.

So if it's your birthday, graduation or retirement, go ahead and put in your order (two or three days in advance, or, if it's an especially large order, perhaps as early as a week). In no time you'll have a beautiful, made from scratch cake that will have everyone at your party oohing, ahhing and sneaking seconds.

Runners-up: Panera Bread, Rita's Bakery

BEST ICE CREAM:

MARBLE SLAB CREAMERY

Various locations

Every once in a while you meet someone who says something peculiar like, "I don't like ice cream." Frankly that's a bit like saying, "I do not care for fresh air," or "I harbor a disdain for free money." Nonsense!

This line of reasoning may have made sense when the only flavors of ice cream were vanilla, chocolate, strawberry and butter pecan. But if you've been to Marble Slab, you know there are roughly 483,247 types of ice cream, depending on the mixins you add.

If you haven't been to Marble Slab, here's what you need to know. You select a flavor of premium, made-right-there-in-the-store ice cream (for instance Peanut Butter Banana). Next you choose something to stir into that ice cream (let's go with Ding Dongs and Kit Kat). Someone will swirl it all together, put it in a waffle cone (or a bowl if you're a wimp) and hand it to you. You will eat it. You will also love it. That's all there is to it.

Runners-up: Bruster's Real Ice Cream, Creamery Park Grille

BEST COFFEE SHOP:

STARBUCKS

Various locations

Starbucks has become an icon. It's where people go for coffee. Most folks have their own signature drink, whether it's as simple as a Venti White Mocha or as complex as a Grande nonfat Raspberry Mocha (two pumps, no whip!).

Starbucks is everywhere, too, from department stores to airports to the regular freestanding locations. Some spots have wireless or are iTunes Wi-Fi Music Stores. But all of them have addictive coffee that keeps us going for hours at a time.

Runners-up: Remedy Coffee, Pilot Travel Centers

BEST SWEET TEA:

MCALISTER'S DELI/MCDONALD'S

Various locations

Sometimes a competition is so close that you have to go to the tape. In the case of this category, we read the tea leaves, but the sweet nothings were distinctly whispered in favor of tea for two.

As far as McAlister's Deli is concerned, a meal isn't the same without a tall glass of iced tea. Brewed to sweet perfection, it's the stuff that makes kicking back with a club sandwich on hot summer day feel like the best thing you could possibly be doing with yourself. If you didn't take advantage of the free sweet tea the restaurant gave away this past July, shame on you.

Sweet tea at McDonald's (or Mickey D's Sweet Tea as it's officially known) burst onto the scene as part of the fast-food chain's push to conquer the beverage market (alongside its equally successful fray into premium coffee). The stuff has found a welcome home on the Dollar Menu, and with fewer calories than Coca-Cola, it's a temptation that you can feel good about caving to.

Runners-up: Chick-fil-A, Aubrey's Restaurant

BEST BARTENDER:

DAVE JAMES, Half Barrel

Dave James, who pours at the Half Barrel on Cumberland Avenue, won the title of Best Bartender for 2009 in our readers’ poll.

Photo by Saul Young

Dave James, who pours at the Half Barrel on Cumberland Avenue, won the title of Best Bartender for 2009 in our readers’ poll.

More information

(865) 595-4848

Half Barrel is a full-service pub on the Strip near the University of Tennessee. You have to figure that its patrons know a little something about bartenders.

Dave James has been mixing drinks at Half Barrel for three years, so he knows the clientele.

"He provides great service to all of our guests," says General Manager Ken Stuart. "He's a very good bartender all the way around. He makes great drinks. He's been bartending for 10 or 12 years, so he has a lot of experience."

James usually works four or five nights a week. He'll get you one of 40 beers on tap, or fix you something to either cheer on the Vols, or to help you forget about another dismal season.

Runners-up: Seth Linkous, The Pour Guys; Allison Wood, Stir Fry Cafe






BEST HAPPY HOUR:

DOWNTOWN GRILL & BREWERY

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Downtown Grill & Brewery

(865) 633-8111

The absolute best time to come across a happy hour is when you don't know it's happy hour. There you are, minding your own business taking friends home from the airport. Before you know it you're dropping in at Downtown Grill & Brewery and realizing that pints are $2. It's a great surprise, like finding an unexpected $20 in a coat pocket at the beginning of winter.

At Downtown Grill & Brewery those $2 happy hour pints are sometimes even $1.50 (on Tuesday nights). Also worth noting is that, well, the place is a brewery (it's right there in the name). Seven beers are crafted on the premises in the 15-barrel Bohemian brew house. Favorites include the full-bodied Woodruff IPA or the malty State Street Stout. Or give them a week's notice and you can take home a keg. Seriously.

Runners-up: Chili's, Aubrey's Restaurant


BEST MARGARITA:

CHEZ GUEVARA

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(865) 690-5250

Few things are worse than a poorly made margarita, which is strange because it's not a hard drink to make. A margarita is basically tequila at the base, with triple sec and lime (or sometimes lemon juice). But that doesn't stop some restaurants from sloshing in half a gallon of water.

On the contrary, a well-constructed margarita is a little shot of heaven in a glass. East Tennessee especially likes the ones at Chez Guevara.

Chez Guevara is a Mexican restaurant near the West Hills exit in Knoxville. They don't bother with the icy, blended frou frou margaritas there. Nor do they have the ginormous punch bowl glassware. But they will bring you a large container of what first appears to be lemonade, and a smaller glass rimmed with salt and topped with a lime wedge. And the contents of that pitcher will not be watered down. In fact, you'll be feeling pretty darn happy long before your food ever arrives.

Runners-up: Soccer Taco, Chili's

BEST MARTINI:

SAPPHIRE

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Sapphire

(865) 637-8181

In the classic 1948 cocktail book "The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks," David Embury describes the martini as one of six basic cocktail drinks. Embury's recipe for the beverage calls for seven parts English gin and one part French vermouth. Stir the ice, strain into a cocktail glass, twist a lemon peel over the top and garnish with an olive. Now you've got yourself a martini.

That's a quaint way of doing things. Sapphire prefers to add some flair to its drinks. The martinis at this downtown Knoxville bar take the classic version and up the wow factor significantly.

The Watermelon Martini, for instance, mixes Three Olives Watermelon vodka, shakes it with syrup and Midori melon liqueur, and adds a splash of fresh lime juice. There are 10 signature martinis in all. Or pick the Ultimate Martini, which allows you to select your preference of vodka or gin, splash in Dry Vermouth, and have it served with olive or a twist.

Runners-up: Bonefish Grill, Bistro by the Tracks

BEST RESTAURANT BEER SELECTION:

BARLEY'S TAPROOM & PIZZERIA

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Barley's Taproom & Pizzeria

(865) 521-0092

Beer is bad for you, right? It causes beer bellies, damages your liver and can raise your cholesterol levels, leading to heart and vascular disease or stroke. Well, yes. But research also says that moderate beer intake can improve cardiovascular function and reduce stress. Plus it's got protein.

Verdict? Drink beer in moderation, especially from Barley's Taproom. Located in the Old City in downtown Knoxville, Barley's is a restaurant, live music showroom and has plenty of beer on tap. The downstairs bar has 40 taps worth of American craft beers. Upstairs are 16 more taps (not to mention billiard tables and darts). Choose from Guinness Stout, Shiner Bock, Fosters Lager, or, if you must, Coors Light.

Runners-up: Downtown Grill & Brewery, Smoky Mountain Brewery


BEST RESTAURANT WINE SELECTION:

FLEMING'S PRIME STEAKHOUSE & WINE BAR

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Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar

(865) 675-9463

It's been a long day. The dog used the bathroom on the rug, work kicked you around and you missed lunch because your husband locked his keys in the car. Not the best of scenarios for a Monday.

The good news? A glass of wine helps. A bottle of wine really helps. Fleming's is a delight for those who love fermented grapes (steak lovers won't be let down either). Fleming's at Turkey Creek celebrates wine and delectable food with its 100 wines by the glass program.

Each year, the company's wine manager selects the majority of the wines that appear on the restaurant's wine list. Another 30 are chosen by Knoxville Wine Manager Amy Van Hoose to explore regional tastes. Wines come from all over the world. Special two-ounce "wine tasting pours" assist diners in finding the perfect wine to accompany their meal. The result is a dinner with wine tailored to suit your palate and long day.

Runners-up: Oodles Uncorked, Bistro by the Tracks/Regas Restaurant (tie)

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