Downtown Chattanooga: Chowhound Hell

Chattanooga, Tennessee

Downtown Chattanooga is a gleaming, neon-hued strip of slick eateries that look like chains but have names I don’t recognize. At first I thought they were regional chains unfamiliar to me, but then I started to notice they all look as if they were designed by the same person. I guess these are chain wannabes. And a chain wannabe is about as appealing as a saxophonist who imitates Kenny G. I wandered around, slack-jawed, seeking, Diogenes-like, an honest bite. For hours.

Hair of the Dog Pub (334 Market Street, Chattanooga, Tennessee; 423-265-4615) was, I’d heard, the hip choice. It’s not a chain or trying to look like one, and I was hoping a glow of humanity might be found there. I should have been more careful what I wished for. It smelled like the morning after a frat party, and, sitting at the end of the bar, I was able to peer into a kitchen stocked with thoroughly bored-looking 17-year-old kids, all projecting a “Take This Job and Shove It” vibe. I scanned the menu but couldn’t find even an iota of promise. Having heard this was a primo beer destination, I checked the tap selection. Nothing. I looked over the bottles, hoping they might stock Hair of the Dog beer from Oregon (my favorite American brand), if only for the eponymy. They didn’t. I left.

Figuring I’d stop beating and start joining, I climbed to the rooftop bar of a glowing yuppie Mexican restaurant. Downstairs was deserted, but the loud music signaled that upstairs was hopping. Hey, even if the food was no good, I’d surely have a rollicking good time drinking and making friends!

Up the dark, spongy steps I climbed, into some designer’s cynical rendering of can’t-fail magnetic fun. The rooftop bar was populated by two dozen utterly blasé customers at comic odds with the stylized cantina décor. Eager to make this work, I sidled up to the bar and asked if they had any Mezcal. “No, we sure don’t,” replied the bartender. So I asked for a shot of dark tequila, chilled. He came back clutching two repugnant, fake bottles, one costing $11/shot, the other $12. I recall one brand as being YGS (“Yuppie Gringo Scum”), but I may have just imagined that.

I told the bartender I’d think about it and escaped down the back stairs, which took me through several levels of manipulatively fun—albeit deserted—dining rooms, and out into the street, where, in my hunger and anxiety, I started babbling aloud:

“I just need a nice salad. A nice little salad would be nice. I’ve just GOT to be able to find a decent salad somewhere, no? That’s not asking too much. It doesn’t even need to be good. I’ll find a salad. Where can I get just a NICE SALAD?”

The answer: nowhere. I wandered around for another hour (I had, at this point, been walking literally all night), peering at menus, trying to find a place serving a simple salad. You may doubt my word on this, but I assure you it’s true: There is no salad in downtown Chattanooga that does not feature cheese as a main ingredient.

As a bail-out move, I decided to duck into Big River Grille and Brewing Works (222 Broad Street, Chattanooga, Tennessee; 423-267-2739), the massive, overbearing, unbelievably contrived brewpub I’d earlier attempted to Photoshop off my chowscape. They had some hand-pumped beers—a good sign—and I ordered an IPA, which was the single worst, most insipid hand-pumped grog I’d ever quaffed (the beer-delivery lines have surely never been cleaned). I asked for a food menu, which you can see below. It seems at first a fairly normal, straight-ahead list of pubby items, but I defy you to find something decent-sounding that does not have cheese 1. melted over it or 2. cubed into it. Print it out and give it to your kids for hours of fun playing “spot the cheese.”

Mind you, I’m not anti-cheese. But I do expect at least a few cheeseless items on a given menu. Is that unreasonable?

I ordered the only two minimally edible-sounding uncheesed items I could find: vegetable of the day and french fries. The bartender nearly choked, but dutifully brought me 1. a dish of overcooked, puckering sugar snap peas, and 2. some cold, wooden (but once pretty good, I think) french fries. I braced myself for him to ask if I’d like some cheese sprinkled on that (he did not). And, strange though it sounds, I’m positive this was the best I could have done in downtown Chattanooga. I scored. A real chowhounding triumph. High five, y’all.

I continued to do best-under-the-circumstances by catching the late show of the only good movie playing at the crowded multiplex (The Illusionist), in a completely empty theater. I munched the only good candy in the concession stand (Mighty Malts, better than Whoppers and nearly as good as British Maltesers), though the counter girl hadn’t heard of it, and had to be guided to its location.

Quality seems unprized in Chattanooga. As if to highlight my unsuitability for this town, two young fellows in a pickup truck tried to run me down as I crossed (with right of way) an intersection after coming out of the theater. I glanced back as their front fender brushed the back of my pant leg, and they were laughing.