Our 100 Days of Vols series has a way of telling a lot of personal stories, and I hope you'll forgive one more today. I'm getting married in August to a girl from Athens, TN, where I've served the past year as an associate pastor. We actually met in 2011 and spent a year as friends before a happy twist of fate or faith or whatever you want to call it sent me from Virginia to Athens this time last year to serve the church she attends. As I'm the pastor and she's the congregant and such things are often frowned upon by those who do the frowning, we spent a long time trying to figure it out without officially trying to figure it out. But when the time came to call a date a date, we decided to play it safe: no dates in Athens, where we might be seen. Let's go to Knoxville.
So I picked Calhoun's for our first date. A great restaurant is important on any first date not only to impress your company, but to provide a means of grace in case things turn south or awkward or both. In my experience your worst date stories tend not to happen at your go-to restaurants; in a bit of self-fulfilling prophecy they tend to start with phrases like, "He took me to Denny's." Things go bad at Calhoun's, hey, at least you're at Calhoun's.
But sometimes things go really great at Calhoun's.
So we're driving to Knoxville and headed toward the Turkey Creek location and Alex mentions how much she likes their food, and then says, "One of these days I'd love to go down to the river, I've never been there." If you live in East Tennessee, this is blasphemy. So now we're going to the river.
I realize when we get there the Lady Vols are getting ready to tip-off across the way at Thompson-Boling. This threatens our plans of secrecy, because retirees are a huge segment of the Lady Vol fanbase and we've got an orange-clad number of those at our church (it doesn't quite fit the 100 Days of Vols football theme, but one of my favorite Vol-related things about being back in Tennessee is having the Lady Vol diehards come dressed for battle at the early service so they can make the noon tipoff on Sundays). So I'm scouting the parking lot for familiar faces, finding none and feeling safe as the basketball crowd is asking for their checks.
So we walk in the door with confidence...and are immediately greeted by a live remote from one of the local television stations covering the game. We drove an hour for privacy and ended up on the six o'clock news.
This is why I love Calhoun's. It doesn't have to be football; I was there before the Missouri men's basketball game earlier this year, and the place was still packed with plenty of live energy and plenty of both colors. One of the reasons Calhoun's is my favorite restaurant for UT sports is so many of us have told fans of other teams it's our favorite restaurant period. You come on a Friday night before a big football game, and both sides will be well and vocally represented on the river. And that's if you can get a table; we went there for my 30th birthday the night before the Tennessee/LSU game in 2011 and waited 90 minutes. And it was worth it.
But on a fall Saturday, you don't even need a table. The parking lot buzzes with traffic from the Vol Navy and Neyland Drive. The patio roars with spontaneous doses of Rocky Top. And that smell. Anyone reading this blog who is somehow unfamiliar with Calhoun's - a percentage I expect to hover around zero - can be sold on that place as soon as they step out of the car and breathe once.
My fiancée is big on atmosphere at restaurants. I'm big on food.
Everybody wins at Calhoun's. It's a rare thing for the place everyone tells you to go - the people's choice - to actually have the best selection of food. Sometimes a local place gets too much credit for tradition or accessibility or even atmosphere and the quality of the product becomes inflated. Not Calhoun's. In an appropriately crowded field in SEC territory, I'd put their burger and their BBQ up against anyone. The chicken calhoun/spinach maria combo is my personal favorite. As a friend of mine said the other day, "It's the sort of place you take off your watch and jewelry to eat at." And while I'm busy with all that, I'm told their salads are excellent as well.
It's great anytime of the year, but Friday night before a big game and pregame Saturday are incredible. If the Vols lose, as has been the case far too often recently, it becomes a great place to lick your wounds. But when we win?
We don't talk about this game much because of the coach involved, but the last time I was at Calhoun's after a big win was Georgia, 2009. You know that feeling you get when you walk down the ramps and out of Neyland Stadium after a big win? When Rocky Top is sung in rounds and wooing persists? In my experience Calhoun's after a big win is taking that moment and extending it another hour or two with a cold drink, great food, and dozens of your orange friends and neighbors. This place makes a bad Saturday a little better and a good Saturday a little longer.
Calhoun's is always great any time of year, but down on the river on a fall weekend is special. There is truly no other restaurant on or near campus with a better combination of food and atmosphere for Tennessee Football. Turns out it's not a bad spot for a first date either. The rehearsal dinner may be in Athens, but you'd better believe we're bringing Calhoun's to McMinn County that night.
Here's hoping we all get to share in more postgame celebrations down on the river sooner rather than later.
Read Brad's entry on Gus's Good Times Deli here
See the updated and ongoing 100 Days of Vols series here