Apr 6, 2021

Tupelo Honey Café blends Southern comfort with modern style

After working up an appetite exploring Ruby Falls and Lookout Mountain, where does one go for a nice dinner in Chattanooga, Tenn.?  Punky decided the city’s revitalized downtown was the place to look, and that’s where the Tupelo Honey Café caught her eye.

Of course, Punky wasn’t making our dining decision blindly.  After doing a little research, Tupelo Honey Café appealed to both her desire for a taste of authentic southern cooking but also for an atmosphere that was closer to fine dining than fast food.  Given the niche it carves as upscale comfort food, it was not surprising then to find Tupelo Honey Café located in the higher-end shopping complex and mixed-use development known as Warehouse Row in downtown Chattanooga.  The entrance was on the back side, or east side if you prefer, where street parking was quite accessible.  

Once we were inside, I noticed the décor lived up to the hype.  A bar area near the entrance looked bright and inviting, but this was a family outing, so cocktails would have to wait for another time. 

We were quickly seated in a dining room to the left of the bar area where one could take advantage of the “open kitchen” concept to sneak a peek at the kitchen staff working hard to showcase not only their talents but also the restaurant’s emphasis on using “responsibly sourced” ingredients.  I have to admit, it’s kind of cool to be able to go to Tupelo Honey Café’s website and see who else I’m supporting with my meal.        

The menu further emphasizes the freshness of the food its farmers bring to the table, from the upscale southern-style appetizers to all-day brunch items to Tupelo Honey’s take on classic comfort food entrees.  I couldn’t bring myself to order brunch for dinner, but I have to imagine this place does a brisk breakfast business. 

Choosing a starter from the list of appetizers was easy.  We all love fried green tomatoes – Kiddo included – so we had to try Tupelo Honey’s version of the southern snack staple.  The panko crust held together well onto the tomato slice, sealing in the tartness of the tomato.  Combined with a nice dollop of cheese grits and red pepper sauce for smearing them in, and you have a winner.    

As usual, I struggled to decide on my choice for dinner, but Punky and the Kiddo saw what they wanted right away.  With fried chicken featured so prominently on the back page, Punky couldn’t pass it up.  And the Kiddo, having been sold on Tupelo Honey Café by us comparing it to a “contemporary Cracker Barrell,” went with her go-to order – the vegetable plate.   

As the photo shows, she did an excellent job at choosing her four sides.  The green beans and okra were positively fresh and flavorful, and the okra fried just right and not over-breaded.  The baked macaroni and cheese was reportedly stellar (I took her word for it … she didn’t save me a bite).  The tomato soup also tasted incredibly fresh, with hints of basil in every spoonful.  

For Punky’s fried chicken, she chose the “sweet and spicy” version over the “honey dusted” and seemed quite pleased with the outcome. The drizzle on the fried chicken coating combines honey with a kick of sriracha, and apparently it complements the coating very well.  The chicken itself looked to be literally bursting with flavor from the brining process described on the menu.  Along with a helping of Tupelo Honey’s house-made pickles and a chosen side of the baked mac and cheese, and Punky walked away from dinner very happy, if a little slower than before we ate.      

My choice for dinner came down to the trout and the catfish, and since I had an amazing trout dinner earlier on the road trip, I selected the catfish.  The fact that it came blackened definitely factored into my decision.   The portion was generous; the fish was moist, properly flaky and perfectly seasoned.  My two sides of slow-simmered collard greens and charred crispy brussels sprouts were also top-notch, so I could not have been more pleased.

So, little did we realize at the time that the Tupelo Honey Café location in Chattanooga is part of an ever-expanding chain of restaurants bringing quality, modern Southern comfort food throughout the country.  As it turns out, the original Tupelo Honey Café opened about 20 years ago in Asheville, N.C., a seemingly fitting location to start a restaurant franchise that pairs Southern cookin’ with a contemporary vibe.  Today, there are 16 locations scattered predominantly through the southeast and expansion set in cities as diverse as Denver, Pittsburgh and Milwaukee.

I don’t usually endorse chain restaurants in the blog (although there are exceptions … every successful dining franchise starts with just one restaurant or a few outposts in one location), but Tupelo Honey Café is definitely worth trying if you have not been to one.  Hopefully, you’ll find one near you or your next travel destination. 

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