Ask anyone who’s been to the Tennessee River location for Calhoun’s, and chances are, they’re a fan.
And when there is not a frown to be found in the Calhoun’s crowd, how can you object? Every corner of the restaurant is filled with families laughing, spontaneous meetings of friends and a staff happy to navigate between it all. But as a historic hater of the chain back in my home town of Farragut, I was confused by this general enthusiasm from the public. I still couldn’t help but wonder why it’s so popular.
So, what’s the big deal with Calhoun’s by the river?
Calhoun’s is at the eastern end of Neyland Drive, right on the Tennessee River front, and it offers a wide array of classic barbecue and American dishes. It offers catering and banquet hosting services, but its real focus definitely lies on the average family looking for dinner and a way to watch a game while they eat.
The first thing that is immediately obvious to any new Calhoun’s patron, and a surprise to me, is the efficiency of the restaurant. Even when the restaurant seems packed, there is never a wait for a table.
I went twice, once during the UTEP game and again the night after the Florida tragedy. On the day of the UTEP game, the deck area was packed. Yet, there were still plenty of seating options available, many within TV viewing range. It was the same on my second visit when I seated myself indoors.
I got my drink within a minute and my food within five minutes of ordering. I tested this phenomenal speed multiple times throughout my visit as I ordered multiple entrees. Each time the food came out even faster.
In fact, the service was lightning, not just in speed, but also in personality. There wasn’t a host or hostess, waiter or waitress or even a bartender that was not confident and jubilant. And it wasn’t just the staff either. Every patron I talked to (especially on game day) was friendly, and I swear I met groups who were table-hopping just to meet new people. I’ve never experienced such an extroverted attitude in a restaurant, but it’s something perfectly Knoxvillian and fun to be a part of.
And so in many ways, Calhoun’s has ascended to cult status with a culture all of its own, especially due to its location. For one, it seems to be the unofficial dining for a lot of the “Vol Navy,” the local group of tailgating boats that swarm the river on game days. After exploring the docs and talking with some of the “captains,” I was even more immersed by the dynamic of restaurant and river.
All this, however, cannot speak for the food. Yet, I’m again surprised to say I was overwhelmed here too. I started with a barbecue sandwich which faired well once soaked in their signature barbecue sauce. After that, I tried their sweet and spicy wings, on account of their supposed renown status, which they live up to through a perfect balance between genuine smoked sweetness and spicy tang.
By this point, Calhoun’s had almost won me over like it had countless other Knoxvillians. However, what really broke through my denial was the final entree I tried: the chicken salad club. This huge sandwich blends a creamy slaw-like base with crunchy bacon and veggies to create a savory and comforting flavor. I highly recommend it.
In short, Calhoun’s by the river was everything I didn’t want it to be: delicious, fun and efficient. I’ll definitely be going back, and I hope to see some more of my peers there as well. As for my advice for anyone wondering, “What’s the big deal with Calhoun’s by the river?” I’d say come down and find out.
Calhoun’s is located at 400 Neyland Drive, and their hours go from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. everyday. The full menu can be found on their website.