Classic diner fare isn’t fancy.
Juicy burgers and fries washed down with a thick milkshake. Classic Southern comfort foods are hard to beat.
But what I like about a good diner – aside from the food – is the nostalgia. I’m a sucker for any experience that lets me feel transported to another place or time.
In other words, authentic diners offer mainlined Americana. From the design to the menu, it’s a link to our past, to a uniquely American experience.
What food is famous in Pigeon Forge?
Overall, Pigeon Forge is known for Southern food like BBQ and chicken, or pancakes if we’re talking breakfast. Of course, there are several great places to eat in Pigeon Forge.
The Bullfish Grill, Pottery House Cafe, Mama’s Farmhouse, Smoky Mountain Brewery – you can find a delicious Southern meal at any of these places like ribs, chicken wings, brisket and other American favorites.
I also love places like Huck Finn’s Catfish, Alamo Steakhouse, Pigeon Forge Deli and Blue Moose Burgers. But you didn’t come here for good places to eat. You came here to find an authentic 50’s diner experience.
So what makes a good diner? A few things come to mind. First, you’ve got to have the menu. Secondly, the food must be comfortable, affordable, tasty and incredibly unhealthy.
Next, you have to have the look.
It should be a small place, preferably one that looks like somebody converted an Airstream camper, with limited seating and the ability to see all of the establishment’s employees as they work. If you can’t see the cook, you ain’t in a diner.
Finally, the hours. Not all diners are open 24 hours, but they should be.
With the connection to the late 50’s and early 60’s as well as American car culture, it should not be surprising that several great diners are found in the Pigeon Forge area.
Let’s rank some of the best diners in Pigeon Forge:
6. Waffle House
A lot of people look down their noses at the Waffle House. I disagree with those people.
There is nothing better after a late night than swinging into the Waffle House and ordering a BLT with a side of hash browns, scattered, covered and smothered as God intended.
It’s got all the classic breakfast staples like biscuits, potatoes, gravy, sausage and more.
Why John, if Waffle House is so great, are they ranked last?
First, it’s the obvious answer. Bob Dylan didn’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, and most locals and visitors don’t need me to tell them the Waffle House is a high holy place of diners.
Secondly? They are pretty ubiquitous to the South, and we like to highlight more unique experiences.
Then why include them at all?
Because there are places in the world, my friends, where The Waffle House is only a rumor. Heck, they don’t even know the song.
Surely we should feel pity in our hearts for them. In fact, if I ever hit the Powerball, I’m becoming the Johnny Appleseed of Waffle Houses.
I will travel the North and West and points beyond, spreading the good word and seeding Waffle Houses where there are none.
It is the first step in my 27-part plan for world peace.
5. The Sunliner Diner
The Sunliner Diner is a classic 50’s-themed American Diner (is there any other kind) that has two locations in the world: Gulf Shores, Alabama and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.
Novels could be written about a business model based on targeting audiences in Gulf Shores and Pigeon Forge. That is some laser-focused audience targeting.
Hearty breakfast meals? Served all dang day like it says in the Bible.
Lunch and dinner? Both start at 11 am. I like everything about the Sunliner until I get to the menu, which is fine, but a little frou-frou for an authentic diner.
Sure, there’s meatloaf. There’s country-fried chicken and steak. There’s also more than one burger/sandwich with an avocado option.
In an authentic 50’s diner? You didn’t ask for avocado in the 50’s. They didn’t even know what an avocado was back then.
You give an avocado to a garden variety person from the 50’s, they’re gonna instinctively throw the thing.
The Sunliner also offers a New York Strip steak dinner. Everyone knows diners have two kinds of steak, thinly sliced sirloin or bottom-of-the-market T-bone.
In the mood for pancakes? Try their delicious Chocolate Chip Pancakes.
Finally, they have an impressive menu of milkshakes, splits and sundaes. You can’t go wrong with the Authentic 1950’s Shake, where you choose chocolate, strawberry or vanilla and it’s topped with whipped cream and a cherry.
4. Reds Drive In
Reds opened in the Dollywood theme park in the ’90s. The restaurant was inspired by Reds Cafe, where a young Dolly Parton reportedly ate her first hamburger in downtown Sevierville.
I rank it lower because you have to buy tickets to Dollywood to dine here, but it’s a great place to get a delicious burger and crispy fries.
The menu is more limited than most others on the list, but it is theme park dining, after all.
Reds is located in Jukebox Junction.
3. Bob’s Burgers at the 50’s Diner
Located inside a little antique store on Wears Valley Road, this 50’s diner is itself, an antique and a work of art.
You got burgers, hot dogs, onion rings and both kinds of fries, loaded or regular. Sandwich options include grilled cheese – the perfect grilled cheese is a wonder of the world – BLT, hot ham and cheese and fried bologna.
When you grow up poor, you learn about the multiple properties of bologna. For example, straight out of the fridge, rolled up, it’s an appetizer.
But slap it between two slices of bread with a squirt of ketchup and it’s a main course. Fry it and serve it up with fixings, it’s a sandwich fit for a king.
2. Lil’ Black Bear Café
Based on the shape of the building and the name, you’d be tempted not to include the Lil’ Black Bear Café in the diner club.
You’d be wrong. It’s closed Sunday and Monday. And it’s open from 8 am to 2 pm the rest of the week. The Lil’ Black Bear Café is not here to mess around.
The menu offers 10 options. That’s it.
There’s a salad, but I suspect it’s some sort of test. Order the salad and your seat immediately ejects you through the roof, James Bond style.
The breakfast is rave-worthy. The pancakes are beloved. The omelets are so good, chickens volunteer their eggs in tribute.
But we are here, my friends, to discuss two menu items in particular: The Reuben and the Patty Melt. Diner staples.
An artist lives at the Lil’ Black Bear, and that artist works in rye sandwiches. The Patty Melt is a hamburger patty on grilled rye with grilled onions and two slices of provolone.
The Reuben has real corned beef. Too many places in the South try to make a Reuben with something else and it is an INSULT to places like the Lil’ Black Bear Café.
Swiss cheese, kraut, 1,000 Island dressing. It’s perfect.
1. Mel’s Classic Diner
I’ll admit that Mel’s first grabbed my attention with its name. I’m a child of a certain generation, raised on sitcoms.
I remember “Alice” about the waitresses at Mel’s Diner trying to make it, like the sassy Southern waitress whose catchphrase “kiss my grits” was comedy gold.
While I wandered into Mel’s, curious to see how far the “tribute” went, it was the food that kept me coming back.
Mel’s offers many of the diner staples we mentioned above, all expertly prepared. I’m a fan of the meatloaf.
But we’re going to talk about desserts. Specifically, we need to discuss Mel’s Famous Ultimate Banana Split.
The legendary banana splits have a six-scoop version that comes with two scoops of chocolate, two scoops of vanilla and two scoops of strawberry ice cream between a split banana all topped with strawberry topping, pineapple topping and chocolate syrup with whipped cream, nuts and a cherry on top.
Certainly, it ranks alongside Mt. Rushmore, the Hoover Dam and Neyland Stadium as one of America’s greatest architectural achievements.
Do you have a favorite 50’s style diner in the heart of Pigeon Forge? Let us know in the comments!