Seek ye, the diamond in the rough.
That’s what they want, right? They want to know the secret places only locals know.
The inside stuff. The places beyond the tourist traps and the shining neon signs.
But that’s hard for a couple of reasons. First, anything that is truly a gem shines. People are going to know about it. They’re going to tell their friends. You want to be the friend that knows the best places that has all the secrets and is the possessor of great knowledge.
So everything is relative, as it is with all of these endeavors. While I may have had nothing but fantastic encounters at some of these places, somebody else could have had a terrible time.
Maybe we’ve all been going to Paula Deen’s on off days and it’s really great most of the time and we’re just unlucky. Maybe.
But that lesson is important. Just because something is glitzy, in the best spot and backed by a big name, it does not make it the best.
So, without further ado, here are some of our favorite hidden gems in Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg and the surrounding areas:
7. Delauders BBQ (Gatlinburg)
Barbecue joints are meant to be holes in the wall. Sure, you’ve got a couple of high-enders like Calhoun’s which has built an empire on smoked meat, but by and large the best barbecue you will ever have in your life comes from places that invest in smokers and meat, not decorations and seats.
What do I love most about Delauders, aside from everything on the menu?
The first thing mentioned on their web menu is that they ain’t gonna do bulk orders. Oh, you want to pay us a lot of money for a huge order? Nah. That ain’t us.
Come in here and get a sammich, some slaw and maybe a brisket and get the hell out of the way. We got real people to serve.
Listen, you want an authentic Tennessee experience to go back and tell your friends at home? Go to Delauders, get the Holy Bologna Sandwich and thank me later.
6. Chubby’s Deli Restaurant (Sevierville)
This one is right outside of Pigeon Forge.
Gas station food is gonna go one of two ways, and either way it’s gonna be memorable. Chubby’s, located in a Citgo on Newport Highway in Sevierville, goes the right way.
Meatloaf and two sides, taters and gravy and fried okra for $8 includes bread. This is the authentic art of simple Southern dining that has been swallowed up by the usurpers and the pretenders. Go to Chubby’s and go home happy.
5. Paw Paw’s Catfish Kitchen (Wears Valley)
All right now. You want authentic Cajun cuisine? Sure you might find it in some fancy place down in New Orleans or maybe some high-end joint in Atlanta.
But if you want real Cajun cooking, start looking for the places off the beaten map. Wears Valley is not as far off the map as it was when I was a kid. Like Townsend, it’s grown up a lot. But you’re not gonna find Jimmy Buffet slinging margaritas and bland seafood down here just yet.
Paw Paws is right. Get the sample plate, two boudin balls, one crab cake, four fish nuggets and four gator bites and you’ll be talking like a Swamp People cast member in no time.
The holy trinity of gumbo, Jambalaya and etouffee are all accounted for but – as our No. 1 rule of dining states: If you’re in a place with a particular food in its name, you must eat that food. In other words, get you some catfish, son.
Either the catfish acadiana or the catfish New Orleans will do you right.
4. Monster Mash Burgers (Sevierville)
Located in a strip mall next to a TJ Maxx, Monster Mash is a burger joint that works a dark alchemy in the pursuit of the perfect burger.
Like a plain ordinary burger, maybe a pickle, a slice of cheese? This isn’t the place for you.
Leaning into the Monster Mash theme, these are unholy amalgamations that seem wrong on the menu and oh so right on the plate.
My recommendation? Try the 14-lb Frankenstein for $50. It feeds 4-6 people but if two of you can take it down, along with bacon, chili, sausages, etc. and a bowl of fries in an hour, that sucker is free.
It’s fun for the whole family and at least two of the seven deadly sins right there at the table.
3. Preacher’s Smokehouse (Sevierville)
Located in what can accurately be called a shack and some kind of building beside it, Preacher’s is owned and operated by a man named Sam Steele, a pastor who opened a restaurant with his wife, Kathy.
This is the kind of place you remember for the rest of your life and tell wistful stories about. Pork, chicken, burnt ends, brisket, it’s all good.
I recommend the three meat combo but, I mean, close your eyes and point at the chalkboard menu. You’re gonna get something good.
2. Tennessee Jed’s (Gatlinburg)
You had me at craft sandwiches.
Located between God’s World Religious Goods Store and a Claire’s Boutique, Tennessee Jed’s is likely the best place you’ll ever eat that directly abuts a Dollar General Store. There’s just something about a perfectly made sandwich.
I love a Rueben, a ham and Swiss, my favorite is probably the Cubano but there are no bad choices. Tennessee Jed’s also does some serious breakfast sandwiches.
If you’re in Gatlinburg and the line at the Pancake Pantry is too long, walk across the street and grab a coffee and a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich from Jed’s.
1. Lil Black Bear Café (Pigeon Forge)
If you’re looking for something small, out of the way and delicious, you can’t do better than the Lil’ Black Bear Café.
Open from 8 am to 2 pm, the café does breakfast and lunch only. They offer soups, salads and sandwiches, which are made to order.
The menu isn’t complicated but it doesn’t have to be. The sausage, egg and cheese sandwich is the breakfast food of the gods and you could do a lot worse than the patty melt for lunch.
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Do you agree with our list? What are your favorite hidden gem or hole in the wall restaurants in the Smokies? Let us know in the comments.