Does Calhoun’s Gatlinburg have the best BBQ? An honest review [PHOTOS]

Calhouns in Gatlinburg

Calhoun's is a popular Tennessee barbecue restaurant with nine locations (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

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I remember the first time I set foot in a Calhoun’s restaurant, the iconic East Tennessee dining tradition.

It was 1994 and the NCAA tournament Men’s Regionals was in Knoxville at Thompson-Boling Arena. In fact, basically right across the street from Calhoun’s on the River. 

My stepdad suggested we eat there before the games and so we did. I don’t remember what we had but I remember the experience, eating there on the bank of the Tennessee River talking basketball and life and whatever else entered our heads. 

It was the perfect spot to hang out and have a bonding moment before going to watch a juggernaut Duke team destroy Purdue.  

What makes Calhoun’s special, aside from the simple quality of the menu, is the pliability of the restaurant. 

Calhoun’s can be what you need it to be for many occasions. For example, it’s a family restaurant, a date night spot and also a great place to go out with the guys, or girls, for barbecue and beers.

We’ve stopped at Calhoun’s on the way home from ball tournaments and also before and after trips to the movies.  

It is both good food and a great restaurant for basically any occasion. 

Over the years, we’ve been back to Calhoun’s many times. Sometimes on the river and sometimes at one of the other nine locations. At this point, the only one I haven’t eaten at is Oak Ridge. And each place has its merits. 

There are two locations in Sevier County, one in Pigeon Forge and Calhoun’s Gatlinburg. I don’t have much preference between the two in terms of the restaurant menu.

But I do prefer the Gatlinburg location just based on the fact that the heart of Gatlinburg is more visually interesting than Pigeon Forge. 

Calhouns Entrance and Sign Gatlinburg
Calhoun’s restaurant along the strip in Gatlinburg (photo by Alaina O’Neal/TheSmokies.com)

Where is the Gatlinburg Calhoun’s?

Located near the top of the strip in what Calhoun’s calls “the premier resort town of the Great Smoky Mountains,” Calhoun’s Gatlinburg is just minutes from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Importantly, it offers the most valuable of Gatlinburg commodities: free parking. 

Read Also: These are the best restaurants in Gatlinburg TN: 37 top places to eat

Forget the parking. Tell us about the food 

The story of Calhoun’s starts in West Knoxville with a meat smoker and a dream.

Fall of 1983, Calhoun’s founder opened the original location and then loaded up the tractor and trailer with ribs along with buckets of the signature sauce and headed off to a regional competition in Cleveland, Ohio.

There, they won the “Best Ribs in America” and haven’t looked back. In fact, they use the same techniques and recipes that won them such acclaim and allowed the brand to grow all over the Knoxville area and beyond. 

Read Also: Best BBQ in Pigeon Forge: Our top 5 restaurants, ranked

BBQ ribs at Calhoun's
A plate of BBQ ribs with slaw and broccoli at Calhoun’s (photo by Alaina O’Neal/TheSmokies.com)

So they have ribs at Calhoun’s?

Yes. They have award-winning baby back ribs basted in the signature BBQ sauce. They are delicious. But you’re getting ahead of things here. Calhoun’s is a lot more than award-winning ribs and really good barbecue.

It is the best place for a night out across East Tennessee because it offers a lot more than just barbecue. 

Let’s start with the apps. 

Southern traditions include fried pickles and fried green tomatoes. Both are excellent. 

I’m a big fan of the sausage and cheese plate but I would sell one of my children for good, smoked kielbasa. 

The White Chicken Chili and the Smoked Beef Brisket Chili are perfect for warming up after a cold day in the national park or cheering on the Vols in a late autumn game at Neyland Stadium.

Burnt ends and a variety of wings mean you don’t really have to get past the appetizers to have a great meal. 

And don’t forget the Rocky Top Potato Skins which are served with the hickory-smoked barbecue pork, cheese and bacon. 

But Calhoun’s menu goes deeper than that with burgers and sandwiches as well as a variety of steaks. But let’s pause for a minute to recognize that Calhoun’s has the best sides in the game. 

The Spinach Maria is legendary and the Baked Cinnamon Apples are beloved. Make sure you try some of the Tennessee Corn Pudding if you get the chance.  

Check out the full menu here.

Calhoun's Sandwich and Side
Calhoun’s offers all sorts of sandwiches and sides, which are good. However, they are known for the barbeque (photo by Alaina O’Neal/TheSmokies.com)

Ok, let’s get to the barbeque

Among the main courses are a handful of things that I suspect are just there to filter out the pretenders.

Certainly, I don’t want to make anyone feel bad here. But if you go to Calhoun’s and order the fish and chips or chicken teriyaki, you may want to check your seat for ejector rockets. I’m not saying that’s going to happen. I’m not saying it’s not going to happen. But if you’re going to Calhoun’s for the first time, try the barbeque.  

A popular pick is the Calhoun’s Trio: ribs, chicken tenders and hickory smoked pork. But I avoid it because surrounded by ribs and pork and kielbasa, I ain’t ordering no chicken tenders. 

You can’t go wrong with any of the smoked items. The Hickory Smoked Bar-B-Que plate is always a winner.

Also, I’m a big fan of the “Ale” Steak, a sirloin marinated in olive oil, mustard garlic and Cherokee Red Ale. Comes topped with Worcestershire butter. They also serve pork chops in the same style, but I’d rather have the steak. 

The Tennessee Hickory Smoked Prime Rib and Prime Rib Sandwich is available Fridays and Saturdays and is perfectly done. 

They do have a kids menu as well. 

Calhoun's Salad with ahi tuna
We love the ribs, but the variety of options at Calhoun’s is exceptional, like this ahi tuna salad (photo by Alaina O’Neal at TheSmokies.com)

Do they offer options to go? 

They do. In addition to the stylings of the handsome mountain lodge, what I like about the Gatlinburg location, in particular, is the Family Feed Pack makes for a great picnic starter in the mountains. 

I suppose the feed pack works anywhere you want to take dinner home to the family or a gathering, but I like it for picnics in the Smokies because the Gatlinburg location is so close to the Chimney Picnic Area. 

The Family Feed Pack can be for five or 10 people and includes BBQ pork, brisket or ribs with baked beans, slaw and BBQ sauce. It comes with plates and napkins – which is quite handy. 

Make sure though that they have plastic silverware or you bring your own. There are few things worse than trying to eat baked beans straight from the container. 

What’s the final ruling? 

I’ve never rated Calhoun’s as the best restaurant in Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge or even Knoxville. But it may be my favorite.

The food is great. The atmosphere is right and there’s something about the tradition that just makes it feel special – even on an ordinary night out.  

Have you eaten at Calhoun’s? How would you rate it? Let us know in the comments.

Disclaimer: While we do our best to bring you the most up-to-date information, attractions or prices mentioned in this article may vary by season and are subject to change. Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any mentioned business, and have not been reviewed or endorsed these entities. Contact us at [email protected] for questions or comments.

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