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My favorite thing about Dollywood isn’t the rides or the shows.
It can’t be found on a platter in a restaurant and it can’t be bought in a shop or from a stand.
Dollywood is many things, of course, to many people. But to me, what Dollywood captures is a feeling deeply associated with my youth, specifically the excitement and euphoria that arises in a small Midwestern town during fall festival time.
It’s a feeling of community – even among strangers – of common purpose, that should be really quite impossible in a giant theme park.
It’s possible this is my projection. I am dangerously susceptible to flights of nostalgia and Dollywood deals in nostalgia like Vegas deals in gambling. It’s possible that the magic of Dollywood isn’t that it carries us back to the good old days of Dolly’s youth and before. Maybe the magic is in how it gets us to see our own youth in the shimmering recreation of an idolized mountain community
Or maybe I’m overthinking it.
It’s also quite possible that I have an olfactory memory triggered by the wonderful smells of the same kinds of food you’d find at a small town festival or county fair. Maybe my nostalgia isn’t triggered by anything more than grilling cheesesteaks, onions, peppers and sausages. Maybe the magic isn’t in the community, maybe it’s in the funnel cakes.
Yeah, that’s probably it.
Among the many Dollywood success stories is the wide variety of options, especially during the Festival of Nations. But no matter when you go to Dollywood, you’re going to find something good to eat.
Here are our top 5 favorites.
5. Granny Ogle’s Ham ‘n’ Beans
In general, I don’t like to be talked into the sit-down eating establishments during most of the year at Dollywood. I prefer the more mobile options, eat and move. But I make an exception for Granny Ogles. Meatloaf, pot roast, beans, taters. Chances are if you’ve come to Dollywood, you’re seeking a certain type of Southern experience. From a culinary standpoint, this is it. This is nothing fancy. In fact, you can fairly easily eat your entire meal with a spoon. But it’s good and it’s not the kind of thing you can find everywhere.
4. Hickory House BBQ
When it comes to pulled pork, I’m a bit of snob. I will not endorse any old Jim Bob or Cooter with a smoker and I am especially leery of barbecue prepared in a theme park. But pride be damned, it’s good. It’s Southern and it’s quick service. Also, they’ve got chicken tenders and fries if your kids are a little choosy like mine. As parents and veteran theme park goers, the first thing we do upon arrival is check the maps for bathroom locations and assess where chicken tenders and fries can be obtained in case of emergencies.
3. Till & Harvest Food Hall
Look, even I can’t believe I’m about to hit send on a story in which I recommend the Smoky Mountain Mexican eatery at Dollywood, okay? But I cannot tell a lie. I was there when they opened Wildwood Grove. I sampled the food. It was really good and I’ve been back. Wildwood Grove is such an interesting space within the park. With wider areas to roam, plenty of shade and spots to rest, it can, on a sweltering summer day, feel a bit like an oasis in the middle of a theme park. Sure, it’s an oasis with a strange, lumbering bear ride and giant acorns ferrying people into the sky, but an oasis nonetheless. In such a place, an open-air patio where your family sups with burritos or bowls filled with fire-grilled meats and fresh vegetables is not out of place. It’s almost expected.
2. Aunt Granny’s Restaurant
Aunt Granny’s has been recognized among the best theme park restaurants in the country. When I lived up north, they called this kind of deal a smorgasbord, which is a word I like a lot both for what it is and because it’s fun to say, but down here, it’s a buffet.
In addition to being delicious, the Aunt Granny’s buffet has the added benefit of having something for everyone. From fried chicken to stew to tacos, if you’ve got a crew with disparate palettes, this is the place to go. My one caveat for Aunt Granny’s is that an all-you-can-eat buffet can be a tad heavy. While your body might be begging for a nap, the kids will be calling for a long hike up the side of a mountain to ride a rollercoaster. Reader, that can be a shock to the system.
1. Market Square Big Skillets
I probably tipped this one, but Market Square Big Skillets is my happy place. Giant skillets frying steak and sausage sandwiches right next to a funnel cake stand? I skip. Not physically, but in my mind. I skip as we approach Market Square. I am happy. I am joyous. The menu changes year round but I love everything about it. I love the food, the smells, and the outdoor tables where you sit and people watch. It is the closest place on Earth to the fall festivals of my youth and it is my favorite thing about every trip to Dollywood. They could do away with the rest of the park and I would come here to commune with my people. The menu changes with the season, but there is never a time I don’t love it.
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