You would have to be a full-time foodie to uncover all of the culinary delights in downtown Knoxville. Fortunately, that’s Paula Johnson’s job description, and she’s happy to share her expertise with visitors and residents alike.
Johnson founded Knoxville Food Tours in 2010. She leads participants on one-mile, three-hour tours of downtown Knoxville, walking and tasting. Itineraries are always changing, so she has many return visitors for the tours, which are generally available daily. She also leads monthly or sometimes biweekly tours of Bearden and Old North Knoxville. Since founding the business, she’s led more than 900 tours and was named 2017’s Service Supplier of the Year by the Greater Knoxville Hospitality Association.
As renovation began to intensify in the early 2000s, downtown became home to many new restaurants. At the same time, Johnson was reading about tasting tours in larger cities and decided to try it in Knoxville.
“It was a great chance to connect people and businesses,” Johnson says.
Over the years, as the restaurant scene has changed and evolved, Johnson’s own familiarity with Knoxville history has deepened.
“At the beginning, I was just telling a few bits to get us from place to place,” she remembers. As her groups responded to those, she consciously delved into research, making it a point to learn something new each week.
Her expertise led to her being approached by The History Press/Arcadia to write “Lost Restaurants of Knoxville,” a roundup of the city’s dining past.
Of the restaurants of days gone by, a few stand out to her.
“Definitely Patrick Sullivan’s, which was the anchor of the Old City,” Johnson says. She appreciates that when the late Kristopher Kendrick opened it in 1988, he insisted it be named after the man who had founded and run the saloon from 1888 to 1907. She also loves the story of how Kendrick (a hairstylist before he was a developer) founded The Orangery in 1979 in Bearden as a place chic enough for his styling clients to have lunch.
Knoxville’s most legendary restaurant, she says, was Regas. Opened by brothers as a 24-hour spot to feed passengers coming and going to and from the train depot, it transformed into a beloved fine-dining establishment.
Johnson is a certified music educator and still teaches private piano lessons. When she started the tours, she was a full-time instructor and part-time guide, but now the balance of work has flipped.
“Doing the tour is a lot like teaching – it’s all about exposing people to new ideas and new information,” she says.