Most, if not all, great literature is specifically grounded in a certain place or geography. Think about it: Twain’s Mississippi River, Faulkner’s Jefferson, Cormac McCarthy’s American West, Joyce’s Dublin, Hemingway’s Paris, and more recently Annie Proulx’s Wyoming. Some places leave such an impression that artists cannot help but memorialize them in their work. With a flock of young writers and artists emerging in Chattanooga, one cannot help but think of what places in the city are distinct enough to be preserved in literature. Notice I’m not saying what places are “nice” or “pristine” enough for literature, as it’s not about how beautiful a place might be, but rather the individuality of the location. In a world of Chili’s, Applebee’s and Buffalo Wild Wings (here’s looking at you Chattanooga city leaders for letting those downtown), it’s nice to think that our little scenic city is still memorable for more than just its mountains and rock gardens. What follows is a list of places that are specific enough to Chattanooga to fit well within the pages of great literature.
1. The Mountain Opry
The Mountain Opry is unforgettable. Tucked away on Signal Mountain, each Friday night the Opry hosts live bluegrass music in what seems to be an old church or schoolhouse. Having been around as long as most Chattanoogans can remember, the Opry isn’t one of those revitalization projects put on by some community development none-profit group, but simply a bunch of old timers who really like picking out old tunes and don’t mind if people stop by and listen. The smell of popcorn wafts through the air, white haired seniors nod along to the music, children sip cokes, and teenagers lean into each other in the pews. The whole scene could fit well within the pages of Wendell Berry or William Gay novel. The best part of all, the Opry is always free.
2. Lamar’s Restaurant and Chrystal Lounge
While The Mountain Opry might be family friendly, Lamar’s has become known across Chattanooga for serving the strongest drinks in town. Located on the corner of MLK and Central, Lamar’s Chrystal Lounge boasts satin wallpaper, candles on each table, a killer jukebox, and a bartender that still wears a bowtie and pressed white shirt. While most bars downtown are slammed on the weekends, Lamar’s never feels too packed or too empty, filled with a wide array of people that keep the bar from being stale and predictable. It’s easy to imagine James Agee hunched over one of the back tables nursing bourbon if he were still around.
While few would claim Wally’s has the best food in town, it wouldn’t be a surprise for many to admit the diner is still their favorite place to eat in town; and for good reason. The food is fairly priced—less than five dollars for a full breakfast or dinner—, the service is sharp, everything’s clean, the coffee is strong, and the whole restaurant has that timeless aura that only a place that’s been around longer than your grandparents can muster. Wally’s could easily be the small town diner that Truman Capote details in In Cold Blood or one of the haunts in Sherwood Anderson’s classic Winesberg, Ohio.
The appeal of T-Bones is not what it is, but what it’s not. It’s a no frills, honest bar where normal people come to drink beer, listen to music, and maybe discuss football, fishing, politics, or The Rolling Stones. It’s not slummy enough to attract a swarm of art school students or polished enough for the entirety of UTC’s Greek life, as T-Bones instead welcomes whoever needs to get away for awhile while and just be around friends. Cormac McCarthy’s Bud Suttree and his gang of misfits would be right at home in a booth choking down BBQ tacos and bottles of High Life at T-Bones, and that’s a good thing.