If you travel to the Cummins Falls Marathon, you’ll be well advised to set aside a couple of extra days to see local sights and sample local restaurants. A famished runner can find a truck load of cool eating joints in Cookeville, Tennessee. But you need to know where to look. I am here to help.
One hundred and thirty-two, that’s the number Google gives me for the aggregation of restaurants in Cookeville. That’s maybe more than you’d expect for a “small town” of 31,010 souls. But the town’s activity is much larger than its population suggests: it’s a university town, with the influx that brings; it sits at the crossroads of TN-111 and I-40; and it serves as a hub city for the whole Upper Cumberland region. People come to shop, eat out, see ballgames and watch movies. I once read the dubious claim that Cookeville triples on the weekend. I don’t believe that number, but it does grow.
So, yes, 132 restaurants. That number includes the usual expected chain restaurants such as O’Charley’s, Outback, Ruby Tuesday, and so on. Most of those restaurants are strung along Interstate Drive, parallel to and one block north of I-40, visible and handy to the Interstate traveler. Ah, but I rarely go there. Jo Ann and I chose the home grown restaurants in the old part of town, in the Westside and Eastside.
Without making any claims of good taste in food or anything else, I will tell you the places where this runner actually goes to eat. For what it’s worth, here they are:
BobbyQs is the most famous restaurant in town. Widely written about in magazines and books alike, it’s the place to go when you want BBQ or catfish. Their banana pudding is better than sex, they claim. Ask them early on to save you a helping, because it tends to run out. I’m partial to the BBQ pork, but also go for the house salad topped with a grilled catfish. Sometimes I make a veggie plate from their selection of sides, which includes potato salad, fried okra and potato salad. Avoid the poolroom slaw unless you really, really like the red-pepper hot. If you absolutely must sample some heat, might try a split order, half and half of regular and poolroom slaw. No beer at this place. But their coffee is good, made from beans they grind themselves.
Moma Rosa’s is the go-to place if you are craving Italian food. Its lineage is New York. Favorites of mine there are stromboli and eggplant parmigiana. Jo Ann likes the baked ziti. If I get their garden salad I always ask for the house dressing. Are you hungry? Moma Rosa’s orders are large, and we normally come home with a take-out box that makes my lunch the next day. A few years ago, we took my late friend, ultra runner and vegetarian Angela Ivory there. She had the spaghetti topped by a sauce sans meat. She loved it. I was glad we’d picked that place.
Seven Senses is the only new comer in my group. But it has quickly become one of our favorites. It it’s located on Broad Street in Westside across from Foothills running Company. It features an urbane ambiance and a collection of unusual dishes. I suppose you could call it urban eclectic. I suggest the Papa Tony’s pan seared shrimp. The name honors the late Tony Stone who was mayor and who began the Cookeville Cook Off. He was well known for his grilling skill. Jo Ann likes the chicken and waffles dish. Their seven salad is good too. Ask for a glass of Calfkiller beer, a local brew.
Taiko is described as a Noodles and Sushi bar on their banner. If you are in the mood for Japanese food, this is the place, situated on Broad across from the Depot. Usually I don’t eat sushi, but there are plenty of other dishes to choose from. Jo Ann likes other places better than this restaurant, so I usually only eat there when she is out of town. It’s a nice break in the usual routine, and sushi lovers rave about it.
On Broad just a few steps from Foothills, the Cajun restaurant Crawdaddy’s is one of Cookeville’s most popular eateries. Its upstairs bar is popular too. In good weather, check out the courtyard and balcony seating. Crawfish etouffee is my standard request there; if I’m going to a place named “Crawdaddy’s” I expect crawfish. If you want gator tail their sampler will include crawfish, gator and shrimp. Their steaks are well respected and people hold dinner meeting there. To go with the crawfish, ask for a glass of Calfkiller.
House of Thai is on Eight Street at the east side of the Tennessee Tech campus. I’m partial to Thai food, so it’s one of my favorites. My standard dish there is drunken noodles. They will season it with red pepper to your taste. Be careful; it can be too hot. Pad Thai is a close second choice. The curries are good too. Jo Ann is a light eater. She usually orders a spring roll and rice. We agree on the hot Thai tea. I could drink a gallon of it.
Mexican restaurant Cinco Amigos is a favorite watering hole for the Westside Runners. After our Wednesday night runs we sometimes retire there for our birthday parties. In fact, we find all kinds of occasions to gather there. The amigos have covered outside seating, which is where we usually end up. They decorate it for our parties with maracas, party hats, and balloons. The food is tasty. And nothing I’ve ever eaten there has given me digestive difficulty. My standard is from the Especialidades menu, number 27, the burrito supreme. RunItFast hero Lisa Gonzales @runlikeacoyote would like it, burritos being her weakness – or rather maybe her strength. Of course, Dos Equis beer goes with that burrito.
I think of Char as a steakhouse. But their tag line boasts of seafood and pasta as well. I don’t go out for Sunday brunch very often, but I recall a very good bunch at Char. Char was the first stop of the first red dress run Westside Runners did. The whole red dressed bunch retired to the patio where we could be as noisy as we wanted without bothering anyone else. There we did pleasantly linger a while before shoving off to the next watering hole. In addition to the patio, Char also has a small covered outside seating area that overlooks the Putnam county courthouse. Definitely, at this restaurant ask for Calfkiller beer.
Dipsy Doodle is a blue collar, meat-and-three joint in the country about five miles west of town on US-70N, Broad Street. In operation since the 1940s, it is the oldest restaurant in the area. Josh Hite, @urnewhite, and I frequently go there for lunch after our adventure runs in remote Jackson County. For lunch, expect lots of home cooked veggies, a different selection each work day. For example on Monday, they have pinto beans, boiled cabbage, turnip greens, small whole boiled potatoes. Those are just the ones I recall from the Monday menu. (I’ve dropped the turnip greens lately because of too many coarse stems, a small complaint.) For me, cornbread goes with those country veggies. Veggie selection on Tuesday includes the old depression-era favorite, tomatoes and macaroni. I’ve never seen that offered at any other restaurant. The giant burger – you can get it with or without cheese - is the reason I go there half the time. Jo Ann favors the BLT. I believe they put more crisp bacon on that sandwich than you’ll find anywhere else. The “mile-high” meringue on their chocolate and coconut pie is thicker than a pillow. It’s big; sometimes I share a slice.
These Also Serve
For the sake of brevity – and maybe it’s too late for that - I’ve left out so many restaurants, it makes me feel guilty. Let me quickly toss in a few more.
Spankies, on East Ninth at Tennessee Tech. Try their French dip sandwich with roasted potatoes. Ask for Calfkiller beer.
World Foods is a little restaurant and deli on N. Cedar in Westside featuring Mediterranean foods. It’s where to go for pizza. Instead of smearing a red slime called tomato paste on the crust, they use actual tomatoes. Such a difference!
Father Tom’s Pub is a popular local hangout, also on N. Cedar, near World Foods. I have to shout this one. Tom told me that on race day between four o’clock and midnight, he will give a free glass of beer to anyone with a race number who orders an entrée. Hit him up for a Calfkiller.
El Tapatitos is the Mexican restaurant Jo Ann prefers. I like it too. Prices are reasonable and it’s a popular place, on S. Willow.
Bull and Thistle, maybe the brightest jewel in the Upper Cumberland, is actually in Gainesboro, seat of Jackson County, the county Cummins Falls Marathon runs through. Running Buddy Josh Hite @urNewHite calls it the best restaurant in Tennessee. The chef was recruited from Ireland. It’s a new restaurant in a renovated historic building. The server told us the kitchen alone cost $1.5 million. A wide selection of beer is available. It’s on the courthouse square, seventeen miles northwest of Cookeville.