clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Battle At Bristol: Where To Eat, Stay and Play

As a resident of Southwest Virginia (I'm a native Abingdonian) and the former Managing Editor of this site, I felt duty bound to give a rough, hastily thrown together, last minute travel guide to the throngs of you who will be in my backyard (some for the first time). I've seen much written about where to dine/drink and visit during your time here, and well folks, I have to say that I disagree (respectfully) with those who have taken on the task so far. So, if you want to be directed to bad/overpriced restaurants and rue your experience here (who would want that?), just go with them. But I'm telling you, even if you think I'm wrong (and I may be), you're going to want to read mine as well.

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Where to Eat?

This is the number one question that visitors/tourists ask on vacation, and wouldn't you know, I'm here to answer that query for you, and be your own personal concierge to the Battle at Bristol. But perhaps a better way to address where to eat is to let you know where NOT TO eat, let's take on where not to eat, because it's likely you've already been steered in the direction of some pretty suspect food choices.

Where NOT to Eat?

Exit 5 I-81 Bristol, Va.-

Let's start out with some real facts:

The City of Bristol, Virginia is in heaping loads of debt. How much you might ask? Well, let me tell you. If the City of Bristol is unable to pay their current loans, they will default and the city will lose its charter. So let's be clear, this is an opportunity for the city as well as the area as a whole, and they're going to want to take full advantage. Lots of taxes folks.

So let's start with their new mega retail development anchored by Cabela's (not kidding) that they're hoping saves their bacon, The Falls, which is directly off of I-81 at Exit 5. It's built on land the city purchased that is now affectionately known as "Rock Pile Hill" because, well, the land is just a heaping pile of rocks. What is there to do/see at Exit 5? Well, there's a bunch of fast food options, and a Zaxby's at The Falls. But who cares or wants to eat at Zaxby's that badly? For the record, I like Zaxby's, and there's a Sheetz (Exit 5, I-81) there that you can fill your car up for at $1.86 per gallon (as of Thursday afternoon) with a Sheetz card (ProTip: Get a Sheetz card. They're free and save you three cents a gallon on gas), but you're setting your sights higher than Zaxby's and other fast food, right? Okay.

The Pinnacle- Exit 74 I-81 Bristol, Tn.-

In case you think I'm playing favorites, I would also recommend to stay away from The Pinnacle, the competing (and it was first if you were keeping score) centered around Bass Pro Shops and developed by former Virginia Tech football player, Steve Johnson. Basically, these are things that you want to avoid for several reasons.

1. I'm sure that most of you visiting have nearly all of these stores in your area too.

2. Ours aren't, for some inexplicable reason, better. They're the exact same.

3. Mostly fast food options at present and uninspiring chains make up the rest.

4. If you really want to visit Bass Pro or Cabela's, be prepared to pay about 25% more than retail price minimum. If you're looking for guns, hunting equipment or ammunition, Highland Arms (Exit 14, Main Street in Abingdon, Va.), Mahoney's (Exit 17, Main Street in Abingdon, Va.) or Gunslinger's (Highway 11W Kingsport, Tn.) are just a couple options that will save you money and are better. I'm talking the difference between Amazon and Best Buy in price.

5. If you want to spend NOVA (Northern Virginia) prices on movie tickets, the Pinnacle has a brand new state of the art theater, but again, it's really expensive. Save that money for other things on your trip by going to the Abingdon Cinemall (Exit 19 I-81 Abingdon, East Main St.) or Tinseltown (Exit 7 I-81 Linden Dr. Bristol, Va.). It's a bit past its prime, but the Cinemall was once one of three theaters sound mastered for the release of Star Wars (The Phantom Menace I believe) to George Lucas' standards. Why all of that seems hopelessly outdated, it's still an okay place to take in a movie, and if you sit in one of the old theaters, they have been remodeled and now include reclining seats (one of the big draws of the new Marqee Cinemas at the Pinnacle) and have a price check feature on their website that shows the prices for the other theaters in the area.

State Street, Bristol, Va./Tn.- Another trendy place you've probably been told about is State Street in Bristol Va./Tn., and while you've probably been curious to visit and see the street that is actually on the border between The Commonwealth and the Volunteer State, let me caution you, this is the place where, if you go, you will spend most of your money and the place where you will most wish you hadn't. Sure, there are reasonable reasons to visit State Street. For one, that's where the party's at, right? Again, both cities have undertaken enormous efforts to get you to go downtown and open up your wallets for the "fine dining and drink" that State Street offers. So what do you do? Okay, go, sure. It's worth seeing no doubt, and the atmosphere with the surplus of fans in town might alone be worth a visit. But here's the truth: State Street is full of overpriced and overcrowded restaurants, bars and night life that isn't worth your time.

Quaker Steak and Lube- First off, let's look at the food. Low-end chains and local staples litter the area on or surrounding State Street, and they are all...you guessed it, overpriced. We'll start with Quaker Steak and Lube (State Street, Bristol, Va.) since it's going to be the "Hokie Headquarters" for the ceremonies down there. Is it an okay place? Sure. Sometimes they have karaoke. Sometimes they have live music on the patio area. Sometimes you can get a seat, and others you're standing the whole time trying to track down a server or bar girl that just isn't that into helping you out just to get a beer. If you CAN get a table, however (lucky), you're likely to have an obscured view of any of the TVs in the joint, unless of course you made it to the actual bar, and your waitress will likely forget you exist in the mass of humanity and noise in the restaurant (has happened multiple times). The one redeeming quality about QS&L is the Lube Tube (ProTip: If you go there, get the Lube Tube WITHOUT the apparatus that chills your beer and therefore allows them to fill it with less beer. It's like Mitch Hedberg once said of Kit Kat being imprinted into the chocolate bars, "That robs you of chocolate!" 'Cept this time, it's beer.) If you are there with anywhere from 1-3 friends, order a Lube Tube and drink quickly. It is a giant tube of beer with its own tap that sits at your table with you (assuming again, of course, that you got a table). If all of your friends and yourself are drinking, expect a Lube Tube to be downed in less than a half hour (I'm being conservative here just in case for the slow sippers). Also, do not, under any circumstances get the wings...unless you're sauced (no pun intended unless you want it) and don't care that they're truly terrible wings. If you want wings and are on State Street, there is a Dominos within walking distance across Commonwealth Ave./Volunteer Pkwy. that will serve you better wings than Quaker Steak (though that's not a ringing endorsement) and for a pittance of the price, or a quick two-exit car ride to Exit 74 and Hambino's would be worth your while.

620 State- One of the most expensive restaurants in the area, 620 State, is one eatery that is sure to over-promise (and over-charge) and under-deliver. It's trendy, and the food is often decent and sometimes even good, but that's the problem--they've got a spotty history (just look at the number of times they've been dropped for gouging people as caterers). And furthermore, you're going to pay through the nose to eat there too...all for the privilege of sitting in near total darkness with loud music blaring in your ear (WHAT!? I COULDN'T HEAR YOU OVER EVERYONE SHOUTING SO THAT OTHER PEOPLE CAN HEAR THEM DESPITE SITTING DIRECTLY ACROSS THE TABLE!). Oh yeah, and this weekend at least, you'll need a reservation, or else you'll be popping a squat on one of their two benches for several hours to get in. For what it's worth, the cheapest meal I ever had there was either a near $20 hamburger (Pals, everywhere in the area, has THE BEST Chili Burger in existence, better even than Lefty's in Blacksburg, which is No. 2 for me. ProTip: Make sure you get it fully loaded with every topping/condiment possible for maximum enjoyment, and with an order of Frenchie Fries and a Peach Tea, all for under $7) or a $10 sushi roll the width of my pinky (I go about 190 at the moment for reference) and soaked in cream cheese (over 50% of their sushi has this bizarre, only in American restaurants that think they can do/know sushi but can't and don't, condiment present). If you want sushi, go to Osaka (Exit 7, I-81 Bonham Rd. Bristol, Va.). They are much more fairly priced, much more generous with the size of their roll, much better, and not to mention, much less addicted to ruining their sushi with cream cheese.

Cootie Browns- This wonderful piece of hodge podge nostalgia sits at the very head of Volunteer Pkwy. once you cross State Street and into Tennessee (also other locations around the Tri-Cities). It's a very kitschy location (much like Macado's, which we'll get to in a minute), and if you enjoy that kind of decoration (you can see it from the outside, so there's no mistaking it), maybe you'll like it there. Their menu is full of food that is just okay, though if you do go here, may I recommend their pizzas (though again, there are better places for Pizza in the Tri-Cities, the short list of which is the Mad Greek (Volunteer Pkwy., close to Bristol Motor Speedway), Bella's (East Main St., Abingdon, Va.), Machiavelli's (5th St., Bristol, Tn.), Little Italy (6th St. Bristol, Tn.) and the Mellow Mushroom, Exit 7 I-81 Lee Hwy., Bristol, Va. or Roan St. Johnson City).

Macado's- If you've ever been to a Macado's, UCB in Blacksburg or otherwise, you've probably thought it was a good enough sandwich shop with a dizzying list of delicious subs and nearly nauseating number of variations of deli meat combinations, and a quite thorough list of alcoholic beverages, and you, my friend, would be right. But, for whatever reason, the State Street location of this regional chain does a disservice to the other Macado's, both in food and drink. The food is bland, the drinks are poorly mixed and the service is quite shoddy. I once had a server pick up pieces of macaroni salad with his sweaty, smoke-smelling hands that he had dropped on the table while serving me, and place them back on my plate with the rest of the side. If you're wanting to do subs, may I suggest Jersey Mike's (all over the area ProTip: Get your sub Mike's Way (minus the extra salt, because who needs more sodium?) or you're doing it wrong). But if you're tied to the notion of Macado's, there is perhaps the best one in the chain at Exit 45 I-81 on Main Street in Marion, Va. (and while we're on Marion, one of the best restaurants in the area is just across the street, The Speakeasy, which is connected to the Francis Marion Hotel. It shouldn't be crowded and has a full service bar as well as well as great food), and another about a mile off the interstate in Emory, Va., right across the train tracks from the main campus of Emory & Henry College. Just make sure to be aware that they don't serve spirits (or at least haven't any time that I have been, as E&H is notoriously a "dry campus"...it just rains a lot).

Blackbird Bakery- It's good, and it's a short one block walk from State Street (just down the road from QS&L). Try the Almond Cake, the Orange and Vanilla donut or the Diabetes Tower (you'll see). But wait, I thought you said don't go there? I did, and here's why: The lines are out the door with regularity, so imagine what an infusion of several hundreds of thousands of people will do. Be prepared to wait a long time in their lines in their recently expanded (and still unbearably cramped) interior. Also, be aware, they do close every Saturday night at midnight and will stay closed all Sunday. In the situation where you visit close to closing time, they won't cut certain baked goods because they don't think they can sell them (ProTip: If they give you grief about this, tell them Randy told you they would do it for you. Also, ProTip #2: Tell them you're a college student and hope they don't ask for your ID. You'd be surprised. It's a 10% discount).

Basq- Opposite the saying "I'll save the best for last," (which was created to make people feel better about being last) this time, last is appropriately placed. My disdain for State Street eateries for being overpriced and not necessarily good notwithstanding, Basq would still be on my no-no list. It is the prime example of an overly-expensive restaurant offering minuscule portions and with delusions of grandeur (A better option, both cheaper and with better food, is Cafe Alona (Hwy 126 Bristol, Tn.). It's the trying too hard to be classy and pronouncing Chipotle "CHIP-OHL-TEEEEE" type of joint where if you have a bad meal, it's on you. I've been twice, I won't be back, and I'd recommend that unless you want to be openly mocked and criticized on social media for leaving them an honest review about an inedible $60 meal (I'm talking wait and kitchen staff going back 5 years and finding pictures of your cooking on your social media accounts to prove to all that you don't know how to cook as well as they do, and management concocting stories about your experience, calling you fat and telling you that your palate is not up to snuff), you steer clear. But if you like that kind of stuff...

So that brings us back to...

Where to Eat?

And here we arrive, some 2,000 words later, at where TO eat. If you've been paying attention, I've given you some alternate ideas to the ones you were probably provided by the city governments of localities (graciously passed along by the news media). But here's where I give you just a straight list of places to eat in the area:

Abingdon:

Bella's Pizza (Exit 19 East Main St.) Really good pizza, lots of options. Nice patio. This is preferable to the Exit 5 location.

Chick-N-Little (Exit 17 West Main St.) One of those restaurants you think will be terrible looking from the outside, but it's really good. A local staple, Chick-N-Little is a diner with great fried foods and sides that's a southern classic and from another time.

Political Dogs (Exit 17 East Main St.) Located in the Barter II Stage building, run by the Mayor of nearby Glade Spring. It's full of political themed memorabilia and the dogs/brats/burgers are all named after a politician, locality, policy or political event. ProTip: If you like Brats, try The Fighting Ninth.

Rain (Exit 19 East Man St.) Also a bar and can be found in Where to Drink, Rain is one of Abingdon's top-two restaurants. Steak, fish, chicken, and a bar menu that always has interesting eats, it's all good here.

The Tavern (Exit 19 East Main St.) Abingdon's best restaurant in its oldest building. Steak, lamb, German fare, salad even (ProTip: Try the Parmesan Peppercorn dressing), you can't go wrong here.

Bristol, Tn:

Bristol BBQ (Volunteer Pkwy. Bristol, Tn.) It's really tasty, quite fairly priced and can be ordered from a former coffee stall right off of the Parkway. Quick, sweet, smoky goodness.

Cafe Alona (Hwy. 126 Bristol, Tn.) Chef Alona was previously a chef at a foreign embassy in the U.S., and has a versatile menu with a rotating weekly special from different parts on the world (we're talking 20+ countries or food cultures).

Hambino's (Exit 74, Hwy 11 W Bristol, Tn.) If you're looking for wings, theirs are pretty good (though I'm kind of a wing snob, so I make all of my own wings now. Hot wings are meant to be hotter than the rank and file make them).

Pal's (Volunteer Pkwy., Bristol, Tn.) Again, they're everywhere. Find one and quick.

Bristol, Va:

Mellow Mushroom (Lee Hwy. Bristol, Va.) You may only know it as the sponsor of last week's Virginia Tech vs. Liberty game, but despite being a fast-growing, large chain now, they're actually pretty good. The Buffalo Chicken Pizza used to be better (again, see hotter) but if you're adventurous enough, the Caesar pie is quite a treat.

Osaka (Bonham Rd. Bristol, Va.) The best sushi/sashimi in the area. I'd say it's at least 85% as good as the best sushi restaurants I've eaten at in larger metropolitan areas. They have imported and domestic beer and will be happy to provide you/your group with sake bombs and even count you down. Seaweed Salad, Squid Salad, Spicy Tuna Rainbow Roll and a Tsingtao, Sapporo or an Asahi and you're living large.

Pal's (Lee Hwy. Bristol, Va.) Again though, they're everywhere. Just find one already!

Johnson City, Tn:

Alta Cucina (N. Roan St. Johnson City, Tn.) Mostly Italian, but great food and experience all-around. Great for families/family atmosphere. Your taste buds will leave happy.

Bonefish Grill (N. Roan St. Johnson City, Tn.) Chain, yes, but have you even tried their Spicy Tuna Bowl?

Cafe Lola (N. Roan St. Johnson City, Tn.) Tapas? Yes please. You may need a reservation due to a small seating area, but it's great. Also, if you don't know what tapas are, Google them now so that you don't make a fool of yourself arguing about portions.

Freiberg's (E. Main St. Johnson City, Tn.) By far my favorite place to eat in JC. As close to Germany as you're getting in the Tri-Cities. Their Brat sampler with Rohtkohl (Red Cabbage) and Bratkartoffeln (Pan fried potatoes with onions) and a 32 oz. (their standard beer stein) of Warsteiner will make you sing sweet nothings to complete strangers.

The Hokie Smokie (W. Mountcastle Dr. Johnson City, Tn.) The original, for which the site did a restaurant review in 2012. Brisket, pulled pork BBQ, turkey legs and more, and you won't tire of the surroundings. Is there a more perfect weekend to visit this place?

Label (Tipton St. Johnson City, Tn.) Great food, good atmosphere (whether patio or inside). Sushi, I must say, is not my favorite thing to eat here. It's similar to 620 State in its size, taste and cream cheesiness.

Mellow Mushroom (N. Roan St. Johnson City, Tn.) Same as Bristol, just geared a little more for drinking/watching sports.

Pal's (multiple locations) Dude, can you even?

Tomy Thai (W. State of Franklin Johnson City, Tn.) I love hot and spicy food, but man, this stuff will burn straight through you and make you feel like you messed with the wrong deity. That is, unless you love hot and spicy food more than me (doubtful). So if that's not your piece of pie and you don't want to be glued to the toilet or sweating profusely, maybe just back off the spice level when they ask you and don't say "Real Thai spice" like this idiot. I just can't not if it's offered. ProTip: Their Chicken Satay is among the best in the area.

Kingsport, Tn:

Giuseppe's (E Stone Dr. Kingsport, Tn.) Delicious Italian, huge servings. Italian may be my favorite food in the world (if not for Asian food), so it's hard to go wrong here in my opinion.

Hokie Smokie Grill (Broad St. Kingsport, Tn.) For the record, I actually have not been to this one, but based off the original Hokie Smokie, I'd say they're in good hands.

Pal's (multiple locations, including the original) The original is quite a touch of nostalgia and just as delicious as the others. It's recommended if it's the closest one. Otherwise, GET TO THE CLOSEST PAL'S NOW!

Pratt's Barbecue (E Stone Dr. Kingsport, Tn.) Most people in the area are religious Ridgewood BBQ customers, but I prefer the "second best," Pratt's. Why? I find Ridgewood too smoky and Pratt's has the better sauces that you can try out and choose from on the table. It's adorned with a giant Native American statue outside. You can't miss it.

Riverfront Seafood (Netherland Inn Rd. Kingsport, Tn.) Tucked away off Hwy. 11 in Kingsport, you can't beat the setting with the Holston River rushing by on the back deck (and no, Eastman which sits on said river TOTALLY doesn't and never did dump anything in there), which sometimes has music. But the real reason you go is the seafood.

Tamiko Japanese (N. Eastman Rd. Kingsport, Tn.) It's hibachi food, but without the cook in front of you (which some might argue is one of the biggest draws of hibachi). That may be true, but this is the best of this type of food in the area. It's also quicker and cheaper than its "sit down and wait until we have the appropriate number of people to summon a grill chef" competitors.

The Chop House (N. Eastman Rd. Kingsport, Tn.) Chain, but they do meat well, hence the name The Chop House. You've probably eaten there. If you haven't, it's recommended.

Meadowview:

The Harvest Table (Meadowview Square Meadowview, Va.) Only locally sourced and organic food (and yes, they take it to the extreme. Want a lemon in your water? You'd better go to where they're grown son!). Simple yet delicious, your meal there will be an event (the good kind) that will take you back in time and allow you to enjoy fine fare without all the frivolous and superfluous nonsense that is 21st century food.

Where to Stay-

Man this one is tough because, if you didn't book a long, LONG time ago, you're too late. But, if you did and just want to have a reaffirmation of your good decision, I can do that.

If you're staying in...

Abingdon you did well to book yourself at the Martha Washington Inn and Spa, or a B&B.

Bristol, Va. you did well to book your room at Exit 7. Any of the hotels around the state line are pretty sketchy. Being closer to the race track isn't everything.

Bristol, Tn. you are at the Fairfield or the Hampton or else...good luck!

Johnson City, Tn. you booked the Carnegie like a boss because you had the cash or really, JC has many hotels that are good. You probably did okay here.

Kingsport, Tn. you either did the Meadowview Marriott or you stayed in what is actually Tri-Cities Crossing (but some would say Kingsport) at one of the airport hotels. But again, much like JC, there are enough good options that you probably didn't hurt yourself here.

Much further out than these places, you likely booked late. No bueno.

Where To Play?

If you're in...

Abingdon you may want to take in a play at the State Theater of Virginia, The Barter Theatre, walk on the Virginia Creeper Trail (part of the Appalachian Trail), visit the William King Arts CenterThe Muster Grounds (the staging grounds for the participants of The Battle of King's Mountain) or just take a walk around historic downtown.

Bristol Tn./Va. you may want to take a stroll down historic State Street (just don't eat there), visit Bristol CavernsSouth Holston DamSugar Hollow or Steele's Creek Parks or participate in the Tri-Cities Escape Game.

Johnson City Tn. you may want to visit Winged Deer Park or walk on the Tweetsie Trail. Or if you have kids, maybe visit the Hands On Museum. Or, if you would like to use the ammunition that you purchased at Highland ArmsMahoney's or Gunslinger's, there is a pretty good shooting range in close by Bluff City, Tn. called Shooter's Edge.

Hopefully this helps. Go out and make your own adventure, and hey, even prove me wrong and have a ton of fun at a place I dogged for some reason. This is just a guide. Whatever you do, enjoy your stay in the Tri-Cities (and hopefully a Hokies' win).

Bonus round: Where to Drink?

I mean, did you guys think I was going to not get to this?

Abingdon: Rain, Wolf Hills Brewery (or the better, in my opinion, Damascus Brewery, less than 10 miles away)

Bristol Tn./Va.: Holston River Brewing Company (and it's SUPER close to the track), O'Mainnin's or Stateline (gulp, if you are looking for, you know, more of a NASCAR crowd)

Johnson City Tn.: Tipton Street Pub, Capone's, Atlantic Ale House, really anything in old Downtown JC

Kingsport, Tn.: Honestly, I've never really been to Kingsport for this. Your guess is as good as mine. Good luck, and enjoy the sweet aroma of Eastman!