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CHOW Tour: North America: Follow along with Chowhound cofounder Jim Leff as he crisscrosses North America on a monumental road trip in search of hyperdeliciousness. You never know where he might turn up...

Follow along with Chowhound cofounder Jim Leff as he crisscrosses North America on a monumental road trip in search of hyperdeliciousness. You never know where he might turn up...

Chattanooga, TN

North America Dispatch #24: Cheerfully Chowhounding Chattanooga

Wait a minute, it’s stopped hailing.
Guys are swimming, guys are sailing
Playing baseball, gee that’s better
Muddah, faddah kindly disregard this letter
     — Alan Sherman

Chattanooga, Tennessee

For logistical reasons, I wound up, against all desires and impulses, staying in Chattanooga another day. I visited the famous Tennessee Aquarium, where I was charmed by show-offish otters and fluorescent jellyfish. I walked at night over the Tennessee River on one of the world’s longest pedestrian footbridges:

... with a gorgeous down-river view:

(I’m still getting the hang of night photography with this camera—you may have noticed the food shots are getting better, though—so please bear with me.)

And I hit the Bluff View Art District, a short, drop-dead-beautiful walk from downtown over a luminescent bridge made of glass:

Bluff View was the perfect antidote to yesterday’s anxiety attack. I wasn’t able to actually eat much of anything there, having emerged groaning from dinner at a place called Bea’s (more on that in a minute). But I had a long walk round the area and loved it. Relaxed, friendly, with civilized shops and caf├ęs and several eateries that looked like they really care about food. Neither quaint nor self-conscious, the area is just deeply pleasant.

I enjoyed a sublime iced latte at Rembrandt (204 East High Street, Chattanooga, Tennessee; 423-265-5033), along with a very delicious Russian tea cookie (the other pastries didn’t look that good; I think I nailed the best item). I ate outdoors in the sweet air, with customers of all ages clustered in ardent and interesting-seeming conversations. This is, clearly, the refugee camp for those displaced by the slick nightmare of downtown.

I perched on several of the myriad ledges and benches, breathed deeply, and felt glad to be there. Hey, I like Chattanooga!

But back to the meal that left me groaning.

Bea’s Restaurant (4500 Dodds Avenue, Chattanooga, Tennessee; 423-867-3618) is a lazy-Susan joint—a place where food’s served family style at large tables with rotating lazy Susans so that no one needs to pass anything, and everyone can concentrate on eating. And eating. This was the original all-you-can-eat concept (empty dishes are quickly replenished), and diners come en masse to really shovel it in. The amusing thing about lazy-Susan places is that, while they’re truly all about raw primal urges, most try to cover that up with a studiedly genteel atmosphere, like a cheap hooker modestly adjusting her hem.

Bea’s is a bit faded and not so genteel. And the food’s not vibrant anymore, either. If you eat quickly (as you surely will, given the trenchermanish atmosphere), you’ll miss the subtext. This sort of cooking is not for oohing and aahing—it’s nowhere near that ambitious. But simple food can convey a message, and while the message carried by this specific kitchen may be “We’re tired and our feet ache,” there are also echoes of bygone times. Most boring food these days is ploddingly uniform—trucked in by big white Sysco trucks. Bea’s is completely off that circuit. It’s not 2005 blandness, it’s 1955 blandness. And that, for me, is exciting and transportive. As an American, I feel like I’ve come home—in exactly the way I was hoping to come home weeks ago at the Delaware County Fair. I ate joyfully.

Have a look at LazySusanCam (now, only slightly out of focus!): Movie file

The revolving items are, in order:

Pulled pork BBQ (not smoked, but good sauce)

Fried chicken (reminiscent of Banquet TV dinners, yet there is subtlety there)

Cole slaw (really good low-affectation class slaw)

Cobbler (sweet)

Pinto beans (OK)

Potatoes (very ingratiating)

Rolls (dull) and corn muffins (great)

Mac and cheese (unique, fine, slightly eerie in an indescribable way)

Fried catfish (correct, authentic, unexceptional)

... and that’s sweet (a.k.a. “iced”) tea sloshing around in the background.

Listen to the story of my white-knuckle ride to the restaurant, and the extreme deceleration required immediately thereafter. MP3


Another interesting Chinese link(from MP3 file) is the lazy susan. In southern china(HK, Guandong) dinners are regularly served on a lazy susan in provencial restaurants.

Yes, thanks for adding that. I'd thought of that later myself! Sichuans use lazy susans as well (and likely others).

The entire institution is actually amazingly Chinese. Of course, the constant replenishment is a New World touch....

I grew up in Chattanooga, and I can confirm that Bea's was just as un-vibrant in 1956 as it is today. You go once in a lifetime, for the experience.