Litton’s – Saved by the coconut

The Jim Fielden at Litton’s.

A Scruffy City restaurant review

You may (or may not) know this, but Knoxville has a lot of restaurants for a city of our size.

I’ve always heard this was true, but I didn’t really believe it until I actually sat down and started doing some exhaustive, painstaking research into eateries and demographics. And what did my Google search tell me? That we consistently rank in the Top 10 (or 20, or 50) cities in a whole bunch of related categories: number of restaurants per capita, best places to open a restaurant, largest number of buffet-style steak houses per square mile, etc. 

The reason this information was relevant to me over the last week was because the COVID-19 pandemic is apparently over, or under control, or maybe never existed at all (depends on who you ask and how much tinfoil they line their ballcap with). Something is up, anyway, because all of a sudden mask orders are being rescinded and crowds are starting to appear inside Knoxville’s hundreds of sit-down restaurants again. 

Like a lot of folks, I’ve had exactly zero meals inside a restaurant’s indoor dining room since late 2019. There’s been no shortage of drive-through, pick-up and delivery meals since then, but having a McDonalds value meal handed off by some stoned delivery dude wearing a Tupac t-shirt isn’t quite the same experience as spending an hour or two with your favorite entree at your favorite table in your favorite dining room.

I wanted my first honest-to-golly meal since the pandemic struck to be memorable.  I wanted to pick my all-time favorite restaurant in Knoxville, but Falafel Hut is barely even a memory nowadays to half our city.  It’s neighbor, Vic & Bill’s, has likewise gone to that great food court in the sky, and while both Dynasty Express and Louis are still going strong, they’re simply not in the same qualitative weight class as Falafel Hut or, say, Regas Restaurant.

So I picked my next favorite — Litton’s.

For those of you who don’t already know, Litton’s has been a North Knoxville institution for roughly four decades and counting. The descendant of a butcher’s shop and a small general store, the restaurant opened its doors in the heart of Fountain City in 1983 and soon became known as the best place in all of East Tennessee to get a burger. It’s since been written up in national publications like Southern Living, featured on TV food shows and consistently ranked at the top of regional polls.  

I’ve been going to Litton’s on a regular basis for more than three decades. I’m intimately familiar with the menu, I believe I’ve sat at every table and every stool, and it’s been the location of several meals so good that I still remember them even after the passage of many years (the mid-November 1996 market price ribeye was supernaturally good). But our favorite eateries aren’t our favorites because of a few spectacular meals. They make their way into our hearts by being consistently good. We want to know that when we recommend it to a friend that we won’t be stammering out an apology later. We want to know what we’re getting when we order a chili cheeseburger, medium well with a side salad, homemade blue cheese dressing on the side….

The simple experience of walking into Litton’s earlier this week was oddly sentimental. Despite having been the subject of countless four- and five-star reviews from critics who’ve hailed from every corner of the United States, the decor is “basic American” (think of a less ostentatious version of Cracker Barrel). It’s not an aesthetic I normally care for, but in Litton’s it was tied intimately to so many good memories that I could halfway appreciate it.

The lobby of Litton’s in Fountain City.

My companion didn’t seem impressed. He wasn’t a Fountain City boy, he didn’t have the accumulated baggage of having eaten hundreds of Litton’s burgers, and he wasn’t thrilled with the 20-minute wait we endured for a table. 

Our waitress was unfailingly sweet, attentive, cheery and slow. Think “primitive society may evolve into a spacefaring civilization from my gut bacteria” before I get a glass of tea slow. This is unusual, and the first sign that something may be a bit …. well, off today. We finally managed to get to our food orders, with my companion asking for a cheeseburger with a cup of gumbo to start. I got a Jim Fielden, which is a Litton’s burger sans bread along with sides of green beans and pinto beans. 

 Minutes later, my buddy began spooning gumbo into his mouth as we discussed the overall state of journalism in the country right now. He didn’t seem really engaged by the cup of seasoned goodness in front of him; he seemed to be eating mechanically, as though he felt duty bound to finish it up in a reasonable time. 

Thankfully the main dishes arrived with more dispatch than the first round. Visually they were perfect. Caramelized, sautéed onions smothered my hamburger steak and the sides were piping hot, as was the cornbread. My buddy’s cheeseburger looked exactly like the famous burgers whose photos hang on the wall up front. It wasn’t a sandwich so much as it was a work of ark, a protein sculpture layered with the classic dressings of lettuce, tomato, onions and cheese. And the serving size? Ha! I’m stunned our poor waitress hasn’t carried it to our table with a forklift.

Damn. I actually wrote that exercise in gross hyperbole, didn’t I? Well, I told you that I’d really, really been looking foreword to this first meal out, right?

I eagerly seized knife and fork, plunged them into the butchered remains of the once-merry, mooing mammal that gave its life for our meal. My friend did likewise, and 15 minutes or so later we put down our utensils and took stock of the carnage, which was anything but pretty….

Nothing was left of my friend’s cheeseburger except for a few stray crumbs. On the other hand, exactly half of my entree and sides were gone and now awaited their fate in a styrofoam to-go carton. 

This is a rarity for me. Actual leftovers, from Litton’s? I mentioned earlier that their portions tend to range from “robust” to “metric ton o’food,” but that’s usually not a factor. Usually I inhale my entire plate, size be damned, and gladly suffer the consequences of it later.

Confused, I summoned up the courage to ask myself if it hadn’t been quite up to snuff today, if it had perhaps been a merely above-average experience rather than the culinary rapture I’d expected? 

Or maybe the problem was …. me. Did I build up the excitement too much, raise the bar too sigh, set an impossible standard? I know of no way to tell, other than to ask my friend what he thought of it.

“Bland,” said my companion, who can veer wildly between extremes of taciturn and talkative several times in a five-minute stretch. 

An example of one of Knoxville’s favorite culinary concoctions: a Litton’s cheeseburger.

“The burger was lacking in distinction, like it’s fear of offending with actual seasoning or flavors kept it essence tucked in,” opines my friend (also a writer). “Gumbo was pretty good…. for soup. They had no business calling it gumbo. Doubtful that roux had anything to do with it.”

Oh, no. No! He had spoken thoughts that I’d dared not articulate. I don’t know if I’d have agreed with his assessment of his burger, but his words were …. appropriate when applied to my meal. Not 100 percent accurate, but not entirely inaccurate, either. Mine had been tasty, enjoyable, good ….but not great. The burger patty had been closer to the generic offerings of, say,  TGI Friday or Ruby Tuesday. Totally adequate, but nothing to write home about. 

The horror, as Kurtz said. The horror.  

 You don’t understand what’s potentially at stake here. I’ve lived here in Fountain City for much of my life, and you don’t say bad things about Litton’s. Scratch that — you don’t say use words other than superlatives to describe a meal there. If I do so here, it’ll be as though I had blasphemed on the steps of the Presbyterian church, or puked in the Duck Pond, or publicly skinned a Bobcat for a new hat. You might think that my fears of an ugly mob armed with pitchforks and torches to be an exaggeration, a literary device meant to satirically convey mild social disapproval…. But I know better.

I’m saved, it turns out, by the dessert menu.

Litton’s desserts are the stuff of legends. They sell a lot of pies, cakes, brownies and cookies. They’re all homemade, and I’ve yet to sample one that wasn’t the best exemplar I’ve ever tasted of that dish. And today (thankfully) is no exception. 

My friend gets the red velvet cake. I want the key lime pie but, tragically, it’s not available today. My second-favorite dessert is very much in stock right now, however, and our waitress brings our food to us in less than five minutes. I make short work of the coconut cream pie, and for a moment the earlier parts of this meal are forgotten as I get lost in an obscenely sweet, rich dessert.

So, how do I rate this trip to Litton’s overall?

With the dessert included, I wouldn’t hesitate to give the restaurant four stars out of five. Without the coconut pie, however, it would have been only a three-star meal. This isn’t a bad showing, necessarily, but it’s disappointing for a restaurant that, in my experience, is usually four stars on its inevitable “off days.”

I don’t believe that there’s been a recipe change or something similar. No, I suspect that the restaurant industry is still reeling from the effects of COVID-19. There’s no telling what its specifically done to Litton’s, but I’ve read too many stories about the impacts it’s had on the industry (and especially the purveyors of fine meats) to discount the possibility that Litton’s may not return to being the world-class eatery we’ve known until the economy and supply chains have stabilized. 

At least, I hope so. Too many of my favorite local restaurants have gone under, and I simply can’t imagine Fountain City without it’s meaty heart.

Published on May 28, 2021