Back in 2010, not long after Lee and I had first started dating, we took a trip to the Great Smoky Mountains. I was excited to plan our first trip together. The views would be breathtaking, no doubt, but Lee warned me that our dining and drinking options would be slim. The area surrounding Gatlinburg is great if you are a lover of pancakes and fudge, but disappointing if you want something fancier. He also noted that drinking laws there are not as relaxed as those in New Orleans, and that it would be best to pack whatever we wanted to imbibe.
Undaunted by these words of caution, I scoured the internet for at least one bright spot where we could have a stellar meal and maybe, even, (gasp) and drink to go with it. That’s when I learned about The Dancing Bear. Located in Townsend, TN, it featured a locally-sourced menu, an enthusiastic chef and A BAR. I made reservations immediately.
Even if the Dancing Bear had NOT had outstanding reviews, Lee and I probably would have ended up there. I have a fondness for dancing bears. My mother attended Baylor University (whose mascot is the bear) back in the 1960s when there was no dancing or drinking there, though according to her roommates, she found ways to do both. My mother is a talented drinker and dancer and I used to get a kick out of watching her and my dad dance at weddings. She often remarked that my dad, who was disabled, “couldn’t walk much but he sure could dance.” After he passed away and she started dating again, I knew my step-father had romantic potential because he was always happy to step out on the dance floor. Though she didn’t talk about it much, I think it bothered my mom that a university she enjoyed attending and respected, frowned upon two of her favorite activities. So it was with delight that several years ago, she opened up her alumni magazine, The Baylor Line, to a cover of two bears dancing. The school had at least relented on that one issue, and now my mother can be a proud “dancing bear.” When I told my mom where we were going, she chuckled and said, “Nice name.”
Weeks later, after finishing every bite of a delicious meal, Lee and I plopped down at the bar of the warm-timbered inn to have a night-cap before heading back to our mountain cabin two towns over. My Old Fashioned was perfectly serviceable, though I was surprised when the bartender asked if I wanted whiskey or brandy. Apparently folks in the Michigan and Wisconsin make theirs with the latter and she had had enough guests from that part of the country send their whiskey-based Old Fashioneds back that she knew to ask which I preferred. She personally felt an Old Fashioned made in Tennessee should be made with whiskey, then mumbled something about “customers always being right,” so I was glad to happily drink on the side of whiskey. The Dancing Bear was hands-down our favorite meal in Tennessee.
Last month we made another pilgrimage to the cabin, and the Dancing Bear was one of our few requisite stops. Things there have only gotten better.The menu was even more inventive without being weird and in addition to the wine list, there was an actual cocktail menu featuring an Old Fashioned. Soon our table was visited by the bartender/restaurant manager, Kent, who inquired if I wanted a “typical” Old Fashioned or a “real” Old Fashioned. When I asked what the distinction was, he told me that until recently he had made Old Fashioneds one way: Pour simple syrup into a glass, add red cherries and a slice of orange, muddle them, add bitters, whiskey and done.
But recently he had taken a trip to Louisville and tasted how they used to be made: no orange pulp, and using a Luxardo cherry instead of using the typical red cherries. It was obvious I was not the first person he had to explain the options to and it was also clear which one he wanted to make. I said I’d like a real Old Fashioned. Kent also said he was happy to make my drink with my preferred whiskey, but suggested I try Prichard’s, his favorite Tennessee whiskey. I assented. I asked Kent to go light on the sugar and a little heavy on the bitters (Lee and I had been drinking way too much Cheer Wine and Rye in the cabin and I wanted something to cut all that sugar) Soon I was sipping on a smooth, dark and simple Old Fashioned, a perfect accompaniment to the homemade charcuterie and chow chow, my mouth full of the flavors of Tennessee. I can’t wait for my next trip back.