An Afternoon on Elk Avenue
Sometimes it’s fun to play tourist in your own backyard, which is precisely what I did on a recent visit with Mom and Dad in Elizabethton.
Looking to stretch my legs after a long drive up from Nashville and try to wear down the dog who has been cooped up with Grandma Gail for several weeks while I’ve been traveling, I decided to park the car at the Covered Bridge and take a stroll down Elizabethton’s answer to Main Street, aka Elk Avenue.
I was struck by the quiet quaintness of my hometown, especially in comparison to the party buses full of screaming bachelorettes and miles of bumper-to-bumper rush hour traffic to which I’ve become accustomed in Nashville. Walking along the familiar brick columns of downtown Elizabethton feels like taking a step back in time; quite frankly because not a whole lot has changed since I was a kid. While they’ve made some additions to the Covered Bridge Park with the building of the stage and there are some great new shops occupying the familiar storefronts, the downtown staples have remained for as long as I can recall.
As we began our journey winding around the river, I was able to fully appreciate the peace of the rushing water beneath the swaying branches of the willow trees. Being smack in the middle of April and having received tons of recent rainfall, the grass and leaves were lush with fresh greenery and the flowers were blooming. There’s just something about the rebirth of spring that can breathe life into even the oldest and most familiar settings. Crossing under the driving bridge, I was delighted to see one of my favorite waterfowl searching for a midday snack. A large blue heron was standing not far off the riverbank, his long legs standing steady among the current while he waited for a tasty lunch to swim past. Pretty quickly he was joined by some ducks and pesky swallows who kept diving close to the water, so he gave up and flew to a more isolated spot a bit further downstream, but I was able to spend at least 15 minutes just observing this beautiful bird of pterodactyl proportions up close and personal.
We made the obligatory loop across the covered bridge, then headed toward the business end of Elk Avenue. Riverside Taphouse has to be one of my favorite recent additions to downtown. They were just opening when I moved away 4 years ago, but in that time they’ve built on an expansive patio and kept a regular rotation of cold beers for thirsty customers. Not far up the street, Jiggy Ray’s is still rockin’ and rollin’ with live music and hot pies. I may enjoy my fair share of fine dining, but in my opinion there will never be a more perfect pairing than greasy pizza, frosty beers and good tunes.
But we really can’t talk about downtown Elizabethton dining without mentioning the OGs- Dino’s and The Southern. Italian meets Appalachian, but both restaurants are both serving up home cooking and full stomachs daily. These restaurants have seemingly been here since time immemorial, greeting every arriving car at the first business block. If you’re in the mood for something a bit more exotic with some kick, Red Chili is a win every time. My go-to dish is the Bi Bim Bap with chicken and as spicy as the owner will make it. Just make sure you have plenty of time to eat; this dish comes out still cooking in a piping hot stone bowl, so it’s a true test of patience to give it time to cool and not scald your mouth. (Spoiler alert: I’ve never not burned my mouth.) Finally, if you’re up in time for breakfast, there’s nowhere better to enjoy a hot cup of coffee than The Coffee Company. This restaurant has been serving up an excellent selection of rotating seasonal breakfast and lunch offerings for decades and it’s still my favorite quiet spot to crack open my computer and crank out emails when I’m on a work trip in Tri-Cities.
Beyond getting your belly full, you can also feed your mind in Downtown Elizabethton. I moseyed into Bookworm Booksellers for the first time this week and was delighted to see books from floor to ceiling, filling this establishment with practically any printed work you could imagine. And for so cheap! There is still nothing more satisfying to me than the smell of ink covered pages and no amount of technology can ever replace the feeling of turning the pages on a good book. I highly encourage you to explore this store before adding another novel to your Amazon cart; chances are, he’s got it on-hand and for far less. Not to mention you’ll be supporting a local small business and not a billionaire stranger. And if you’re still hungry for more knowledge, go around the block to the big beautiful Elizabethton Library. This was my favorite place to go when I was a kid. I could spend hours in there reading Stephen King, Sweet Valley and Fear Street novels. It’s just a stunning Greek revival structure that is peaceful, smells like books and has a full room in the back dedicated to local history; basically my version of Heaven.
Finally, you can’t come to downtown Elizabethton and not go antiquing. You could literally spend the majority of your day browsing the shelves full of vintage knick-knacks at Duck Crossing and Picket Fence and never see it all. I always find something to take home, whether I need it or not. Being surrounded by all these relics of the past, it feels like they’re still holding so much energy, hiding secrets or a story to tell. I like to touch these things and imagine where they sat in someone else’s home so many years ago, when life and the world was much simpler. In a society that’s going increasingly digital, I think its wonderful to have these tangible memories of the past to take home and cherish just as they were so loved by the people before us. It just seems like good karma, and lord knows I could always use more of that.
There are so many more retail shops and eateries I don’t have space to cover here, many of which have popped up in the years since I’ve been gone. It was nice to see this place with the fresh eyes of essentially a stranger. Elizabethton is a sweet little town with good people; these streets lined with dogwoods and churches and a rickety old wooden bridge tie together folks who genuinely care about their families and community and I’m proud to say I was raised in them. So whether you’re a tourist, a lifer or somewhere in between like me, go down and see what’s new on Elk Avenue. I promise you won’t leave empty handed or hungry!