Try as I might, I am not exempt from letting my preconceptions get the better of me, and in this case it’s cost me approximately 3 years of good meals.
A couple weeks ago I finally made it to dinner at Timber, a lodge style restaurant tucked away on Johnson City’s Walnut Street. The restaurant has been there since 2020, but between the chaos of Covid, my tendency of being in town on days they’re closed (Sunday and Monday), serious road construction on Walnut Street, and being a creature of habit, it’s taken me this long to make it in. And I must be honest-I had pre-conceived notions about the place based on past experience with its location which wasn’t inspiring me to pick up the pace and get there any faster.
When I was in college, I lived on the Tree Streets at 403 West Maple for 3 years before moving on down to the 700 block for 3 years more. That very first apartment was directly behind what is now Timber, but was once The Acoustic Coffee House. While I’m sure I’m going to be crucified by hundreds of you all who have fond memories of sipping beers and brews while enjoying live music at the Coffeehouse, I have to say it was my least favorite place in Johnson City. It never failed, every time I tried to just grab a beer and do my laundry at the attached laundromat I was harassed by panhandlers and the mentally ill; the whole place reeked of patchouli and was always crawling with the same clientele I had to see when I was working as a bartender, which is never enjoyable on your days off. After someone got hammered and drove through the back patio one night, I decided I would take my laundry to Mom and Dad’s and save the trouble.
With those not-so-precious memories dancing through my head, I had a hard time imagining the potential for Timber. In my mind they would have to level the place to eradicate the stench of patchouli alone! But to my surprise upon entering for dinner, the place was unrecognizable. I opted to sit at the bar even though I’d reserved a table. (I highly recommend making reservations, as this space is limited and fills up quickly.) The bar sits cozy in the corner, surrounding a large stone mantle and decorated with various pieces of taxidermy. It feels as though you’re settling in at a welcoming mountain lodge, which you kind of are, except it’s walking distance to ETSU and downtown and smack in the middle of a residential neighborhood. I was also happy to report not even so much as a whiff of hippie oil, but the smells wafting into the dining room from the kitchen were absolutely intoxicating.
As I inspected the cocktail menu, I was thrown for another loop – this beverage program is on par if not better than the highly rated and nationally recognized bars and restaurants I visit in Nashville. The menu is perfectly succinct, offering enough options to satisfy any palate, yet brief enough that the intricate and somewhat elusive ingredients don’t overwhelm or intimidate. The current cocktail selection is rooted in classic prohibition era libations, but with their own unique twists that showcase the creativity and love for the craft of Beverage Manager Brandon. I was lucky enough to land at his bar on a night when he was tending, and I was able to make informed decisions on everything from aperitif to dessert based on his expert suggestions.
I began my Timber experience with a cocktail while I waited on the arrival of my dining companion. The Vandelay Bay was the perfect happy hour sipper, a riff on a classic sour using London Dry gin, lime juice and a surprise decadent mezcal and banana infused foam layer. A sprinkling of chrysanthemum was the perfect finishing touch to this drink of so many seemingly mismatched flavors that melted seamlessly together into a silky smooth glass of happiness.
After my friend arrived, we started brainstorming our food strategy. While I am typically a supporter of solo dining – in fact I encourage it – this is a rare occasion where I will strongly suggest taking someone, if not several someone’s, simply because the selections are so varied and in a variety of sizes that are perfect for sharing and trying a little bit of everything. The dishes are sorted in order of small, medium and large, with everything but the large orders coming a la carte.
It was tough to narrow down, but we ultimately landed on the Fried Balls of Cheese as our “small” (how could we not), the Lamb Meatballs and the Animal Style Crispy Potatoes for our “mediums”, and split the burger as our “large” although we substituted the hand-cut fries for brussels sprouts, in an effort to at least pretend we ate something heart healthy. The Fried Balls of Cheese were exactly as delicious and simplistic as they sound-deep fried wads of gouda served with a side of ranch. You can probably hear my arteries clogging as I type this, but honestly you can never go wrong with breaded and fried cheese served with a side of herb-laden mayo dip. My favorite dish of the night fell in the “medium” category, with the Lamb Meatballs being my pick for “dish of the night.” Served on a thick shmear of English Pea puree, drizzled with tzatziki and decorated with a handful of chiffoned mint, the only way this could have been better is if it were served exactly as is, except on a pita or naan so I could consume it with my hands. The Crispy Animal Style potatoes were also a feast fit for a beast, the large hunks of spuds thickly breaded and smothered, covered, assaulted and hospitalized by various sauces and pickled jalepenos. My thoroughly American palate, as much as I attempt to downplay it, was overjoyed with this wild display of “more is more.” Finally, the coup de gras came in the form of a double-pattied burger, piled high with carmelized onions, Worcestershire aioli, and American cheese. I don’t know what they’re doing to the burgers at Timber, but this one takes the cake in all of Johnson City, and perhaps in East Tennessee entirely. Do not skip this burger, regardless of how adventurous your palate; I promise it’s worth it.
As usual I paired my grub with vino, opting for a jammy, delicious Beaujolais that was light enough to accommodate the various flavor profiles but held enough complexity to stand up to the decadent fare. Another excellent selection would have been the Blaufrankish, a biodynamic Austrian juice that Brandon was gracious enough to let me sample. Guys, this is exactly why you shouldn’t be afraid to try things you are unfamiliar with, even if you can’t pronounce them! This wine was a knockout, light with notes of blue fruit but enough savory notes on the backend to stand up to a variety of culinary choices. If you’re nervous about a wine that’s on the glassable list, always ask for a sample! Any bar or restaurant worth it’s salt will have no problem letting you taste it before you commit.
Timber was an unexpected hit for me. I can’t wait to be back in town and explore more of it’s ever-changing menu selections. Believe me when I tell you, this town has quite the gem on it’s hands with this innovative addition to the Tri-Cities food and beverage scene. This restaurant manages to maintain it’s deep Appalachian roots while exploring flavors from foreign lands in a way that’s easily digestible for the consumer – both metaphorically and literally. Can’t wait to catch you there!