This year has been a tough one with the summer heat and drought keeping leaves on the trees through late October to be followed by an autumn where the trees are changing colors so fast, Mother Nature must be using a roller instead of a paint brush.
A day’s drive enjoying Mother Nature’s handiwork can give you an appetite, so the five of us drove over and visited with Cheryl and Jeff Roark, proprietors of The Whistle Stop Restaurant in Tusculum.
The Whistle Stop is just across from Tusculum University’s historic main gate. The restaurant’s nondescript exterior conceals a nicely decorated interior seating 80 or so patrons in comfort at tables of white linen and crystal stemware, surrounded by soft lighting and symphonic music selections.
Restrooms are found at the rear, at either side of the service passage. Whistle Stop’s servers provide pleasant and able service that is properly low-key and subdued.
• Fried mushrooms appetizer: The Whistle Stop uses a Table d’hote or “Owner’s Table”-style menu instead of the more commonly used a la carte menu. Here, each entrée order becomes a three-course meal with the addition of soup (broccoli cheese in our case), a side salad (very fresh and delicious) and bread (fluffy dinner rolls) to your side order.
Appetizers & desserts are separate courses, and priced a la carte. Though all tables have excellent cheese dip and crackers, I treated my friends to an appetizer of Whistle Stop’s delicious fried mushrooms ($6.95) for them while discussing menu choices. Sorted and sized before battering and deep-frying, these delicacies are served with sour cream & horseradish as well as homemade honey mustard.
• Pork Tenderloin entrée: I’d heard good things from the Carnivore about the restaurant’s pork tenderloin, so after a quick glance at the menu, I chose it as my entrée ($16.95) adding a baked potato side order.
My broccoli cheese soup was brought to me piping hot and delicious, followed by a salad mix of chopped iceberg lettuce, julienned carrot, purple cabbage, cucumber and red ripe tomato. Very good especially when topped with ranch dressing.
My pork tenderloin entrée arrived just as I was finishing my salad. After dressing my russet potato with sour cream and buttering up my fresh dinner roll, I dug in. Chef Roark did an outstanding job of grilling the nicely marinated slices of pork tenderloin until fork tender, then giving them a light dusting of black pepper for a truly memorable repast.
• Salmon filet: The Dieter, ever mindful of her calorie guide, ordered a broiled salmon filet ($18.95), and convinced the Carnivore that he should do the same. With a barley-audible sigh that was just this side of long-suffering, my meat-eating friend did so, with a baked potato on the side instead of steamed broccoli.
Both our calorie-counting friend and Ol’ Growly Puss himself enjoyed the broccoli cheese soup. In addition, the Dieter remarked on how delightfully crisp the broccoli was after steaming, while the Carnivore was glad to find a restaurant that knew how to serve salmon properly: flaky, moist and quite flavorful.
• Chicken parmesan: My dining partner’s choice for her entrée was Chicken Parmigiana ($15.95) together with a baked potato. Here, Chef Roark takes a medium-sized boneless breast of chicken, sautés it, spoons on the Whistle Stop’s proprietary marinara ragu (red tomato sauce) and a layer of fresh mozzarella cheese, then bakes it until the cheese is molten and the chicken is just right. More than “just right” — my dining partner remarked it was the best chicken parmigiana she’d ever tasted.
• 5-ounce filet mignon: Having returned from a trip where eating beef was a luxury, the Retiree wanted her kind of steak, a 5-ounce prime cut filet mignon ($24.95) grilled medium with soup, salad and a baked potato. Her steak was done to a turn, and so tender she could cut it with a fork.
Our world traveler said between bites that, even though she enjoyed traveling to new places, meeting new people and experiencing new cultures through interaction and food, it was always good to come home and tuck in to a really good steak side with an excellent baked potato.
• And for dessert: It was the Retiree who insisted we add a fifth course to our little get-together, and told each of us to order dessert, her treat. As usual, the Carnivore passed (Meat in tummy, not dessert). The four remaining diners each picked a dessert ($4.95 each); afterward, we voted on which one was the best. In order of finish, they were: peanut butter pie with a chocolate syrup drizzle (homemade and creamy sweet); brownie a la mode (a chocolate chip brownie served with vanilla ice cream with chocolate syrup on top); New York-style turtle cheese cake (topped with caramel sauce and roasted pecan halves); and cheesecake again, this time with macerated fresh strawberries on top.
• The bottom line: Whistle Stop is one of the best restaurants in East Tennessee. The food is excellent, the service exemplary and prompt, the venue an enjoyment for any diner, alone or with others. Yes, they are open just three days out of seven.
Yes, reservations are not only advised, but necessary. And yes, it is a 30-minute drive from the Tri-Cities. So: 1) Get your fellow diners to arrange their date books. 2) Call Cheryl Roark and reserve a table, and 3) Pick everybody up and have a pleasant country drive through some of Mother Nature’s best and most colorful autumn scenery, and have dinner at The Whistle Stop in Tusculum.
You will not be disappointed.
Recommended by the Mystery Diner.
The Whistle Stop at Afton Restaurant
905 Erwin Highway
Thu-Sat 5 p.m.-9 p.m.
Available on Facebook
Credit cards accepted