Tony and Lisa Davis opened up the Purple Daisy Picnic Café in ’05 at the base of Lookout Mountain, converting an old service station to serve traditional barbecue and picnic fare with their own quirky spin. Sitting adjacent to the Incline Railway in St. Elmo, this has been a popular spot for locals and tourists alike, so I was inclined to roam in last week and check it out.
4001 St. Elmo Ave.
Chattanooga, TN 37409
11 a.m.-8 p.m.
An epic dining experience: world-class service, décor and menu options.
A superior dining experience: high-quality attributes you’ll want to come back for again and again.
A solid dining experience: great characteristics but also some minor issues.
A mediocre dining experience: may have a few good highlights but major flaws.
A terrible dining experience: stay far away unless it’s the only place left to eat to avoid starvation, and even then, question if it’s worth it.
Atmosphere and service
There is a small parking lot in the front of the place, which will fill up quickly if they are busy and force you to park somewhere else close by (like the Incline Railway for $1). I was fortunate to get a spot, and as soon as I got out of my car, the sweet smell of barbecue smoke lured me toward the door.
Walking inside, I found myself in a room adorned with random antique knickknacks. The atmosphere was bright and whimsical with sections of walls plated with metal and some parts painted painfully purple. Various eclectic, handcrafted art pieces and furniture gave the place a fun charm, especially in the back room where I was seated. There was also a small patio area outside, but it was too cold to sit out there this evening.
My server was attentive but not very warm or cheerful like the rest of the ambiance projected. She seemed to be running the front of the house by herself, though-which was a small space and not exceedingly busy, but still a lot of tables for one person to handle.
In addition to the menu, the Purple Daisy offers large picnic meals for multiple people, which can be taken with you on the Incline Railway to picnic in Point Park at the top of the mountain. This is providing that you have the patience to wait while the smoky barbecue smells radiate from the bag on the slow, mile-long ride up the rails and brief walk to the park.
I was dining in on this visit, however, and didn’t have to be patient because the food came out quickly. After being subjected to these sweet smells from the smoker while waiting, I was ready to dig right in when the dishes arrived.
In addition to the pulled pork barbecue, they also had baby back ribs on special this evening, so, of course, I just had to sample them. A combo of the barbecue and ribs was offered for $10.95 with two sides and grilled Texas toast.
First, I sampled the hand-pulled pork, which had a nice slow-smoked flavor but wasn’t as tender and juicy as other barbecue I’ve tried around town. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t fantastic, either. The ribs were amazing, though, and all the meat slid cleanly off the bones with the collagen totally gelatinized into melt-in-your-mouth porky goodness.
The barbecue sauces to the side complemented the pork well. One was mild, one was slightly spicy, and both were light and vinegary-rather than overly sweet with gobs of sticky brown sugar and molasses like some other barbecue sauces (barbecue sauce is highly subjective, however).
The two sides I tried with this combo were the hashbrown casserole and potato salad. The potato salad was OK, but nothing really stood out about it. However, the hashbrown casserole was absolutely incredible. This potato concoction was creamy and loaded with cheese with a bit of an onion bite. The crusty cheddar baked on top is what cheesy dreams are made of. This casserole is a must-try and can be substituted for any side item.
Next, I sampled their signature sandwich, which is aptly named “the rainbow”: three-tiered, bright, multicolored tea sandwich towers of chicken salad, cucumber spread and pimento cheese on rotating crustless white and wheat bread ($6.50).
The pimento cheese was mostly shredded cheddar and delightfully light on the mayo with a slight pepper kick. The bright, sea foam green cucumber spread had finely chopped cucumber throughout its cool, creamy consistency. The chicken salad was thick with generous chunks of smoked chicken, peppers and onions, with just enough mayo to bind it together-and can be substituted to make the sandwich vegetarian-friendly.
Both the white and wheat slices were soft with large airy pockets-a perfect bread consistency for tea time-type sandwiches. But these were no wee British tea sandwiches meant to be served with hot teas; these were skyscrapers of Southern flavors and paired better with sweet iced tea.
So that’s exactly what I did, and Purple Daisy goes big with their tea, too, with a signature housemade fruit mint tea. This was a refreshing iced tea with a strong pineapple and citrus flavor and cool, smooth hint of mint. Although highly recommended no matter what you order, I especially liked how the hurricane of tastes in the tea complemented the spectrum of flavor layers in the rainbow sandwich.
Moving on to another sandwich, I tried the Buffalo smoked chicken ($6.75), which had thinly sliced, smoked chicken with lettuce, tomatoes, red onions, pickle slices, cheese, Buffalo sauce and ranch dressing.
The same white bread used in the rainbow sandwich was also used for this sandwich. Though soft, airy bread works-and is preferred-for light sandwich spreads, it just couldn’t handle this heavy load, breaking apart at a few large air pockets.
The Buffalo sauce was lightly applied and not drenching the chicken, which I liked. With the sauce not overpowering the sandwich, it had a good balance with the smoky chicken, creamy ranch and cheese, and fresh veggie flavors.
Kettle chips were served with both sandwich dishes. Limp, wimpy, wee deli pickle spears were also served to the side.
I finished things off with their banana pudding ($1.95), which was voted “Chattanooga’s best” at a Creative Discovery Museum competition in 2009. I agree that this was certainly one of the best banana puddings I’ve tried around town. The pudding itself was extremely dense, with a sticky rather than slimy consistency, and wasn’t too sweet. A healthy amount of banana and vanilla wafers made up the majority of this chunky traditional Southern staple done right.
I am giving Purple Daisy Picnic Café 2 stars. There were major high points with the quality of food, atmosphere and location, and the bright spots largely overshadowed the few mediocre elements. This is a great place, and I recommend anyone to give it a try, not only for tourists venturing up to Rock City or Ruby Falls, but also for locals looking for good Southern food and an eccentric, vibrant atmosphere.
Roman Flis is a wandering writer, focusing on Chattanooga’s food scene. You can find him at romanflis.com or on Facebook and Twitter, or you can contact him at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.