Backstage Restaurant at Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, TN would have lines going out the door even if it weren’t located in one of America’s most popular amusement parks.When it comes to typical amusement park dining, let’s face it . . . the bar is set pretty low. I’m usually content if I don’t have to wait my whole life to get in, they haven’t run out of everything and they serve Coke products.
I was very glad to be hosted to experience Backstage Restaurant! Decor resembles a country mountain home and when I was there, they had a Dolly Parton impersonator entertaining the crowds.
I realized very early that this was no ordinary restaurant in a theme park, one that relied on a captive audience. The chef, Steve Carideo, studied at the CIA in Hyde Park, NY. Loyal readers of my column know that I just recently covered the Culinary Institute of America‘s training HERE and HERE. Chef Carideo uses some of the finest local products from the area, including Allen Benton’s famous ham. Every Southern lifestyle and food magazine sings Benton’s praises (if that’s not too bad a pun for a Dollywood restaurant), like Garden & Gun, Oxford American, Southern Living. etc.
Sure, patrons want to see classic home cooking on the buffet, which they do. The corn pudding had a crispy topping that people were demolishing on the line, getting at every last bit. Macaroni and cheese had ham pieces in it, but it wasn’t the cheesiest mac and cheese I had. Green beans were also done up Southern style, with ham pieces. The broccoli-cheese casserole was finely minced. Both mashed potatoes with gravy and sweet potatoes were on the buffet. There was also turkey and thick, well-marbled prime rib on a carving station.
But the chef is able to open patrons’ eyes to new flavors. Though a “ranch town,” they are delighting in a new, seasonal cranberry vinaigrette for salads. During the Festival of Nations, the chef has introduced wild game like ostrich, wild boar and buffalo to diners with great success. During the world mango glut, people were open to mango-pineapple combinations. Flavored coffees and cocoas are a hit — well, because flavored coffee is now at every gas station — and Backstage’s have a natural level of sweetness and flavor, not cloying.
It’s my understanding that Dolly Parton herself has lent some recipes to the restaurants on Dollywood property, but apparently not for her chicken and dumplings. That’s a secret she keeps to herself.
My friend Janice Malone recently got to meet Dolly Parton and wrote about it HERE.