Rolling on the River
Knoxville’s Guide House Grill Mixes Casual Style and Lofty Eats
By April Bartel and photos by Turner Photography Studio
Healthy rivers teem with life, bodies ever in motion. Along the nearby Shenandoah and Potomac rivers, silvery light flashes off bass, bluegill, sunfish, walleye, and trout as they dart between rocky ledges and shadowy, over-hung trees, searching for fallen fruit and skittering bugs.
From above, steely-eyed hawks and gangly herons dive to snatch their own sustenance from the water. Fox and deer may sip at the shallows while wily raccoons wash before dinner. Along the shore, oaken branches bear eagle aeries and the occasional rattlesnake shelters among fallen leaves.
Rivers beckon people, too. The allure is elemental, a mix of mystery and magic, alternately soothing a soul or fulfilling a lust for adventure. At summer’s peak, traffic along U.S. 340 west of Brunswick crawls between the bridges connecting Maryland to Virginia and West Virginia as throngs of people come to float, paddle, splash, and fish the scenic waters here. Charles Town, W.Va., native Darin Kordyak knows the seasonal rhythm by heart. He started as a river guide during high school, leading visitors in a loop from put-in to pick-up and back to the outfitter. He recalls his boating days with gleaming eyes. “There’s always a place, whatever river you go to, where everybody stops. For all the whitewater business around here, we didn’t have a place themed around the whitewater.” That changed when Kordyak and Sarah Murphy, co-founders of Guide House Grill, decided to fill the gap.
The pair connected at West Virginia University, both working through college at bars and restaurants while a shared calling to hospitality coalesced. They opened the restaurant’s doors in June 2016, transforming the former home of the Cindy Dee and Lowry’s Family Restaurant on Keep Tryst Road in Knoxville. True to form, the place is warm and rustic with a few nautical touches and splashes of color. The place quickly garnered acceptance among fellow outdoor enthusiasts, including those in the hiking and climbing communities, for being accessible and authentic, without the touristy hype. Patrons in cutoffs and sandals won’t feel underdressed, but they might be surprised by the elevated fare streaming from the kitchen and meticulously curated bar.
Kordyak cooks, channeling his creative expression onto each plate. Even humble burgers get posh treatment. The Guide House standard is a hand-shaped half-pounder of Hereford beef, grilled to order then topped with Asian-inspired barbecue sauce, crumbled blue cheese, hearty bacon, sautéed mushrooms and marinated red onions on a brioche bun. It is one of its most popular items. The contender is “El Jefe.” This two-handed sandwich features two crispy pork chops slathered with house-made pimiento cheese, peppered bacon, fried onions, and bourbon barbecue sauce.
We checked out the Guide House Grill for dinner, waffling between the pan-seared rainbow trout or shrimp and grits before settling on the bourbon ginger salmon. It’s served lightly browned but tender over vegetable risotto with roasted asparagus. We opted for an extra side of Gouda-creamed spinach, which the perky waitress suggested using as a dip for the fresh-cut fries. (She was right.) Kordyak says the spring menu includes an updated macaroni and cheese recipe using that same smoky, gooey cheese sauce. In April, he’ll also debut a layered extravaganza featuring A Step in Time bakery’s award-winning pepperoni rolls. They’re a locally made West Virginia delicacy. Kordyak splits the fluffy roll and lays on hot Italian sausage with grilled peppers and onions, topping with a rich tomato sauce. He beams broadly, “It is a knife-and-fork sandwich, but I think it is worth the endeavor.”
The new menu will have a seasonal lamb dish, too. For now, guests can still enjoy twin Barnsley-cut chops served on a bed of house-made truffle Parmesan spätzle. Kordyak explains that this specialty cut is more like a T-bone steak than the traditional “lollipop” lamb portion. “There is a lot of meat on them and we rarely see anything left on the plate.” Fans can always find some version of the chef’s favorite ingredient, too: wagyu beef. Usually offered as a special alongside hand-cut Hereford steaks, the Guide House Grill’s wagyu comes from Mishima Reserve in Colorado. The farm crossbreeds Japanese cows with well-muscled Black Angus for superior marbling and flavor at a relatively economical price. “It melts in your mouth,” gushes Kordyak. “You can’t go back to normal steaks once you taste it.”
Things heat up at the Guide House Grill this month. The restaurant transitions back to longer hours, including a second round of happy hours for the late-night crowd, Thursdays through Saturdays. Open mic nights run every Thursday, and live music on Fridays, with no cover charge. March 14 is the St. Patrick’s Day event with Irish-style foods and all-natural green drinks. Kordyak plans to offer his version of corned beef and cabbage, along with shepherd’s pie and bangers and mash. Entertainment that day is notable acoustic artist Tom Batchelor with “Fiddle Mike” Ginsberg.
In complement, Murphy puts her chemistry degree to work concocting spirited drinks that range from spunky to soulful. Her newest darling, dubbed “Pretty Penny,” is a rosy pairing of Ha’Penny Rhubarb Gin from Ireland with fresh-squeezed ruby grapefruit juice, local honey and orange bitters crafted in Washington, D.C., by Embitterment. The flavor is refreshing and complex, with distinct botanical notes that play nicely with its subtle sweetness and dreamy pink foam.
A fresh hibiscus petal finishes the ensemble. Murphy watches taste-testers eagerly, like a proud momma, then beams. “We take cocktails seriously!”
The Guide House Grill bar leans heavily on small, farm, or family-owned manufacturers, including Frederick-based distillers McClintock Distilling and Tenth Ward Distilling Company. “McClintock’s Epiphany vodka is our house vodka,” says Murphy. “That is our rail.” She points to three limited-edition spirits not found anywhere else and shares plans about an expanded blog with interactive notes on trending ingredients and the stories behind each creation. She continues, “We go out of our way to educate our bartenders. We want customers to get the full experience.” Last fall she researched Green Witchcraft as inspiration for a Halloween drink menu incorporating the supposed magical properties of bar elements to engender love, luck or wealth. Perhaps most spellbinding, Guide House Grill’s popular bloody mary is garnished with house-made pickles and a bacon “rose.” It pairs nicely with the fried green tomato appetizer or a platter of juicy oysters Rockefeller.
And don’t forget dessert. Kordyak’s mom, Carole, bakes petite but indulgent cupcakes to hit the sweet spot. She’ll whip up eight dozen per week in seasonal flavors like Mandarin orange, pistachio, cherry vanilla, or chocolate salted caramel. The delicate Key lime version is filled with a dollop of luscious citrus cream.
Murphy and Kordyak are already planning their next adventures, including bottling and selling their nonalcoholic house syrups and bloody mary mix. Pending permits and testing, those will be available at farmers markets in the near future. They envision adding a food truck, a greenhouse for herbs and flowers, and outdoor seating with room for a small stage. Murphy sighs hopefully, “We have lots of goals. We just have to keep plugging away.”