The Clematis, climbing its way toward the sky over Bybee, gave off an effortless charm, much like the experience of dining at the home where its roots are planted.
The flowering vine was claiming its place on the trellis outside a window at C.J. Papadops, where by some miracle the husband and I had gotten at table on a recent Friday night.
The best way to claim a plate at the restaurant that was birthed decades ago out of a vintage farmhouse located along the backroads of Cocke County is to call ahead, but the husband felt lucky.
“Let’s go,” he said after 6 p.m., an idea that was both preposterous and intriguing.
It would be a story to tell the girlfriends, a tale waiting for hours at the popular eatery after driving fast out of Morristown, possibly too fast, along State Route 160 and Briar Thicket Road, then squeezing into the last remaining parking place in the gravel lot that sits smack in the middle of God’s country and often holds vehicles with license plates from the likes of Knoxville, Asheville and the Tri-cities.
The smells emanating from the grill as we exited the car were overwrought with pleasantries.
Elijah Cody was on duty at the door; he offered a big smile and asked the question as if he were certain of the answer: “Do you have a reservation?”
The husband hesitated for a second, then gathered his courage and said cheerily, “No.”
“So you don’t have a reservation?” Cody asked, still smiling but with the enunciation on the third word, as if to give us the chance to flee immediately and save ourselves a world of hurt.
My mind raced, I almost blurted out, “I used to work with your mom,” but instead looked at the floor. By that time, several other couples had crowded into the small foyer and were casting sympathetic glances our way. They all answered “yes” to Cody’s gentle inquisitions.
After a few excruciating minutes, Cody returned from one of his forays into the dining areas scattered about the place and said, “Follow me.” And he was talking to us, not the fortuitous ones.
Our spot was a small table at the Clematis window, in a cozy room, nearly a nook, that allowed for just three dining parties and was decorated with what might be original wallpaper.
We usually order from the menu, but since spontaneity had already paid off, we requested the specials that turned out to be ridiculously special.
I had the Chicken Caprisi, a breast pan-fried at high heat, then topped with baked Roma tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and a chiffonade of basil over angel hair pasta. The husband ordered blackened catfish and shrimp, served with parslied new potatoes and sweet corn on the cob, along with a bowl of shimmering buttery goodness that called out for the shrimp to be fully immersed. The act of stealing one and baptizing it from across the table felt pre-ordained.
The entrees prepared by owner Gary B. Ogle are made to order, so it’s reasonable to take a supply of adult beverages and indulge in relaxed conversation while the other courses that include appetizer, soup and salad, are served.
Before you know it, the bottle of Chard is half-empty and the fresh greens have just been cleared away.
The dessert special, Hershey chocolate cake, was ordered by one of the other two tables in the nook, to be shared by the four people seated there. All of us, every single one of us, watched the small plate being held aloft briefly, before it found its place in the center of the group. There was no need to ask whether it was good, it was pretty obvious. They were a verbally descriptive lot.
I later ordered a slice, even though I had just requested a to-go box. After two bites, the husband asked, “Are you done?” I don’t remember saying “yes,” and our two forks clinking together over the fast-disappearing hunk of heaven sounded like the battle for Winterfeld.
By then we were alone in the little room, and the sky was beginning to soften into its evening hues.
We were in no hurry to leave after we received the bill; instead, we gazed out at the late spring growth on the ground beneath the window.
“Is that mint?” the husband asked, as if I could answer.
I know not of these earthly things; I know only that what Ogle cooks has been blessed by the angels.
C.J. Papadops is located at 551 Briar Thicket Rd. in Bybee. There’s a sign at the intersection with SR160. Keep driving for a while after passing Briarwood Safari Park; the restaurant will be on the right. Hours are 5 to 9 p.m., Thursday-Sunday. The phone number is 423-625-4787. Reservations are suggested. Like and follow Gary B. Ogle on Facebook for updates about weekly specials.