By Andrea Brown Ross | Photography courtesy of Dancing Bear Appalachian Bistro and Andrea Brown Ross
Mother Nature is doing double duty at the Dancing Bear Appalachian Bistro in Townsend, Tennessee. Known as “the peaceful side of the Smokies,” Townsend provides both a beautiful landscape for ambience and inspiration for Chef Cooper’s culinary creations. Described as “highbrow Appalachian fare,” Memphian Shelly Cooper brings experience from her vast travels and adds a helping of down home Mississippi Delta to her dishes.
“I have worked all over the world. About the age of 22, I left Memphis and attended culinary school in Charleston, North Carolina,” shared Cooper. Later, she attended the San Francisco Baking Institute in California.
“I had a strong desire to learn more, which spawned a series of moves from Alaska, Hawaii, and New Zealand, to name a few,” she explained.
After travelling the world and expanding her culinary repertoire, Cooper longed to be closer to home.
“When the Alaskan season closed, I wanted to be close to mountains, but also wanted to be in relatively close proximity to my family. So, I ended up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, at a restaurant owned by the Fordhams. They decided to open the Dancing Bear Appalachian Lodge & Bistro in Townsend and eventually sold their restaurant in Chattanooga,” said Cooper.
With seating capacity at 300, the bistro offers a perhaps surprisingly intimate feel. With optional outdoor seating, guests can enjoy Mother Nature at her best as well as Cooper’s cuisine, which is as colorful as the landscape.
And just like the leaves changing with the seasons, so does the menu.
“The menu can vary from day to day, depending on what’s in season,” she explained. “To some of our staple items, we add what is available. For example, we pick items from the owners’ garden two-to-three times a day, such as green beans, squash, and zucchini. A local farmer supplies us with peas. So, our menu is dictated greatly by availability from local vendors.”Although not a vegetarian, Cooper considers her menu “veggie centric.”
“We have a vegetable platter that is spectacular! A lot of folks order it as an appetizer, or order a few as side dishes to share with a large group,” she explained.
For large groups, the bistro is willing to work with guests and serve items from their menu “family style”.
Cooper’s appreciation for fresh vegetables and fruits came from her Southern upbringing with her maternal side of the family hailing from the Mississippi Delta.
“I have spent many a summer shucking corn, shelling peas, and putting up other fruits and vegetables from the garden. At an early age, I was engaged in cooking, and I gained an appreciation for the hard work, the people, and just the agrarian lifestyle that makes this possible. It impressed me that we could put vegetables up and enjoy them during other times of the years. When I visit family today, I still enjoy a trip to the farmer’s market or pecans from a family orchard,” she shared.
The fall menu will likely include the “hardier greens” according to Cooper, such as brussel sprouts, end of season tomatoes, green beans, root vegetables, and varieties of fall squash.
Cooper shared some of the popular dishes.
“Many people come to this part of the world for the trout. Our trout dish with peas, country ham, new potatoes, and cantaloupe is a favorite. Guests also love our Fried Okra Caesar salad,” said Cooper.
The menu will also reflect changes to the main entrees.
“In the fall, I like to braise the meats and use heavier cuts of meats. Our dishes become saucier, meatier,” Cooper shared.
“We like our dishes to be creative, but identifiable with our clientele,” added Cooper.
For those planning a wedding or other event at the lodge, catering is available. If guests are staying at one of the lodge’s accommodations, the bistro is within walking distance. For those looking to simply dine at the bistro, reservations are not required, but are recommended. A wet bar is available.