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Guests find that Canyon Grill is worth the drive to Lookout Mountain

Canyon Grill | August 1, 2006

Not far from Cloudland Canyon State Park, Canyon Grill’s location is remote – so remote that most guests drive at least a half-hour along a scenic road on the back side of Lookout Mountain. First-timers are told to recognize the building from the cars in the gravel parking lot and its proximity to the adjacent New Salem Mountain Market, an old-time corner grocer.

Still, Canyon Grill is packed, mostly with out-of-towners, on a nightly basis with guests savoring choices like Slash n’ Burn Catfish, Ground Mignon, Whole Rainbow Trout, Alaskan Red King Salmon and Rack of Lamb.

Owned and operated by the husband-and-wife team of Lawton and Karen Haygood, Canyon Grill was a 40-seat restaurant when it opened in 1996. Today, it has expanded to 142 seats. Named after Cloudland Canyon State Park, and Haygood’s cooking technique, Canyon Grill features fresh seafood flown in from a purveyor in Boston. Slash ‘n Burn Catfish is the signature item. The whole bone-in catfish is stuffed with ginger, garlic and jalapenos into thin slashes, cut into thin slashes, dredged in flour, deep fried and then topped with black bean soup.

Other intriguing items are the grilled cabbage and the crispy squash. The half-head of red cabbage is steamed until softened and then cooked on Haygood’s wood-burning grill. It is finished with a touch of garlic and anchovy sauce, and a bit of cream. The crispy squash is lightly salted and sprinkled with corn meal mix and dropped into peanut oil, yet it has just a hint of deep-fried taste.

Just by looking at the menu, Haygood’s passion for grilling is evident. Before he introduced the signature selections at Canyon Grill – and the Boathouse, a restaurant he and Karen operate along the banks of the Tennessee River in Chattanoogs – Haygood developed a first-of-its-kind wood-burning grill in the late 1970s when he served seafood at his restaurant, Turtle Cove, in Dallas.

“The traditional grill tends to burn hot in one spot and cool in another, which isn’t ideal when you’re cooking a high volume of orders,” Haygood explained. “I kept waiting for someone to come up with something, but nobody did, so I decided to invent my own grill.”

Haygood’s solution was to create a grill that operates on the principal of the convection oven. It produces even heat, which cooks food faster and more evenly, he said. The wood smoke intensifies the flavor of the food, Haygood added.

After designing the grill, Haygood was featured in Time Magazine, called a pioneer in mesquite grilling and received numerous calls from restaurateurs nationwide who asked him to make a grill for them. He soon found himself building and installing grills in restaurant chains like J. Alexander’s and Grady’s. Before selling his interest in the manufacturing company he and a partner formed, Haygood worked with some of the country’s most renowned chefs, including Wolfgang Puck. He has since created a second-generation model, the Tuff Grill, that prepares the cuisine at Canyon Grill and the Boathouse.

The story of Haygood’s debut in the restaurant industry is a tale in itself. Raised in Rising Fawn on Lookout Mountain, where Canyon Grill is located, his father was passionate about preparing barbeque over an open pit, and his mother owned a ham curing business that attracted customers from around the United States.

After earning a degree in economics from the University of Georgia, Haygood entered the insurance business and moved to Dallas.

Eventually, the charismatic and anxious entrepreneur grew tired of his first profession. When a fire damaged the historic townhouse where his business was located, he served as the general contractor and oversaw the renovation. That spurred Haygood to refurbish and sell other townhouses in the area, leading him to pursue the opportunity on a full-time basis until interest rates skyrocketed in the early 1980s.

Left with another career decision, Haygood ventured on a retreat to Port Aransas, a tarpon fishing town on the Gulf of Mexico in Texas. There, he ate at a waterfront restaurant that caught his attention.

“The view and the ambience was excellent, but the food was terrible,” Haygood said with a laugh. “I asked the waitress about the place, and she said that the owner was looking to sell. Later that day, I spoke with him, and a half-hour later I was in the restaurant business.

“The guy asked me what I planned to do there,” Haygood added. “I said that I would build a pit and cook fresh fish over a mesquite fire. And I’ve followed that concept ever since.”

Grilling is a practiced in restaurants and backyard barbeques across the United States, but it is a technique that was pioneered and perfected in Texas. So it is appropriate that a first-of-its-kind wood-burning grill for restaurants was developed by Haygood when he was operating a restaurant in Dallas. After experiencing success in Port Aransas and Dallas, Haygood decided to leave the restaurant business to develop his wood-burning grill, which brought him back to the Chattanooga area. He then divested of his interest in the grilling company and embarked on a new venture as a financial planner. Then the restaurateur lure returned.

“My mother had to close her ham curing business because of her health, and she wanted me to open a restaurant in the same space,” Haygood said. “That’s when Karen and I opened Canyon Grill.”

Interestingly, Canyon Grill’s seafood, chicken and beef is kept under ice instead of being refrigerated, which Haygood says is another element that differentiates the restaurant.

“Storing food this way keeps it from dehydrating and thus helps it retain its flavor,” he said. “It is an expensive and labor intensive process, and that is why most restaurants don’t keep their products under ice.

But we want to take every measure to ensure that our meals are superb,” he added. “People will not drive a half-hour or more for nothing short of an excellent dining experience.”

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