Nashville found: Music is the soul of the Tennessee state capital — chefs, artists and other tastemakers have broadened the city’s appeal.
by Cathy Martin
As a first-timer visiting the Music City — I’d passed through town before, but never spent any time there — I had a hard time shaking the misconception there wouldn’t be much to do for anyone other than die-hard country-music fans. Historically, the media’s depiction of the Tennessee capital didn’t help: “As recently as the 1990s, the city was portrayed as a backwater on the variety show ‘Hee Haw,’” reads a New York Times article from late 2018.
To be sure, country music is still alive and well in Nashville (along with bluegrass, rock and about every other musical genre you can imagine). Living up to its chamber of commerce-promoted nickname, music really is everywhere. Nearly every café and storefront has a stage, especially in the downtown entertainment district, where you’ll hear live music blasting from open doorways at all hours of the day.
But what I also found in Nashville is a multifaceted city with a stellar arts and dining scene. With as many cranes (perhaps more?) around town than in the Queen City, Nashville is clearly a national and international hot spot for both tourists and newcomers relocating from other places. But it’s also a city that’s made obvious efforts to preserve its local history.
Before my trip, I naively wondered if I’d find enough to do over three days in the Music City — oh, but I barely scratched the surface. To sum up the best that Nashville has to offer — and this is by no means a complete list — it’s best to break it down by a few of the city’s most vibrant neighborhoods.
This former rail yard just south of downtown had been mostly neglected until the mid-2000s — now it’s a bustling retail and residential district dotted with colorful murals with an energy similar to Charlotte’s South End.
For breakfast, if you don’t want to wait in the long line at the popular Biscuit Love fast-casual spot, you can head to Milk & Honey. There will probably be a crowd there as well, but while you’re waiting for a table you can grab a giant fresh-baked brioche cinnamon roll from the bakery to quell your appetite. The restaurant serves breakfast favorites such as sourdough French toast, buttermilk-fried chicken and waffles, and spicy bloody marys with fresh jalapenos in a cozy atmosphere.
Chef Jonathan Waxman’s Adele’s is a bright, airy space with garage doors to let the outside in, concrete floors, and lots of greenery. The seasonal menu features upscale comfort food: JW Chicken, roasted and topped with salsa verde, and a bright frisee salad with watermelon radish were standouts on my visit, as was the roasted cauliflower with hazelnuts and saffron. If you’ve got room for dessert, don’t miss the coconut cake.
For a casual bite, Stock & Barrel is a Knoxville beer/burgers/bourbon concept that opened a Nashville outpost in late 2018. The restaurant emphasizes regionally sourced ingredients — beef comes from a family farm in Blaine, Tenn.; the buns are from Knoxville’s Flour Head Bakery. The burgers are the star of the menu, as are the tender charred wings served with a house-made hot sauce. Next door at Peg Leg Porker, the ribs are dry-rubbed and coated with Peg Leg’s original barbecue sauce. The pulled pork shoulder barbecue is served on a soft buttered bun, with a creamy banana pudding for dessert at this counter-service spot.
Despite the area’s shiny new patina, one venerable spot worth noting is The Station Inn, a nondescript stone building that’s been a leading venue for bluegrass since it opened in 1974.
If you stay overnight in the Gulch, the 12-story Thompson Hotel boasts a sleek design, warm wood accents and a rooftop bar. A little further from the action but within walking distance to the neighborhood is Union Station Hotel. This former train station built at the turn of the century was converted to a hotel in the 1980s. The spectacular lobby boasts a stunning stained-glass ceiling with 128 panels of original curved glass.
Before you leave the Gulch, pick up a souvenir T-shirt, some funky jewelry, a leather jacket or piece of rock-and-roll memorabilia at Two Old Hippies, an 8,000-square-foot emporium started by two music lovers. Naturally, the shop also has a stage for live music, with performances five nights a week.
This is the heart of it all, with neon lights, honky-tonks and boot shops lining the streets. You’ll find all the big chain restaurants and celebrity-branded bars here, but if you’re looking for something a little more authentic, Robert’s Western World is a local favorite. Downtown is also where you’ll find the Ryman Auditorium, once dubbed the “Carnegie Hall of the South.” It doesn’t matter who you see, catching a show among the pews at this former tabernacle is a must-do.
You’ll find lots of museums downtown, from the Country Music Hall of Fame to the Johnny Cash Museum. The 56,000-square-foot National Museum of African American Music is set to open this summer.
A stroll along the John Seigenthaler Pedestrian Bridge over the Cumberland River offers skyline views of the city. And while you’ll find dozens of hotels downtown, one of the most distinctive is The Hermitage, a Beaux Arts-style landmark that opened in 1910.
If you’re looking for a funkier vibe, cross the river out of downtown and head to East Nashville, an artists’ enclave that’s beginning to attract a growing number of young families. You’ll find an eclectic mix of bakeries, taquerias, pizza joints and other places to grab a bite. Charleston favorite Butcher & Bee has an outpost here. East Nashville is also home to the popular Setsun pop-up dinners, held Friday-Monday in a local cafe. Hunter’s Station is an adorable mini-food hall offering grab-and-go options from local food-truck vendors, and Status Dough’s scratch-made doughnuts will melt in your mouth.
East Nashville is also where Sean Brock plans to open his new “flagship restaurant compound,” according to the celebrated chef’s website. Red Bird and Audrey, named after the chef’s grandmother, are expected to open sometime in 2020. Brock arrived in the Music City in 2013 as Husk Nashville opened downtown — he’s the founding chef of the Charleston restaurant concept. Since then, Brock has turned his efforts to his new Nashville solo ventures.
If you want to feel uber-cool, book a room at the new FieldHouse Jones Hotel in East Nashville. It’s the Chicago boutique hotel’s second location. In the lobby, peruse a hodgepodge of antiques and artifacts for sale, from vintage yarn spools and chandelier crystals to artwork and Italian furniture. A coffee shop, restaurant and rooftop bar are scheduled to open later this year.
With its rows of old Victorians, this historic neighborhood has become another hub for young professionals, with some of the city’s top-rated restaurants, including City House, Henrietta Red and Butchertown Hall. It’s close to the Nashville Farmers Market as well as the city’s minor-league baseball stadium: With views of downtown, First HorizonPark opened in 2015 as the home of the Nashville Sounds.
At Tailor, you’ll experience a blend of thoughtfully prepared cuisine and storytelling. The prix fixe dinner of eight to 10 courses is accompanied by Chef Vivek Surti’s explanations of the inspiration for each dish. Many relate to his heritage as a first-generation American — his parents emigrated from India. The centerpiece of my meal was a chicken biryani, a fragrant bowl of chicken, rice and caramelized onions with rose and saffron, a dish reserved for very special occasions when Surti was growing up. Make reservations in advance if you plan to dine at the 40-seat restaurant: Bon Appetit and Thrillist recently added Tailor to their lists of the best new restaurants in America.
Midtown and 12 South
Not far from Belmont University on the south side of town, 12 South is one of the city’s top shopping and dining destinations — if you need further convincing of the area’s cachet, Gwyneth Paltrow’s goop MRKT opened an 8-week pop-up there in late 2019. Other trendy spots include custom-denim shop Imogene + Willie, local curiosity shop White’s Mercantile, and Reese Witherspoon’s Draper James.
Near Vanderbilt University in southwest Nashville, Midtown has a college-town vibe with lots of busy bars and cafes. Here you’ll also find one of the city’s three locations of Hattie B’s Hot Chicken. Be prepared to stand in line at all of them. On the last day of my trip, I ventured out to the Hattie B’s in west Nashville hoping to avoid the crowds. By 10:30 a.m., a line was already forming ahead of the restaurant’s 11 a.m. opening. The menu offers customized heat-level options ranging from Southern (no heat) to Shut the cluck up!!! I opted for a mid-grade “Hot” chicken sandwich with a side of pimento mac-and-cheese, and it still packed plenty of heat.
IF YOU’RE GOING: Nashville is a 1.5-hour direct flight from Charlotte, or about a 6.5-hour drive. Spring brings lots of events and festivals, including Tin Pan South, dubbed as the world’s largest songwriter festival (March 24-28) and the Nashville Cocktail Festival (April 21-25). More at visitmusiccity.com. SP
Photographs Courtesy of Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp