From its humble days of meat and three’s and chain restaurants, Nashville exploded onto the food scene a few years ago with the widely acclaimed Catbird Seat in 2011, followed by Rolf and Daughters in 2012 and Husk a year later. The previously under-the-radar “hot fried chicken” also became a national sensation. Now it’s accessible to and craved by the masses, with options ranging from the original Prince’s in a not-so-great part of town to a Hattie B’s location across from Vandy. For dessert, the extremely sweet Goo Goos seem to be peddled at almost every checkout register downtown and at the airport. What I’ve found so strange about all of this, is that the city barely resembles the Nashville I knew when I graduated from Vandy in 1998 or even the one I found in 2008 when I last visited – and that’s not just when it comes to food.
In college, I waited tables at the now defunct Cooker, which was known for it’s Fling Tea (sweet tea with pineapple and orange juice- and you do NOT want to know how much sugar was added), and its policy of 100% satisfaction or a free meal. Reasonable prices, high quality, and consistent food, made it popular with students, locals and even country superstars like Garth Brooks, Wynona Judd, and Diamond Rio. You’d never experience that now, and I bet today’s “country” acts rarely go out in the Nashville I found (it isn’t like the TV show).
Years ago, my friends and I were thrilled to occasionally have Japanese at Goten, burgers at Rotiers, pasta at Amerigo’s, margaritas at the now-closed Rio Bravo and birthday celebrations downtown complete with a food fight at The Melting Pot (where we dined on my 21st). Late night trips to Mary’s for ribs were a treat, and some of the best food I recall eating, but that required a car and being fearless given the location and hour. Otherwise, you had the places around Vandy and a few spots downtown as options for both dining and going out.
In East Nashville, which was a poorer section, now you’ll find an art community and few locals. Across the river, there’s “Germantown” – a hipster-enclave of bars and restaurants with prices and valet parking that suggest most people who live in the area can’t afford to go out here. I also was shocked to find a section of town known as the Gulch, which seems to have developed out of thin air. By the train tracks in a formerly, virtually abandoned area that housed factories, there’s loft living, townhouses and a bunch of new spots that make it feel like you’ve entered Disney. There’s even an area called SoBro (South of Broadway). It’s not that big of a city to warrant so many names. And since you can take an Uber just about anywhere for $4, there really is no reason for such delineations.
The main downtown area is a cluster of cheesy-themed bars and country spots with cover bands. (Before we had only a handful of places, like Hard Rock, Wildhorse, Tootsie’s and Robert’s- not that the college kids or the locals frequented them). No matter where you go these days, however, it seems you cannot escape drunken tourists belting out “Friends In Low Places” at any one of the live music places on any given night.
Fortunately (in my opinion), the Vandy area remains largely the same, with only a few new restaurants (Hattie B’s for one), a strip mall and a hotel where the Cooker once stood. Most of the bars we went to are still around, like Exit/In where I saw Eddie Veder play randomly one night, and the dive bar, Gold Rush. And there are some new ones on 21st, Division and Demonbreun. But what struck me is that in every place that is 21 and over, you still can smoke! So lots of places we walked into, and then out of– that smell I don’t miss at all.
Nashville has become a weird dichotomy of old notions in new spaces, of Northern trends mixed with Southern traditions. But I wonder how much anyone has considered the impact of all this development. It’s obviously great for the local economy- especially if you’re in construction or the hospitality industry – and if there’s not another flood that destroys everything (last reports were that little was being done to prevent that). But locals are getting priced out, as gentrification takes over, and there doesn’t seem to be much of any culture that isn’t aimed at tourists.
Attempts to find anyone playing their own music downtown was all but impossible over a long weekend. Most of the places in Printers Alley are closed, except for Bourbon Street, which always seemed seedy. I was told that a new hotel is replacing Brass Stables (an adults only establishment), so I suppose this will generate more touristy spots. The only spot I found decent, new music on a Saturday was at The Row, a new (for me) place near Vandy. There were a couple of singer-songwriters, who were quite good. At least until the cover bands started around 8pm. On Memorial Day weekend, the downtown crowd every night consisted of bachelor/bachelorette parties, wedding guests and drunken tourists. We’d been calling it “Nashvegas” for years, but now it felt true.
That’s not to say it’s all bad. The new Music City Center was well-designed and spans three blocks. Having a large convention center surely will continue to help the economy. And the development of the riverfront also is a good thing, especially with the views from Martin’s BBQ on the roof of the newly opened George Jones Museum.
And I’m a big fan of hot fried chicken!
Hattie B’s was some of the juiciest I’ve ever had. It was worth the wait (the super hot one was hot but not worth it, get the second hottest one, which was not all that hot but delicious). The pimento mac and cheese, however, was awesome.
And the crop of BBQ places downtown and by Vandy make it easier to get good ribs.
Rather than deal with the drunken masses downtown, Jack’s BBQ near Vandy was a great option. But I’d give Peg Leg Porker a try next time.
Yet when it comes to the trendy, upscale food options, I fail to see what the fuss is all about. But then again I do live in NYC, which already has plenty of places full of bearded bartenders and inattentive wait staff. I didn’t even try to get into Catbird, which has limited seating. And Pinewood Social, where we tried to have a pre-dinner drink, was closed for a wedding. We also tried to grab an after-dinner drink at the Treehouse in East Nashville, but the smell of smoke was so overpowering, we walked out.
My friend had arrived a day before me and ate at Husk, which she thought was good, especially the catfish – but her bill was $100 – for one! There’s this little thing called an alcohol tax that will make you think twice about those $15 cocktails….
We made a reservation for dinner at Rolf and Daughters (R.A.D.) by calling them directly and were a few minutes late. They didn’t call to confirm, and then made us wait, even though it seemed like we would have waited anyway, as it was packed. In fact, for such seemingly large spaces, there are few seats in most of the new restaurants, which I suppose makes them seem busier. As we know, a restaurant that seems hard to get into is a sure way to create buzz these days.
In this new crop of restaurants, the menus tend to be seasonal and well-sourced- even if not local. Yet they all blend together, which reminded me of Paris last year. But I will say that the food at R.A.D., even if not novel, was solid.
Chicken liver pate was excellent (even if I can make a good version myself), but the beef tartar was not – it was thick cut and needed major seasoning. If you ate it with the salty, sunflower barley crisps, then it was worked better – but I would not recommend it.
We ordered the sourdough rye and seaweed butter, since it’s supposed to be good.
Never again will I order bread- it just pisses me off. It wasn’t very sour and all we really like about it was the butter. The clear star, however, was the potato gnocchi- they were perfectly light with a flavorful sauce of morels and garlic.
Cocktails were good, and we opted for those to start over a bottle for the small wine list. For dessert, a pistachio, Meyer lemon tart was nothing at all like it was described. But was really good and surprisingly light.
We realized that we ordered carb-heavy at this dinner, which might have impacted our impression of the bread, and the server could have steered us a little better. At least we had a good base for our night of drinking, which is the only way you can tolerate being out downtown.
The next night we made a reservation at 5th & Taylor, a new restaurant from Chef Daniel Lindley, formerly of Gramercy Tavern. It had just opened on April 27 in Germantown, a few doors away from R.A.D.
The menu was again very similar to R.A.D., with beef tartar and chicken liver pate. We thought about doing a comparison, but opted instead for the grilled quail wrapped in bacon.
It was very tender, and one of the best quail dishes I’ve had. We also tried the BBQ Rappahannock oysters, which were delicious, although I didn’t understand the odd toast that accompanied them.
Another friend had the lobster soup that initially she thought tasted too much of tomato, but the complex flavors came through in the end, focusing more on the lobster and seafood stock than a traditional creamy version.
Because our server said they butcher the pigs in house and smoke the meat, I tried the pork tasting (shoulder, belly and loin).
The shoulder was dry and tough, which was surprising. The belly was ok, but the loin was much better, even though it was still overcooked. I would not recommend this.
The beef cheek pot roast was outstanding, though an odd choice to start a spring/summer menu in a town known for its sticky weather. I would definitely recommend it.
The large portion of wild salmon was served with kohlrabi (although now this has changed to zucchini). That’s a shame because it was a little out of the box and also really good. All the entrees come with a side of mashed potatoes, which works with some things and not others. But frankly, it could be left off entirely, as the dishes are good on their own, and the side doesn’t complement everything.
My cocktail with mezcal had a nice balance of smoky, spicy and sweet. The BTG list could be more adventurous besides a Gruner and rose cava. The short bottle list had something for everyone, but largely catered to the more well-known, advertised brands (not unusual in this part of the country). We managed to find an inexpensive French red, that was quite nice, even if it took a long time for them to locate and bring to the table (when it just opened, it shouldn’t be that hard to find). The desserts weren’t very tempting, so we decided to forego those, as you can get some very good ice cream elsewhere.
Service was a bit odd, which may be because it’s new, but the server seemed unsure if dishes were grilled or roasted or what. Lighting is by candle only, and ours was dripping all over the table, and we had to ask for it to be replaced. But the space is lovely – high ceilings and a huge outdoor area perfect for drinks and apps, and I’m assuming some private parties.
Overall, I thought the quality of the food and preparation as good if not better than R.A.D. so I expect it to get good reviews and work out some of the kinks.
Of course, no eating tour of Nashville is complete without fried pickles and BBQ, which we had on our last night. I can get them both in NYC, but it’s just not the same.
We tried Biscuit Love for brunch (I will give the Gulch area it’s just due for this place). You have to get in line to place your order, and then they bring it to your table (the same as at Hattie B’s). The line is slow, but food arrived quickly, and there was plenty of seating, which makes me wonder why they don’t just take orders at a table.
I loved my sausage gravy, fried eggs, country ham and biscuits (I added some kale for color- but they could’ve been a little more generous with that).
My friends’ fried chicken, biscuits and sausage gravy could have used more gravy, but we were given more when we asked. The french toast was pretty great even if you’re not that into sweet breakfasts. The steak was cooked to temp, but didn’t seem outstanding. The bloody mary, when it arrived, was decently spiced.
The best food in Nashville is certainly not the healthiest. And I couldn’t eat like that all the time. But nor could I eat in the new “fancy” places every day. After three days of eating the same sort of food for dinner, my friend reflected that it all felt the same- like anything we could get in NYC. Sure, some of it was good, and if I lived there, I would be pleased that I had these options. But if you’re visiting Nashville and live in a city that has similar food options, I wouldn’t eat more than one meal in this type of restaurant. Nashville – and much of the surrounding area- have always been known for simple food, and you will find yourself and your wallet happier if you can find more local places.
On a final note, everywhere we went, I noticed that no one had a Southern accent. I didn’t even hear one “y’all” – which even this northerner adopted as a server (better tips). Maybe Nashville has grown up in some ways, as have I, but I miss the charm of the South I knew and the small town feeling that seems to have all but disappeared.
If you go: Reservations for Husk and 5th & Taylor can be made on Open Table. Go early to any of the hot fried chicken places and many of the BBQ joints. Don’t miss a tour of the Ryman Auditorium, the Country Music Hall of Fame and a trip out to the Hermitage, the well-preserved home of Pres. Andrew Jackson. Catch a show at the Grand Ole Opry if you like old-school country (the Oak Ridge Boys still play here). Up by Vandy, explore the well-manicured campus, and check out the Parthenon, which seems out of place other than as a basis for calling Nashville the Athens of the South. One night going out downtown is likely more than enough, but much better if you can go during the week. Don’t be afraid to stay near Vandy if cheaper. And definitely use Uber over a taxi, but rent a car to get out of the city.