Here’s a Nashville story: we’re tucking in to authentic muhammara and makanek near the front entrance at Epice, a Lebanese bistro in the city’s up-and-coming Twelve South neighborhood, when the actress Hayden Panettiere—who plays the upstart young country singer in the ABC series Nashville—walks in. It’s the lunchtime rush, and the sun-splashed terrace of the restaurant is jammed. Panettiere and her friend wait, in full view of the dining room, for the hostess to return from seating a table. Maybe a minute or two passes, and we start to imagine the moment when the room will erupt in a pandemonium of camera phones and proffered Sharpies. We should have known better. We’d been prepped for this very moment by Matt Bolus, a young chef who moved from Charleston, South Carolina, our hometown, to Nashville several years ago. “Nashville’s like L.A.,” he’d reported back to us, “but with the soul of a small Southern town. I’ll look up from the pass and see Nicole Kidman in the dining room, but people respect that she’s a person, eating at a restaurant. Nashvillians would never beg for an autograph or sneak a selfie.”
Sure enough, the hostess welcomed Panettiere and her guest graciously, efficiently, with the usual air of professional detachment, and we watched as the actress was ushered to a table at the back of the room. This being the South, everyone she passed offered a polite smile—nothing more or less—and then we all went back to our meze and glasses of Bekaa Valley wine.
Music City is cool like that. Spend some quality time in Nashville and you’ll find many stories of creative ambition and fulfillment: there’s a guy who serves the town’s flakiest, tenderest buttermilk-laced beauties out of the Biscuit Love Truck. A former cigar magnate who built a world-class performing arts mecca, OZ Nashville, in a warehouse on the outskirts of town. There are not one, but two Nashville-based start-ups concocting small-batch beard softeners for the well-groomed Southern hipster.
Over the past five years, as Charleston’s been crowing about its restaurants and New Orleans has blazed back triumphantly to heights never imagined before Katrina, Nashville’s been quietly building a case as the most dynamic city in the South. You can witness the sheer force of enterprise in its city center, where ranks of construction cranes reel about half-built skyscrapers like derricks in an oil field. But in neighborhoods all across this city, from Germantown to Wedgewood Houston to East Nashville, new restaurants, art spaces, and small stages are opening and the spillover energy seems to have reinvigorated stalwart attractions, too: the Grand Ole Opry just booked Lorde, y’all!
And while the well-heeled entertainment industry is experiencing an efflorescence of its own, ask around and you’ll find that food has been a catalyst for the new Nashville. The idea of the “it” restaurant—with limited reservations and hour-long waits for tables at peak times—became part of the culture here about seven years ago. That's when Tandy Wilson, a local chef who had left the South to cook at Napa’s fabled Tra Vigne and traveled extensively throughout Italy, returned to open City House in a former sculptor’s studio in Germantown, a neighborhood of 19th-century cottages with wrought-iron fences north of the city center that, at the time, seemed a world away from the western-wear shops of Music Row. City House was casual, boisterously friendly, but Wilson’s rigorous rustic-Italian (stellar gnocchi; house-made charcuterie) and dialed-in house cocktails quickly earned shout-outs from such Nashville royalty as Keith Urban and Gwyneth Paltrow. And when Sean Brock, the Charleston chef credited with leading the heirloom-Southern revival with Husk, announced he was creating an outpost in a renovated Victorian house in Nashville, we knew we had to go.
Which is how we found ourselves crunching across a gravel parking lot in the white-hot neighborhood called the Gulch and into the parking paddock at the back door of the 404 Hotel, one of Nashville’s newest, hippest accommodations (at least until 2016, when both the Ace and Richard Branson’s Virgin Hotel Group are scheduled to open properties). Composed of five luxurious rooms erected in a former auto-repair garage, the 404 is a new kind of lodging, for that special superstar (Keith Richards? Adele?) craving anonymity above all else. There’s no lobby, no reception desk, no greeter. When you reserve, the concierge e-mails directions to your parking space and a personalized code to type into the electronic lock of your room door, which opens and shuts with a satisfyingly firm electronic click.
Video: #TLMoment How to Swing Dance in Nashville
Then we hightailed it to Husk, just a neighborhood or two toward the Cumberland River. The city’s most buzzed- about restaurant, with its bright bordello-purple walls and enormous, bustling open kitchen watched over by a psychedelic portrait of Willie Nelson, was firing on all cylinders. Dishes were pan-Southern and beyond: smoked chicken wings Alabama-style; classic Lowcountry shrimp and grits; oysters with green garlic, bottarga, and preserved lemon. And then there were Lisa Donovan’s desserts, which showcase classic American preparations—buttermilk chess pie; hot fudge sundaes—and Tennessee-made ingredients (Cruze Buttermilk; Olive & Sinclair Chocolate).
After Husk, we set out across the Cumberland River for the 5 Spot, a pint-size dive in East Nashville famous for stuffing big-name acts into its walls for hastily, quietly announced “secret shows”—a Pavement reunion, say, or a charity fund-raiser hosted by Grammy-nominated darlings the Alabama Shakes. For locals, though, the 5 Spot’s genius is its rocking weekly Monday-night party, “Keep on Movin!” Here’s a scene you’ve never come across in the South, with a soundtrack that’s exclusively old soul, R&B, and rock ’n’ roll: Chubby Checker; Esquerita; the Sonics. And the crowd? It’s interracial, intergenerational, inter-everything. Zoot-suited swing dancers and their flapper partners, pompadoured bikers, silver-haired granddads in corduroy blazers dancing with tattooed girls. Everyone in Nashville is here, bobbing their heads earnestly (if they’re not sweating out on the dance floor) to “Good Golly Miss Molly!”
Pulling around back to the 404 that night, we made one last stop next door at the Station Inn—which musician friends back in Charleston had described as the Carnegie Hall of Bluegrass. Only a handful of tables were taken when we stopped by the dimly lit bar, whose wood paneling was papered over with years upon years of concert posters. Onstage, a tall blond siren of twenty-something in a long red-and-black gingham skirt sang sweetly and picked the banjo, accompanied by two guitarists, one on either side. The guitarist on her right introduced himself as Carl Jackson (yes, the Grammy-winning accompanist to every country musician that’s walked the earth). The woman on the banjo, he said, was his goddaughter Ashley Campbell—daughter of country legend Glen Campbell.
Nashville is on fire right now, we kept hearing—a phrase that seemed appropriate because if there’s one iconic dish of Nashville—the New Orleans gumbo of this city—it’s “hot chicken,” crisp-fried and brushed with oil when it’s fresh out of the fryer and made deep-red by an incendiary helping of ground chiles. The undisputed original is Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, a tiny shop in a narrow, humble retail strip with a half-dozen wood banquettes, 20 minutes north of downtown. We arrived at 3:30 p.m. to find a line stretching just halfway to the door from the window where you order and pick up your chicken (graded plain, mild, medium, hot, or extra hot). Still, it was a good 35-minute wait, long enough to consider why anyone would choose to slather a beautifully seasoned and crackly-crusted fried chicken with a quantity of ground chiles that delivers searing pain to your tongue, lips, and—let’s not forget, your innards—and induces sweaty palpitations and breathlessness. Now that we’ve sampled all the gradations of heat, we can offer this pro tip: order dark-meat “mild.” It’s plenty spicy and flavorful—of chicken and capsicum—with a texture that remains crisp. Each bite propels you to the next.
Most-favored-institution status is shared between Prince’s and Arnold’s Country Kitchen—the latter a Southern-style “meat and three” cafeteria. A bright-red, low-slung cinderblock building on the edge of the Gulch, Arnold’s has been serving up scratch-made comfort food, weekdays only from 10:30 to 2:45 sharp, for more than 30 years. By 11 a.m. most days, there’s a line snaking out the door: bleary-eyed session musicians coming from their all-night recording sessions (Jack White’s Third Man Records is a few blocks away), stockbrokers and secretaries on lunch breaks, preachers and locksmiths and mechanics and gastrotourists. We readily fell under its spell for the chicken and dumplings (that day’s special) and fabled roast beef, but especially for the vegetables—long-simmered turnip greens; silken boiled cabbage; candied yams.
Perhaps because places like Prince’s and Arnold’s are such monuments—touchstones of Nashville food culture at a price point accessible to everyone—chefs and restaurateurs in the city feel liberated to be more freewheelingly cosmopolitan. One new restaurant-of-the-moment that we visited was the resolutely Italian Rolf & Daughters, a spare, lofty room in Germantown with the requisite new-Nash aesthetic (exposed brick; Edison bulbs; reclaimed wood) and standout handmade pasta dishes (squid-ink canestri, sauced, Bolognese-like, with ground shrimp and squid; lamb meatballs with caramelized broccoli, romesco, and mint).
Every passing day, it seems, brings a new opening. We learned about at least a dozen new arrivals, including Adele’s from Jonathan Waxman, a gastropub and microbrewery with an Indian inflection from Maneet Chauhan, and a Gulch location for East Nashville’s Barista Parlor that merges coffee-geek culture with rat-rod and vintage-motorcycle aesthetics. There’s Prima, Acme, and Richard Blais’s Flip Burger, the movie-house-restaurant concept Sinema, and a Nashville outpost of the New York performance venue–cum–blending tank house City Winery. It all makes you wonder whether there are enough people in Nashville to fuel the gold rush. There may not be at this moment, but they are coming, and aim to stay. We met lots of new-Nashvillians when we were there, in professions ranging from fine-art framing to guitar repair.
Perhaps the best fit for this moment in Nashville is 404 Kitchen, a pocket restaurant tucked into the front of the 404 Hotel that melds the personal attention and love- of-craft we crave with the thrill-seeking and extroversion you expect from a showbiz town. The chef, Matt Bolus, makes a homemade burrata, a multitextured, creamy indulgence you shouldn’t refuse under any circumstances. Bolus handles land and sea equally well: a mound of tender rabbit with stinging nettles, Jerusalem artichoke, and hedgehog mushrooms; sheepshead (an inshore fish popular in South Carolina) with aged Carolina Gold rice, Sea Island red peas, and collards is pure Lowcountry. But the showstopper was a black-iron casserole of corn bread brought to the table almost as an afterthought. The heady, corn-sweet perfume rising off the bread and the caramelized crust were textbook-perfect, but we were most impressed by its alluringly tangy, cheesy buttermilk flavor that seemed ur-Southern, a trip back in time to an era of farmsteads and home culturing. Even in the new South, tradition has its place.
Matt Lee and Ted Lee are T+L contributing editors.
T+L Guide to Nashville
Eat and Drink
Arnold’s 605 Eighth Ave. S.; 615/256-4455. $
Barista Parlor 519B Gallatin Ave.; 615/712-9766.
Biscuit Love Truck biscuitlovetruck.com. $
Capitol Grille 231 Sixth Ave. N.; capitolgrillenashville.com. $$$
City House 1222 Fourth Ave. N.; cityhousenashville.com. $$
Crying Wolf 823 Woodland St.; thecryingwolf.com. $$
Epice 2902 12th Ave. S.; 615/720-6765. $$
404 Kitchen 404 12th Ave. S.; the404nashville.com. $$$
Hattie B’s A postmodern hot-chicken shop. 112 19th Ave. S.; hattieb.com. $$
Husk Nashville 37 Rutledge St.; husknashville.com. $$$
Mas Tacos Por Favor Tacos and aguas frescas are the draw. 732 Mcferrin Ave.; 615/543-6271. $
Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack 123 Ewing Dr.; 615/226-9442. $
Rolf & Daughters 700 Taylor St.; rolfanddaughters.com. $$
Two Ten Jack 1900 Eastland Ave.; twotenjack.com.
5 Spot the5spotlive.com.
Music City Food & Wine An annual festival in September drawing top U.S. chefs. musiccityfoodandwinefestival.com.
OZ Nashville oznashville.com.
Pinewood Social A hangout with everything from bowling to karaoke. pinewoodsocial.com.
Ryman Auditorium ryman.com.
Station Inn stationinn.com.
Stone Fox This publike venue specializes in indie rock. thestonefoxnashville.com.
Third Man Records A one-stop shop for vinyl and vintage tees. thirdmanrecords.com.
$ Less than $200
$$ $200 to $350
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$$$$ $500 to $1,000
$$$$$ More than $1,000
$ Less than $25
$$ $25 to $75
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$$$$ More than $150