Newcomer's Guide to Nashville
Nashville is a culinary treasure, known for meat-and-three diners, fiery fried chicken and fluffy biscuits as well as a strong farm-to-table community. Eat like a local with this guide to some of the best places to eat and drink in Music City.
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Photo By: Danielle Atkins
Photo By: Andrea Behrends
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Photo By: Danielle Atkins
Photo By: Andrew Thomas Lee
Photo By: Marcus Baney
Photo By: Andrea Behrends
Welcome to Nashville
Nashville is in the midst of a culinary revolution. What started with just a handful of notable independent restaurants 10 years ago has exploded to include global cuisines, farm-to-table menus and cocktail dens, as well as new talent drawing on the city’s heritage of Southern food, hot-chicken shacks, whiskey bars and barbecue joints. A handful of celebrity chefs have made their way to town in the hopes of capitalizing on Nashville’s fun-loving crowds — and their spots are worth exploring. But you’ll find a truer taste of this growing Southern city (think: meat and threes, fruit tea and biscuits) within the locally owned, chef-driven dining rooms that first put Music City on the culinary map.
Breakfast: Biscuit Love
Born of a beloved local food-truck concept, Biscuit Love is the brick-and-mortar extension of chef-owners Karl and Sarah Worley’s passion for biscuit-focused Southern fare. Order at the counter, choosing from a selection of breakfast and lunch items, like the Lily, which is a biscuit-fied version of French toast, or a Wash Park, a burger between biscuits. John’s Ham Bar offers a selection of regional cured hams served with cracker-like beaten biscuits. Waits can get heavy on the weekends at all of the locations, but there’s a selection of curated local merchandise to browse while you wait.
Hot Chicken: Hattie B’s Hot Chicken
If you’re coming to Nashville to eat, put hot chicken at the top of your list. Made legendary by Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack in North Nashville, the fiery fowl is fried, then basted in a nostril-burning spice mix. Hattie B’s brings the local dish to downtown Nashville in a fast-casual setting where you can order your bird in five different heat levels, from Southern (no spice) to Shut the Cluck Up (not for the faint of heart). They also offer comforting Southern sides, like black-eyed pea salad and pimento mac and cheese, plus a small selection of beers on draft or in the can, which you can enjoy on the spacious, year-round patios at both locations.
Hot Spot: Henley
With art-deco touches and vintage photographs on the wall, Henley brings a bit of classic refinement to Nashville’s hotel dining scene. Set inside the Kimpton Aertson, Henley feels like a modern brasserie — a three-sided bar offers a communal space up front, with low banquettes in the dining room. The food here is meant to be shared, with plates arriving in portions large enough for the table. Chef Daniel Gorman layers subtle flavor for maximum effect in dishes like barbecue beets with okra and a beef short rib sidled with burnt onion and horseradish aioli. A five-course tasting menu shows off his best techniques — and is a steal for $65 per person.
Hangout: Pinewood Social
Nowhere else in Nashville (or most places, really) can you find a bowling alley, two outdoor pools, a bocce court, roomy booths and a dedicated Airstream trailer bar, not to mention excellent food and a full coffee shop. Pinewood Social is a cool, laid-back all-day-playhouse adults. The space serves New American fare at breakfast, lunch and dinner, with snacks available anytime, and pool-bar options like an excellent lobster roll. The cocktail program is also top-notch: Go for the To Infinity and Beyond, an exotic, tequila-based concoction that’s loaded with fruit juices like lime, grapefruit and guava.
Barbecue: Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint
Few pitmasters carry the torch for whole-hog barbecue. But it’s a dying art that Pat Martin aims to uphold through his barbecue restaurants in Nashville and beyond. With customized pits in each of his joints, Martin smokes whole hogs every day, serving up tangles of the sweet, smoky meat and charred bits by the platter. The selection goes wider with wet and dry ribs, an addictively fatty brisket, spicy sausage and smoked turkey, plus an array of the pitmaster’s homemade sides, like broccoli salad and baked beans. At the Downtown location, you’ll also find a sprawling, landscaped beer garden.
Go to: Martin's Bar-B-Que Joint
Tasting Menu: Catbird Seat
Nashville’s first tasting-menu-only restaurant, the Catbird Seat is a jewel box of a dining room with bar seating around an open kitchen, with chefs serving diners directly. Since its 2011 start, the chefs have changed (Ryan Poli, who used to cook in Chicago, now mans the stage) but the succession of dishes is better than ever. Poli’s style has cleverness, artistic composure and appreciation for hyper-local ingredients, but the food remains approachable, as with seaweed-flecked pasta with dashi butter, and slivers of ribeye over carrot puree, all set to a rock-focused soundtrack.
Icon: Husk Nashville
Building on the tremendous success he's seen in Charleston, Chef Sean Brock opened Husk Nashville in 2013, bringing his strictly Southern, contemporary concept to Music City. Ingredients come from right around the region, as well as the on-site garden of the restaurant, housed in a historic, 1880s-era mansion. Brock's team changes the menu constantly, but mainstays, like the lunchtime fried chicken, and Southern Plate of Vegetables, can usually be found, along with an extensive selection of bourbons and whiskeys.
Pasta: Rolf & Daughters
From the industrial-chic décor to the casually hip staff, Rolf & Daughters has set the tone for the “new Nashville” dining scene since opening in 2012. The food, crafted with old-world techniques by Chef Philip Krajeck, steps things up, starting with the inventive pastas, all made in-house. There might be a squid-ink paccheri laced with nuggets of octopus and breadcrumbs, or sweet corn agnolotti tinged with jalapeno. Larger plates might put together lamb sausage with eggplant, or chicken liver on toast. The cocktails don’t take themselves too seriously, but the wine list offers a tightly edited selection of small producers and unique varietals.
Patio: Butchertown Hall
With its modern, minimalist aesthetic and deliciously smoky aroma, Butchertown Hall was met with rave reviews when it opened in Germantown in February 2015. Combining the “Texo-German” mash-up cuisine found in Texas Hill Country (which also includes Mexican and barbecue influences) and a solid, Belgian-heavy beer list, Butchertown is the ideal casual place to gather with friends. Menu stars include the beef brisket plate, served with pickles, onions and Texas toast or tortillas, as well as any of the housemade sausages, in German, Czech and Mexican styles. Beer curator Dan King collaborates closely with local brewers to put a steady rotation of custom brews at the top of his draft list, too.
Cheap Eat: GReKo Greek Street Food
Athens, Greece, may be halfway around the world, but here, in the Athens of the South, you can get a taste via GReKo Greek Street Food in East Nashville. Awash in street art and graffiti, with Greek hip-hop music blaring, GReKo pumps out a flavor-packed selection of freshly made, charcoal-fired meats, like lamb, beef, pork and octopus, either on a skewer and wrapped in fluffy pitas. There’s roast chicken hit with oregano and cumin served over seasoned fries, or with a side of cold sautéed greens, and frozen Greek yogurt for dessert. Put together by first-generation cousins Bill and Tony Darsinos, the restaurant imports olive oil, salt and even wine from their homeland.
Fine Dining: Capitol Grille
Tucked into the lower level of the elegant and historical Hermitage Hotel, the Capitol Grille and its adjoining Oak Bar recall the gilded age of Southern dining. Under an arched ceiling and surrounded by images of other Nashville monuments, diners are treated to outstanding service, one of the region’s best whiskey lists and a refined play on Southern classics. The main theme here is the steaks, which are sourced from the hotel’s nearby cattle ranch, Double H Farms. They’re simply prepared and served with Southern-inflected sides like buttermilk potato puree. But the kitchen also leans heavily on other local farmers — as well as the produce raised at Glen Leven Farm, which is part of The Land Trust for Tennessee — to produce beautiful dishes like a lamb shank with Sea Island red peas or duck with parsnips and mustard greens.
Pizza: Nicky's Coal Fired
At the heart of Nicky’s Coal Fired, an upscale pizza joint in The Nations, sits a blistering-hot oven, lovingly named Enrico. The glowing-red inferno perfectly sears artisanal pizzas, and also cooks up a collection of small plates and pastas, which round out the menu, including chicken thighs and brussels sprouts. Chef Tony Galzin, a Chicago native, brings his Italian heritage to the forefront, making his pastas and charcuterie in-house. The pizzas, arguably the stars of the menu, are based on either red or white sauce and might be topped with anchovies and capers or potatoes, cured egg yolk, and mozzarella. A selection of vermouths, wines on tap, and a strong cocktail list add to the fun.
New Restaurant: Henrietta Red
Against a backdrop of white-tiled floors, blonde wood and navy banquettes, Henrietta Red serves a menu of seafood- and vegetable-heavy shareable small plates, as well as a robust raw bar selection. The menu stands out both for its simplicity and its clever take on classics. A bar room up front is lively and communal, while the dining room is a space designed for lingering and looking into the open kitchen with its wood-burning oven. Chef Julia Sullivan manages to coax big flavors out of dishes like roasted cauliflower, chicken liver pate and smoked mussel toast.
Tànsuǒ is pushing Nashville’s international culinary options into new territory. A partnership between New York dumpling chef Chris Cheung and Chopped judge Maneet Chauhan, the upscale, contemporary Chinese restaurant is housed in a large, dimly lit room accented with mod paper lanterns. Serving lunch, dinner and brunch, the menus offer riffs on traditional Chinese and Chinese-American classics, like beef chow fun and open-face pork dumplings. The dim sum brunch is a standout: The selections arrive on a cart from which you can pull small plates of star-shaped lobster dumplings, pork belly bao buns and mapo tofu.
Cocktail Bar: The Patterson House
One of Nashville’s first serious cocktail bars, the Patterson House is still its best. The reservation-only policy means that there’s never a chaotic scene around the rectangular island bar at the center of the room. A library motif, antique chandeliers, and an army of well-dressed barmen are there to greet you, but don’t let the serious scene intimidate you — the staff is just as happy to pour a gin and housemade tonic as to mix a custom craft cocktail. The menu is organized by spirit, with drinks listed from least to most potent. There’s a small food menu, including mini burgers, truffled deviled eggs and roasted bar nuts.
Neighborhood Spot: City House
Though Tandy Wilson would never call himself a rock-star chef, his humble persona and passion for cooking very good food in all the right ways make him one of the most-likable, city-supporting chefs in town. Wilson helped put Nashville on the map when he opened his Italian-by-way-of-Tennessee restaurant in Germantown years before it became the hot-spot neighborhood it is today. From an open kitchen accented with pig paraphernalia, Wilson and his trucker-hat-sporting crew plate up a form of homey Italian nonna cooking, with dishes like yellow corn grits with clams and smoked sausage, and half of a chicken crusted with a red-onion Jezebel sauce. There are tender, puffy-crusted pizzas from a brick oven, a well-edited wine list and fresh-baked cookies for dessert.
Upscale Indian: Chauhan Ale & Masala House
Blending traditional Indian cuisine with Southern touches, Chauhan Ale & Masala House embraces its Nashville roots. Chef Maneet Chauhan, a judge on Chopped, seamlessly marries her two cultures in dishes like a black-eyed pea tikki burger and an Indian “meat and three,” which puts a meat dish alongside three vegetable sides. Chauhan has its own signature beers —including a fragrant Saffron IPA — thanks to its own brewery, Mantra Artisan Ales; the cocktails also incorporate Indian spices and herbs. The brick-walled space is romantic, too, with low lighting and colorful lanterns hanging throughout the space.
Worth the Drive: Loveless Cafe
From downtown Nashville, it’s only about 17 miles to the Loveless Cafe, but when you travel off highway and meander down the scenic side roads, it can be one of the prettiest, most leisurely drives. Serving continuously since 1951, the Loveless carries on the down-home tradition of a classic “meat and three” — a plate with a protein and three sides — with its crispy fried chicken, gooey mac and cheese, collard greens and unending supplies of sweet tea. The service is warm and friendly, and there’s never a shortage of fantastic biscuits. Next door, there’s also the Hams & Jams country market, where you can pick up pounds of barbecue as well as preserves, kitchen goods and Loveless gear to take home.
Best Second Date Spot: Margot Café & Bar
Quaint and comfortable, Margot Café is Nashville’s perfect interpretation of a neighborhood bistro. The daily menu of simple, French- and Italian-inspired dishes runs from small plates, like a plate of cheeses, salads and soups, to composed main courses, like cornmeal-dusted trout or green bean casserole with an arugula salad. In the kitchen, you’ll find Margot McCormack, one of the city’s trailblazing female chefs, who has etched out her role as a committed anchor in the community and mentor to many, and is still in the kitchen each night.
Dinner and a Show: City Winery
Nashville may be packed with great music venues, but City Winery brings the added dynamic of great food, intimate seating and a strong selection of great wines. Thanks in part to its other locations, in New York, Chicago and Napa, the restaurant-venue-winery draws a steady list of hitmakers, meaning you might find blues artist Booker T. Jones one night and indie band Blitzen Trapper the next. On the menu, there are both show-friendly snack fare (duck tacos; risotto balls) as well as a full dinner menu that includes items like balsamic bbq chicken steelhead trout with a zucchini latke. And, of course, the wine list is packed with a mix of heavy-hitting labels, small independent producers, housemade draft wines and a number of bargains.
Rock Star Chef: Deb Paquette
Power Lunch: The Farm House
Thanks to its convenient-to-everything downtown location, the Farm House can play the power-lunch locale for both locals who are stopping in for a midday meeting and visitors trying to tackle the many historical music sites nearby — it’s a stone’s throw from the Country Music Hall of Fame. Whatever the occasion, Chef Trey Cioccia is up for it, serving snacks like a pimento-cheese beignet or pork belly toaster pastry, along with inventive daily blue plates that might feature a catfish sandwich or wings with an Alabama white sauce. And don’t miss dessert: There’s always a solid lineup of housemade ice creams and sorbets.