Parlor in East Nashville.
Tenn. — Strong winds might blow through Chicago, and New
York might never lay its head upon its pillow, but no city
lives up to its nickname with as much gusto as Music City
does. From the tourist-thronged honky-tonks along Broadway
to the street-corner busker armed with only a guitar, a
dream and the Merle Haggard songbook, you can’t walk 5
feet in Nashville day or night without finding an
opportunity to watch live music.
Nashville powered entirely by twang? It often seems so.
Pick a storefront at random and you can probably purchase
a pair of cowboy boots there. Pick a tour bus at random
and follow it to the Country Music Hall of Fame and
Museum, where you can see Hank Williams Sr.’s most
beloved guitar, the military flight suit that Lee
Greenwood wore at the peak of his "God Bless the
U.S.A." fame and a single high heel from Faith Hill’s
of which is to say, food — or anything else, for that
matter — won’t replace music as Nashville’s main
draw. But if you do come here to eat first and line-dance
second, you won’t be the first. Nashville has
experienced a culinary renaissance over the past few
years. Its homegrown chefs and restaurants have gained
national attention, while its burgeoning reputation has
attracted chefs from nationally and even internationally
made only a small dent on my list of must-try restaurants
during a weekend visit. Still, I found plenty of reasons
to pack your best pair of eating pants and head southeast
most sought-after reservation in Nashville is the Catbird
Seat. The restaurant sits only 20 diners at a time at a
single counter around an open kitchen. Chef Trevor Moran
— previously the sous chef at Noma in Copenhagen,
Denmark, one of the most acclaimed restaurants in the
world — and his team personally serve each dish.
a seat here was too difficult to score given my limited
time in town. Fortunately, the Catbird Seat’s owners
recently opened Pinewood Social, a venue as sprawling as
the Catbird Seat is intimate. Located inside a former
trolley barn overlooking the Cumberland River, Pinewood
Social is a restaurant and a bar and a coffee shop and, oh
yeah, a bowling alley, too. Plus, the owners are said to
be planning an outdoor bocce court as well as a swimming
stopped by for a beer and what I’d planned to be a light
late lunch, but the menu from chef Josh Habiger (himself
formerly of the Catbird Seat) proved too tempting. I began
with pork rinds ($5), served hot and crisp from the
deep-fryer and sprinkled with an adobo seasoning blend for
an earthy, spicy kick. Habiger’s take on a reuben ($13)
uses thinly sliced beef tongue as the meat, but it’s the
sauerkraut, as tangy and tasty as any I’ve eaten, that
makes the sandwich.
Sean Brock ascended to the upper ranks of American chefs
through his work at the Charleston, S.C., restaurants
McCrady’s and Husk, he spent three years as executive
chef of Nashville’s swanky Hermitage Hotel. Brock
returned to Music City last year to open a second location
of Husk, where he uses local ingredients to explore modern
don’t need to know Brock’s biography or philosophy to
enjoy a meal here. The food is extraordinary without
explanation, delicious and soulful. Even an appetizer as
simple as Carolina rice griddle cakes (based on a late
19th century recipe) with a side of pimento cheese ($10)
was striking for the purity of its flavors.
my second appetizer — yes, I, dining alone, ate two
appetizers; I’m a professional, after all — I ordered
a beef short-rib that had been ember-grilled, not braised,
the cut’s typical preparation. The meat was
exceptionally tender and deeply beefy — better, frankly,
than any steak I’ve eaten in recent years. And it was
this short rib overshadow my pork entree? Maybe a little.
But the pork — a riff on a classic galantine that formed
one tasty piggy orb out of long-cooked pork shoulder and
sous-vide pork belly ($28) — was excellent in its own
right. Served with West African-style mustard onions over
a succotash of butter beans and hominy, the dish was a
master class in Southern cuisine.
you can’t get a reservation at Husk, you can still walk
in and eat at the bar. Fair warning, though: Sitting at
the bar, you won’t be able to resist the restaurant’s
stellar selection of bourbons and other whiskeys.
breakfast on my one full day in Nashville, I went to the
Capitol Grille, the restaurant inside the aforementioned
swank Hermitage Hotel. (The restaurant is equally swank,
but the vibe at breakfast is laid-back.) I was following a
recommendation from the food writer and Southern-cuisine
expert John T. Edge to try the sock sausage ($10.50).
worry. No actual socks were harmed in the making of this
meal. Traditionally, sock sausage is hung to cure in a
muslin bag, rather than a casing. It’s a coarser
sausage, wonderfully smoky and peppery, and just terrific
served, as it was here, on a perfect buttermilk biscuit
with whole-grain mustard gravy.
breakfast, I made the short drive across the Cumberland
River into East Nashville to visit Barista Parlor. Set
inside a cavernous old auto-service garage, Barista Parlor
follows the same third-wave-coffee principles that St.
Louis spots Blueprint Coffee, Comet Coffee and Sump Coffee
do. The baristas work on multiple pour-over-coffee
stations and a Kyoto cold-brew tower and a wickedly
top-of-the-line Slayer espresso machine.
I stood in a long line of elegantly hungover hipsters, but
the cup of Sulawesi Toraco coffee ($4.50) was worth the
iconic dish is hot chicken, and the consensus of the
Nashville experts whom I consulted was that Prince’s Hot
Chicken Shack is the place to get it. Being the
responsible professional restaurant critic that I am, I
drove there for lunch (a 15-minute drive, give or take,
north of downtown) without checking its hours first.
Hot Chicken doesn’t open till 2 p.m. on Saturday. Sigh.
I’ll try again the next time I’m in Nashville.
(Seriously, I’m already planning a return.) Still, I
pass along the advice that everyone gave me: On your first
visit to Prince’s, don’t order your chicken any hotter
you want to eat at Rolf and Daughters, which Bon Appetit
last year ranked as the third-best new restaurant in the
country, you have three options: make a reservation weeks
out; wait, possibly a long time, for one of the seats at
the bar or a communal table reserved for walk-in diners;
arrive exactly when it opens at 5:30 p.m. and grab one of
those open walk-in seats.
chose the third option and nabbed a seat at the bar, but I
gladly would have waited a couple of hours for the
rustic-Italian-influenced meal that followed from chef
Philip Krajeck. An appetizer-size portion of bucatini with
octopus, lardo and Calabrian chile ($18) was the best dish
of pasta I’ve eaten in years, a delicate balance of
powerful flavors and perfect textures.
better was my entree, a deceptively straightforward dish
of roasted chicken with garlic confit in a preserved-lemon
sauce ($21). It’s a horrible food-writing cliché, but
sometimes it’s true: It was like I’d never eaten
chicken before, so fully flavored were both the white and
dark meat, so perfectly accented both were by the garlic
and preserved lemon.
lieu of dessert, I walked a few blocks through Nashville’s
Germantown neighborhood for a second, smaller dinner at
City House. Chef Tandy Wilson is one of the pioneers of
Music City’s culinary boom, and his cooking fuses
Italian tradition with Southern ingredients and
as I was with pasta and chicken, I managed to enjoy an
excellent wood-fired pizza topped with mozzarella and
Grana Padano cheese, oregano, chiles and — the reason,
of course, that I ordered this particular pie —
housemade belly ham ($15). As with Prince’s Hot Chicken
Shack, I plan to return here on my next visit.
trip to Nashville doesn’t count unless you visit at
least one honky-tonk. I’ll leave it to the music critics
and Nashville experts to guide you to the truly great,
even as a wide-eyed visitor wandering Broadway, the city’s
bustling, tourist-trapped main drag, you can enjoy
yourself. Head for Robert’s Western World, a cowboy-boot
emporium-slash-bar where there’s almost always a good
band playing and a few patrons twirling or stepping in
front of the stage.
honky-tonk tip: Keep some $1 and $5 bills handy. Bands
play for tips and will pass the hat several times during
beer is cold and cheap. (Fans of Yuengling lager, the
Pennsylvania brew that inspires cultish devotion, will
find it here.) A short-order grill sits right behind the
bar, and if you’re hungry — or if you need to soak up
some of that honky-tonking — I recommend the
Western World is never not packed with tourists, but on
weekend evenings, especially if a Nashville Predators game
or another event has just ended at the nearby arena, you
might have to wait in line for a while to gain admission.
that’s not your style, go right next-door to Layla’s
Bluegrass Inn. It’s not as flashy as Robert’s, but the
beer is still cold, and the bands tend to skew younger
and, in the best possible way, a bit rougher around the
the kind of place where when the bearded young turk snarls
into the microphone, "We’re going to play some
Merle Haggard now if that’s all right with you,"
even a Yankee such as myself — who knew nothing about
classic country music before Johnny Cash started recording
with Rick Rubin — will raise his bottle and let out a
Social: 33 Peabody Street, 1-615-751-8111,
37 Rutledge Street, 1-615-256-6565, husknashville.com
Grille: 231 Sixth Avenue North, 1-615-345-7116,
Parlor: 519B Gallatin Avenue, 1-615-712-9766, facebook.com/BaristaParlor
and Daughters: 700 Taylor Street, 1-615-866-9897,
House: 1222 Fourth Avenue North, 1-615-736-5838,
Western World: 416B Broadway, 1-615-244-9552,
Bluegrass Inn: 418 Broadway, 1-615-726-2799,