All boomtowns have deep appetites, but Nashville has something that even great cities have trouble cultivating: an idiosyncratic gastronomic culture that knows how to be comforting, creative and curious, regional yet cosmopolitan. It’s one of the happiest conflations of hip and hick around anywhere.
And there is potential for much more. The city has long been a bastion of expertly-cooked comfort food, but now the transplanted Angelenos who have followed the music industry to Nashville are beginning to get their proclivities for Italian and Japanese catered to. April will see the opening of a ramen shop run by the noodle-obsessed, Tennessee-born, L.A.-trained Sarah Gavigan. Meanwhile, immigrants from Vietnam, Laos and the Kurdish regions of the Middle East are beginning to make their culinary presence felt. Who knows what Nashville will cook up next?
Here’s what’s on the menu now.
Husk Nashville. Located in a late 19th century mansion listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the restaurant combines the best qualities of Chef Sean Brock’s acclaimed Charleston restaurants—Husk and McCrady’s—to produce sumptuous southern cuisine prepared to the haute-est of culinary standards. The menu comes off as comforting and familiar—but the approach is state of the art. The fried chicken, for example, is deceptively simple, belying the complexity of the fats and oils that have gone into producing its perfectly crisp and juicy texture, the piquancy oozing out with every bite. The hamburger looks like a double cheeseburger but everything from the beef to the bun to the cheese to the pickle has been curated to delicious detail. A humble barbecue pork rib has as many gradations of flavor as Georges Seurat paintings have texture. Husk Nashville also has the confidence to show off the unusual: a brilliantly conceived braised then deep-fried pig’s ear in a Korean-style lettuce wrap. Go for dinner. Go for lunch the next day. Then go again.
Catbird Seat. I got here about a month after the departure of Erik Anderson, the chef who made a name for the restaurant. In his place is Trevor Moran, the former sous chef at Noma, the current No. 1 restaurant in the world. The food brings the informality and discipline of Noma chef Rene Redzepi’s kitchen to a 20-seat bar surrounding a space where cooks dash back and forth preparing and plating the ever-changing multiple-course tasting menu. It may well begin with your being told to eat the floral arrangement set in front of you (which turns out to be scrumptious peanut-butter-and-jelly salad); then a play on Nashville’s hot chicken mania with a crisp ball of chicken skin dotted with wonder bread puree; then elegantly sliced pieces of pigeon, pears and turnip; a dessert that looks like an uncooked potato delivered in a brown paper bag but is in reality a mash-up of potato, marzipan and mushroom, a tromp l’oeil masterpiece as delicious as it is whimsical. Moran possesses the rare combination of skill and showmanship necessary to bring off cuisine as commentary-and-entertainment—the ethos pioneered in the kitchens of Barcelona and Copenhagen.
Rolf & Daughters. But, you may ask, where can I get good pasta? Chef Philip Krajeck makes garganelli, cavatelli, bucatini and spaghetti dishes as well as any New York nonna. Operating out of a former bag factory in the Germantown district, Rolf & Daughters shares in the city’s obsession with post-industrial chic—one exuded by Nashville’s slew of boutiques devoted to sharp-eyed craftsmanship. The menu is not long but it is wonderfully and creatively accented: dry aged meatballs with dandelion gremolata; beets with maple yogurt and puffed quinoa; spigarello—a leafy broccoli—made irresistible with capers, raisins, anchovies and breadcrumbs. Most local chefs in the city—no matter the prices on their menus—claim Rolf & Daughters is their favorite place to eat. But why is the restaurant called that? The self-effacing Krajeck’s middle name is Rolf; and he and his wife Anastasia have two girls.
Arnold’s Country Kitchen. Good restaurants have good food—and, if they are lucky, good stories. Arnold’s is one of the most-loved meat-and-threes in the city (so named because you pick an entrée and three sides), with savory greens, the beefiest of roast beef, candied yams, chicken and dumplings and a sinful chess pie among the specials that change daily. But Arnold’s is also a family story. Jack Arnold began his restaurant career as a dishwasher before managing the cafeteria at Vanderbilt University. In 1983, he set up Arnold’s with its bull-blood red walls on 605 8th Avenue South. The interior looks like a civilian mess hall, with hungry lines of people sometimes looping out of the front door to get to the steam tables. But the quality of the food has nurtured three generations of loyalty from around the country (including celebrities whose photos with Jack have taken over the walls). When Jack got older, his second son Kahlil—who had been working at another restaurant—took over and revamped the way it was run while keeping the spirit and the food the same. If he’s manning the counter when you visit, say you’re from out of state. The place runs like a democracy—everyone’s got to get in line--but they have a welcome gift for out-of-towners—and you may just get a piece of the bread pudding with vanilla sauce to make you feel especially at home.
Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack. Prince’s is a bit farther out than the other places on this list – but not far away enough to be missed. You’ll find it in a no-frills strip mall on 123 Ewing Drive. Painted on the restaurant’s plate glass window is a crowned man hoisting a platter with a chicken leg radiating heat over his head. You have been warned. The chicken comes in four grades: mild, medium, hot and extra-hot. Fight the temptation to order a whole bird. The half is enormous enough. It is served on top of two large slices of white bread to sop up all of the sauce. I wept as I ate--not because it was tender and spicy (which it was) but because the combination of flavors flushed into my tear ducts and liquid dripped down my cheeks with a sting. My friend Aaron went at the chicken with gusto, saying, “Find what you love and let it kill you.” The legend is that the great-uncle of the current owner was a major philanderer and, in revenge, his official significant other tried to poison him with a pepper spray-strength fried chicken. He not only survived but loved what he had been served, turning it into the family business. Oh, make sure you wash your hands before and after using the bathroom. The sauce will bite you in hidden places.
Barista Parlor and CREMA. Nashville has been swept up in the so-called Third Wave of coffee: the pour-over, single-origin, artisanal roasteries that are changing the way Americans enjoy their java. CREMA has a comfortable, spread-out living room-like shack down the hill from Husk in central Nashville; Barista Parlor has more of a industrial look and soaring ceilings at its location in East Nashville—the increasingly hip expanse across the Cumberland River from downtown. At both places, you’ll find the Central American geshas and Ethiopian yergacheffes that are all the rage in the hipster cafes in Brooklyn and San Francisco. But Barista Parlor has a revolving menu of delicious pastries—and a standout sausage biscuit that is alone worth the ride. That plus a choice of four different single-origin coffee beans for espressos and cortados, an almost unheard of luxury in the rest of the American third wave. Bring your laptop. Spend the afternoon surfing and caffeinating.
Pinewood Social. Here is something few other cities have: an enormous dining and drinking space, open for breakfast, lunch, dinner, late night eating and cocktails—plus bowling and karaoke. Pinewood Social opened early this year in an old trolley barn and was an immediate hit with the young and the hip and the newly moneyed—and their kids. Just across Hermitage Avenue from CREMA and not far away from Husk, it has its own coffee bar (run by CREMA) as well as lots of shareable snacks (try the fried cheese curds) to soak up pre-dinner cocktails if you are headed somewhere else for a meal. It is the brainchild of Benjamin and Max Goldberg, brothers who own Strategic Hospitality, a firm behind many of the new restaurant ventures in town, including Catbird Seat. If your taste in drinking establishments runs toward the naughty and divey, drive out to East Bar No. 308 on Gallatin Avenue. Have the Monkey’s Paw; and laugh (or roll your eyes) at the Russ Meyer school of low-budget sin-ema playing on the screen.