advertisement

The rest of the country may make fun of Southern cooking, with its fatback and chitlins, collard greens, and fried everything, but there is much more to Southern food than these tired stereotypes. You'll find that Southern fare, in all its diversity, is a way of life here in Nashville. This is not to say that you can't get good Italian, French, German, Japanese, Chinese, or even Thai -- you can. However, as long as you're below the Mason-Dixon Line, you owe it to yourself to try a bit of country cookin'. Barbecue and fried catfish are two inexpensive staples well worth sampling. If you enjoy good old-fashioned American food, try a "meat-and-three" restaurant, where you get your choice of three vegetables with your meal. However, to find out what Southern cooking is truly capable of, try someplace serving New Southern or New American cuisine. This is the equivalent of California cuisine, but made with traditional, and not-so-traditional, Southern ingredients.

Nashville is well represented by scores of popular chain restaurants, including a disproportionate number of upscale steakhouses: Morton's of Chicago, 641 Church St. (tel. 615/259-4558); Fleming's Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar, 2525 West End Ave. (tel. 615/342-0131); Ruth's Chris Steak House, 2100 West End Ave. (tel. 615/320-0163); and Stoney River Legendary Steaks, 3015 West End Ave. (tel. 615/340-9550).

I prefer to find worthy independent places to recommend. Happily, Nashville is bursting at the seams with them. I've only been able to scratch the surface.

For these listings, I have classified restaurants in the following categories (estimates do not include beer, wine, or tip): expensive, if a complete dinner would cost $40 or more; moderate, where you can expect to pay between $20 to $40 for a complete dinner; and inexpensive, where a complete dinner can be had for less than $20.

Best Tennessee-Based Eateries

All three of these homegrown Tennessee chains have multiple locations throughout the state and beyond.

Back Yard Burgers: More prevalent in Memphis than in Nashville, this fast-food chain specializes in home-style grilled burgers, spicy seasoned fries, and hand-dipped milkshakes. Founded in Cleveland, Mississippi, in 1987, today, it's a publicly traded, Memphis-based company with more than 200 locations nationwide. Burgers are big, juicy, and meaty (they also serve substantial hot dogs), but my favorite drive-through indulgence is the savory grilled chicken sandwich, and an extra-thick chocolate milkshake. tel. 800/333-9566; www.backyardburgers.com.

Cracker Barrel Old Country Store: A sure bet on any road trip through Tennessee, Cracker Barrels are ubiquitous along interstates. You'll recognize them by the rows of wooden rocking chairs on the brown buildings' wide porches. The restaurant chain, based in Lebanon, Tennessee, is the real McCoy, serving hearty portions of consistently good, home-style food at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Chock full of old farm equipment, kitchen gadgets, and other antiques, the eateries all have crackling stone fireplaces that are especially welcoming in cold winter weather. You can also browse for old-fashioned candy in the gift stores, and even rent audio books for your travels.

There are more than 570 restaurants in 41 states, including multiple locations in Memphis and Nashville. Best breakfast bet: Fried ham, biscuits and gravy, scrambled eggs, and Southern-style grits swimming in butter. tel. 800/333-9566; www.crackerbarrel.com.

J. Alexander's: Based in Nashville, J. Alexander's operates contemporary, full-service American restaurants in more than a dozen central U.S. states, with two locations in Nashville and one in Memphis. Unlike Back Yard Burgers and Cracker Barrel, J. Alexander's has a relaxing yet upscale atmosphere and offers a full bar with wines available by the glass or bottle. Signature dishes: baby back ribs, prime beef, and cilantro shrimp. My choice: rattlesnake pasta.

In Nashville: 2609 West End Ave. (tel. 615/340-9901), and 3401 West End Ave. (tel. 615/269-1900). In Memphis: 2670 N. Germantown Parkway, Cordova (in the suburbs, near Wolfchase Galleria mall; tel. 901/381-9670; www.jalexanders.com).

Cafes, Delis, Bakeries & Pastry Shops

When you just need a quick pick-me-up, a rich pastry, or some good rustic bread for a picnic, there are several good cafes, coffeehouse, and bakeries scattered around the city. Downtown, in the sunny lobby of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, you can order cocktails or coffee with lunch at SoBro Grill, 222 Fifth Ave. S. (tel. 615/254-9060; www.sobrogrill.com). The stretch of 12th Avenue South is where you'll find the funky Frothy Monkey, 2509 12th Ave. S. (tel. 615/292-1808; www.frothymonkeynashville.com), a bungalow with hardwood floors and a skylight, not to mention free Wi-Fi. Portland Brew, 2605 12th Ave. S. (tel. 615/292-9004), and 1921 Eastland (tel. 615/262-9088; www.portlandbrewcoffee.com), is another locally owned spot whose owners were inspired by coffee shops they encountered in Oregon.

Trendy tea houses have opened and closed with regularity in recent years. Survivors include the Savannah Tea Company, 2206 Eighth Ave. S. (tel. 615/383-1832), which doubles as a cafe and wedding-cake shop in Germantown.

Bongo Java, 2007 Belmont Blvd. (tel. 615/385-JAVA [5282]; www.bongojava.com), located near Belmont University, is located in an old house on a tree-lined street. It has good collegiate atmosphere, but parking during peak hours can pose a challenge. Nearby in the West End, where coffee shops and cafes are ubiquitous, two of my favorites are Grins (pronounced "greens") Vegetarian Café, at 25th Avenue and Vanderbilt Place (tel. 615/322-8571); and Fido, 1812 21st Ave. S. (tel. 615/385-7959), an arty former pet shop and current musicians' hangout that is one of the friendliest Wi-Fi spots in the neighborhood. You can link to both places through Bongo Java's website, listed above.

Across the street from Fido you'll find Provence Breads & Café, 1705 21st Ave. S. (tel. 615/386-0363; www.provencebreads.com), a European-style coffeehouse that bakes crusty French baguettes along with the most delectable tarts and cookies in town. Gourmet sandwiches and salads, along with brunch items, are on the extensive menu. Provence also has a stylish bistro in the downtown library, 601 Church St. (tel. 615/644-1150). Also in this area is the new, New York City-style Italian deli, Savarino's Cucina; it's at 2121 Belcourt Ave. (tel. 615/460-9878).

Cupcakes are all the rage these days in cities across the country. Nashville gets its due with Gigi's Cupcakes, 1816 Broadway (tel. 615/342-0140; www.gigiscupcakesusa.com), where you can choose from more than two dozen flavors of cake beneath a hefty blob of buttercream frosting. Sweet 16th -- A Bakery, 311 N. 16th St. (tel. 615/226-8367; www.sweet16th.com), is a charming bakery anchoring a trendy residential neighborhood in East Nashville. Heavenly aromas fill the cheerful, immaculate shop, which has a few window seats for those who like to savor their pastries over coffee. From fresh scones and iced éclairs to festive cookies and decadent brownies, this sweet spot has it all.

And, finally, Couva Calypso Cafe, 2424 Elliston Place (tel. 615/321-3878; www.calypsocafe.com), is an inexpensive local chain with multiple locations that features Caribbean-inspired salads and sandwiches, including good vegetarian options such as Boca burgers. There is also a location at 5101 Harding Pike (tel. 615/356-1678).

Family-Friendly Restaurants

Aquarium -- Kids love eating around the 20,000-gallon aquarium filled with tropical fish.

Elliston Place Soda Shop -- Old-fashioned ice-cream desserts and even fried baloney sandwiches are on the menu at this authentic soda shop in the West End, where you can wax nostalgic with the kids about what hanging out was like before fast-food restaurants.

The Old Spaghetti Factory -- A winning combination of simplicity and novelty make this downtown pasta place an affordable option for families. What kid wouldn't want to eat spaghetti and meatballs in a real trolley car?

Rainforest Cafe -- For an over-the-top theatrical mealtime experience, this junglelike dining room is king. Elephants, monkeys, and tropical birds appear to come to life, and families can eat their way through sudden thundershowers, all of which makes for big fun at Opry Mills.

Downtown, The Gulch & 12th Avenue South

Inexpensive -- In addition to the restaurants listed in this guide, you can get quick, inexpensive meals at the Nashville Farmers' Market, 900 Eighth Ave. N. (tel. 615/880-2001), adjacent to the Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park. It's open daily from 9am to 6pm year-round, except winter, when it closes at 5pm.

Music Row, The West End & Areas Southwest

Curbside Service -- If you're planning to drive and dine in the West End, carry some cash for valet parking. Most restaurants offer the complimentary service, but tips are expected.

Tired of Waiting? -- The Pancake Pantry may be a breakfast-lover's first choice, but the daunting lines can aggravate appetites as well as patience. Across the street, the brew pub Boscos and bakery Provence both do a delectable brunch. Next door, barflies looking for hangover relief flock to laid-back Jackson's in the Village (1800 21st Ave. S., at Belcourt Ave. tel. 615/385-9968]), for Bloody Marys and fried eggs.

Music Valley & East Nashville

Music Valley includes the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Opry Mills, both of which offer a plethora of eateries -- from food-court buffets to sit-down restaurants. While the airport area is mostly devoid of recommendable places to grab more than a quick bite, the flourishing East Nashville neighborhood has excellent bars, bistros, and cafes.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.