Explosive and unpredictable. If you’d told me 10 years ago I’d use those words to describe Nashville’s dining scene, I’d have called you crazy. But today, Nashville is a culinary destination, and the city’s food scene has never been more vibrant or more volatile. Restaurants pop up and shutter overnight, and that leads to both good and bad things. 

The bad things are ridiculous lines, a glut of chains, and the heartbreaking closings of some Nashville dining stalwarts. The good things are too many to list, but the most important is this: You will never be at a loss for a great meal in Nashville, whether you want cornbread and collards at a meat-and-three, a marbled ribeye at an upscale steakhouse, a greasy cheeseburger at a dive bar, or a mind-bending culinary experience at a high-end restaurant. (And yes, we have hot chicken too.) Nashvillians love food, they love people, and they love connecting the two. So let’s eat.


RESERVATIONS & PLANNING—It’s a good idea to make reservations at any restaurant that takes them, particularly for dinner. Most restaurants take reservations using OpenTable though many upscale places use Resy. You may also be able to virtually add your name to a list at restaurants that don’t accept reservations using the Nowait app. If you can’t score a table, try to eat at the bar; in many instances, you’ll learn more there than at the table by talking to locals or bartenders about what to do next. If you’re a serious beer drinker in search of one special local brew, check out Untappd, a geosocial networking service that shows you what and where people are drinking right now. 

WHEN TO DINE—Nashville-area restaurants are less busy early in the week than on weekends, though all get slammed regularly these days. If you’re flexible, try to space your meals out so they’re not at peak dining hours—eat an early or late lunch or an early dinner; you’ll be amazed how much headache you can avoid if you hit a spot at 2:45pm rather than high noon. 

BARGAINS—Lunch is an excellent, economical way to check out a fancy restaurant. At higher-end restaurants that offer it (many don’t), you can get a sense of the dinner menu without breaking the bank.

DRESS CODES—Few fine-dining establishments in Nashville adhere to strict dress codes with the notable exception of Bourbon Steak. Nice jeans are the norm at most moderately priced and expensive restaurants.

HOTEL DINING—Historically, hotel dining in Nashville was subpar pretty much everywhere except the Hermitage. That is not the case anymore. Most good hotels also have good restaurants, and restaurants worth seeking out even if you’re not staying there, such as Henley (at the Kimpton Aertson), Marsh House (at Thompson Nashville), and Gray & Dudley (at 21c Museum Hotel).  

FOOD TOURS: In any given week, you can take food-focused tours around town. The best are those offerred by  Walk Eat Nashville, during which top food writers with industry expertise will lead you on a trek through a neighborhood (East Nashville, Midtown, Downtown) stopping in at five or six restaurants for hot chicken, biscuits, or barbecue while regaling you with tales of food lore and a playlist or two.

ALL DAY CAFES--The all-day cafe concept has taken hold in Nashville. That’s great for tourists because you can grab coffee, breakfast, lunch, dinner, and drinks any time, which facilitates easy itinerary-free travel. Downtown’s Pinewood Social or Pink Hermit (231 6th Ave N. in the Hermitage Hotel) are where to go in that sight-rich area. In East Nashville, there’s chef Julia Jaksic’s beautiful Cafe Roze (1115 Porter Rd.; tel. 615/645-9100) and sister restaurant Roze Pony in West Nashville, both of which are local go-tos for perfect gin martinis, raw oysters, and seasoned, satisfying cuisine.

HOT CHICKEN--Who has Nashville’s best hot chicken? It’s a question that has caused many an argument, which is an ironic testament to the origin story of hot chicken itself. Supposedly, hot chicken was originally a punishment designed for James Thornton Prince, a purported womanizer. After a particularly late night, his girlfriend cooked him a fried chicken breakfast with hot pepper as revenge. But Prince loved it, and he and his brothers eventually opened a restaurant using their own secret recipe to sell it. For a long while, Prince’s was the only place in the business of fiery fowl, but today, it’s synonymous with Nashville, and bastardizations like the truly disgusting KFC version have stormed the nation.    

There are a few things you should know before eating hot chicken: 1) Any hot chicken that appears “saucy” is not hot chicken. The mix should be dry, and the cayenne visible—and grease is good; 2) Every restaurant has some item on their menu that is a riff on hot chicken. A few are delicious (such as Otaku Ramen’s hot chicken buns), though many are terrible; 3) You don’t have to order the spiciest iteration to prove you’re a badass. I believe there’s a hotness threshold you can reach where it becomes impossible to taste the spices, and hot chicken—or rather good hot chicken—is actually quite nuanced. Most places will let you get your pieces at different spice levels, so create your own sampler starting with medium and work your way up; 4) If you start sweating and stammering once you’ve taken a bite, beer or any other carbonated beverage will actually make the heat worse because of the way the bubbles dry out your tongue. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have beer with your chicken (that’s the best way to do it in my opinion), but always have water on hand. If you find yourself in seriously dire straits, ask for milk if they have it—just know the locals will judge you for your weakness. 

We have complete reviews of the top places for hot chicken here.

Why the Loveless Cafe May Not Be Worth Your Time

If you’re coming to Nashville, someone is going to tell you to eat at the Loveless Café, and I’m here to tell you: It’s good, but you don’t have to. The cafe serves great country cooking including ham with red-eye gravy, Southern fried chicken, and homemade biscuits with jams made the way Granny did back when the Loveless opened nearly 40 years ago. However, the cafe itself is 30 minutes outside town, and the wait times can easily stretch into hours, especially on weekends. So my recommendation would be to get your country cooking inside the city at Arnold’s or Monell’s, especially if you’re only here for the weekend, and skip the 3-hr. excursion. If you are headed to Memphis, however, that affords a good opportunity to swing by on your way out of town (8400 Hwy. 100; tel. 615/646-9700; www.lovelesscafe.com).

Burger Specialists

Nashville may be known for its hot chicken, but somewhere along the line it became a burger town, too. While there are ludicrous iterations to be found—smothered in whiskey BBQ sauce and bacon and fried green tomatoes and other such nonsense—there are also fantastic versions of the classic cheeseburger (American cheese, griddled patties, squishy buns, secret sauce) that should not be missed. These include Bare Bones Butcher (906 51st Ave. N; tel. 615/730-9808), Gray & Dudley, Husk, Brown’s Diner, and Emmy Squared (404 12th Ave. S; tel. 615/248-2662).


If you’re looking for high-end fare in 12South, local options have dwindled in the face of national taco chains and athleisure stores. But you still have a few good choices—and, oddly, one world-class one in Locust. Urban Grub (2506 12th Ave. S.) does a solid, all-you-can-eat seafood brunch in a fun, boisterous atmosphere. Their wraparound indoor/outdoor bar, and crackling fireplaces, make it a cozy place to have excellent cocktails year-round. Epice (2902 12th Ave. S.) is a spare, informal bistro that serves upscale Lebanese fare alongside an international wine selection. The family-owned spot is the brainchild of Maher Fawaz, whose nearby fast-casual Kalamata’s is beloved for its Tomato Basil Florentine soup, addictive lemon-sumac dressing, and killer kabobs for decades. Find Kalamata’s in Green Hills (3764 Hillsboro Pk.), off Belmont Boulevard (1703B Portland Ave.), and in Brentwood (330 Franklin Rd.). 


First, a disclaimer: As girl who grew up in Memphis, I cannot, in good conscience, tell you to eat much barbecue in Nashville. There are some good spots, but Nashville is not, despite what most tourists and the “Travel Channel” think, a barbecue town. There is some good barbecue to be had here, but I’d explain it thusly: If you walk into any old barbecue joint in Memphis, there’s a 90 percent chance you’re going to get legitimate pit-roasted barbecue that’s well-seasoned, juicy, and flavorful; in Nashville, the any-old-joint challenge will yield more around 60 percent success—and that 40 percent terrifies me. All Tennessee barbecue is not created equal, so please do not judge us by whatever you eat down on Broadway or in a hotel lobby. That said, there are some darn good options; you'll find them among our restaurant reviews here.

A few other respectable spots include Jim ’N Nick’s Bar-B-Q, which is a good chain with excellent smoked turkey (7004 Charlotte Pike; tel. 615/352-5777), Edley’s Bar-B-Q, mainly for their drinks, atmosphere and BBQ nachos (2706 12th Ave. S.; tel. 615/953-2951), and B&C Farmers’ Market BBQ, which is located exactly where it says: conveniently in the farmers market downtown (900 Rosa L. Parks Blvd.; tel.615/770-0032).


Nashville isn’t known as a pizza mecca, but trust me: There are enough solid pie options to merit its own section. In addition to the places mentioned elsewhere in this guide (City House, Nicky’s Coal Fired, Lockeland Table), Five Points Pizza makes hot and fresh New York–style pies and garlic knots that are a cut above, and their light, puff-pastry adjacent dough makes for excellent stromboli. Find them on the east side at 1012 Woodland St. (tel. 615/915-4174) or on the west side at 4100 Charlotte Ave. (tel. 615/891-1820). For a memorable eat-in experience, there’s Desano’s Pizza in Midtown (115 16th Ave. S.; tel. 615/953-1168), where you can sample thin-crust Neapolitan pies made with imported ingredients. Order the meatballs and the Capricciosa pizza with mushrooms, artichokes, prosciutto, garlic, and mozzarella. Sit in the dining area without the pizza oven (though that’s also cool) to take advantage of the garage doors that give you great views of downtown. If you’re of the deep-dish persuasion, Germantown’s 312 Pizza Company (371 Monroe St.; tel. 615/730-7888) offers Chicago-style pies that take a full 30 minutes to cook because they are so dense (and so tasty!). Somewhere in the middle of deep-dish and thin-crust lies Emmy Squared, the second location of the Brooklyn original in the Gulch (404 12th Ave. S.; tel. 615/248-2662). Corner pieces of the Colony pie (red sauce, mozzarella, pepperoni, pickled jalapenos, and local honey) have started many pizza-snatching fights (they have a killer burger, too). For a custom experience, check out Slim & Husky’s (911 Buchanan; tel. 615/647-7017) for build-your-own gourmet pies using local ingredients. A solid selection of craft beers and a killer playlist of [‘]90s hip-hop give the small shop a cool, modern feel. For vegan pie, Bella Nashville’s hummus pizza gets a zingy kick from za’atar, crunch from toasted nuts, and freshness from mint. Find them in the Nashville Farmer’s Market (900 Rosa L. Parks Blvd.; tel. 615/457-3863). 


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.