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.
HOTELS—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).
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. To get a bargain at dinner, investigate group-buying sites such as Groupon. Sign up for Nashville alerts when you start planning your trip.
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.
Constructed in 1870, the building that is now the site of Merchants has housed everything from a pharmacy to a hotel, and many locals have cause to believe the building is haunted. A “Dear John” letter from a hotel employee to a former Confederate soldier caused the soldier’s suicide, and employees have reported seeing his ghost on more than one occasion. When the building was a pharmacy, the owner found his son-in-law hanging from the rafters on the third floor, and some people claim they’ve seen a man hanging from a noose through the window. In the 1980s, another soul was nearly added to the body count when a policeman shot an escaped felon five times in the bar—shockingly he survived. For more haunted Nashville, pick up the “Nashville Haunted Handbook.”
Family-Friendly Food & Fun
While this place is a bit of a trek from downtown, Plaza Mariachi, at 3955 Nolensville Pike (tel. 615/373-9292), is a no-brainer for anyone who’s going to visit the zoo, or anyone who wants to get a taste of some of Nashville’s best Latin foods and more all in one place while keeping kids entertained. The 70,000-square-foot space is meant to mimic a traditional Mexican marketplace, but the cuisine branches out to include more than just Mexican food. Restaurants include some that specialize in ceviche, Mediterranean food, tapas, paletas, and an Argentinian-style grill, just to name a few. In addition to the wide variety of food, there’s also an art gallery, a Mariachi Hall of Fame, live music, and shopping.
Losing Time at the Loveless
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).
The trendy all-day cafe concept is seeping slowly but surely into Nashville. Places where you can grab coffee, breakfast, lunch, dinner, and drinks any time are making traveling itinerary-free a little easier. Notable choices to try include downtown’s Pinewood Social and Liberty Common (207 1st Ave. S; tel. 615/964-7290, and East Nashville’s Cafe Roze (1115 Porter Rd.; tel. 615/645-9100).
As with any major city, there are now countless vegetarian and vegan options in Nashville. If you’re looking for Indian food, Mysore Palace in Franklin (9040 Carothers Pkwy.; tel. 615/236-9436) and Woodlands (3415 West End Ave.; tel. 615/463-3005) are excellent options, and both offer a lunch buffet that’s a favorite with locals featuring perfectly spiced items like paneer tikka masala, coconut curry, and a delicious array of soups. In North Nashville, Southern V offers vegan comfort food including items such as barbecue jackfruit sliders with mac and (vegan) cheese (1200 Buchanan St.; tel. 615/802-8316). Between West Nashville and Midtown lies Avo (3 City Ave.; tel. 615/329-2377), a plant-based restaurant that’s naturally raw and gluten-free (even the water is filtered through a reverse osmosis filtration system). In Berry Hill, check out Sunflower Cafe for scratch-made vegan food including a non-dairy ricotta cheese and vegan lasagna (2834 Azalea Place; tel. 615/457-2568). In East Nashville, Graze offers vegan options all day long plus a juice bar for smoothies (1888 Eastland Ave.; tel. 615/686-1060).
For those who like a hands-on approach, chef Maneet Chauhan offers classes where participants are split into small groups, with each group preparing one of five courses. Afterwards, you sit down to enjoy the meal with beverage pairings and leave with a stack of recipes. Visit www.chauhannashville.com for dates and times.
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).
12SOUTH, BELMONT & HILLSBORO VILLAGE
If you’re looking for high-end fare in 12South, you have several good options: Urban Grub (2506 12th Ave. S.; tel. 615/679-9342) does an excellent, all-you-can eat seafood brunch in a fun, boisterous atmosphere, and their wraparound indoor/outdoor bar and crackling fireplaces make it a cozy place to have excellent cocktails year-round. Josephine (2316 12th Ave. S; tel. 615/292-7766) serves American farmhouse cuisine informed by beloved chef Andy Little, who grew up in Pennsylvania Dutch country. Perfect roast chicken and seasonal vegetables are always on the menu at this restaurant where the decor and atmosphere are as beautiful as the food.
EATING IN ACTION
If it’s a foodie event you’re looking for, there is no shortage in Nashville, but the big daddy is September’s annual Music City Food + Wine Festival. The 3-day fest is more exciting and diverse than any five-star meal, with each day featuring samples from dozens of local chefs and distilleries, wineries, and breweries from across the nation. Stop into cooking demos (Hugh Acheson making meatloaf), and panels galore (What ingredient is played out? Answer: Kale). You can chat with stars like Andrew Zimmern about clam rolls outside the Martin’s Bar-B-Que live fire section where a klatch of Music City chefs smoke chicken, fish, porchetta, and more.
In any given week, you can also take food-focused tours around town. A local favorite is walking tours with Walk Eat Nashville, in which “Nashville Eats” cookbook author, Jennifer Justus, will lead you on a trek through East Nashville, Midtown, or SoBro, 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. Other companies, including Nashville Food Adventures, offer myriad tours including driving, walking, or custom tours focused on everything from barbeque to global food to dessert.
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 good options, and those are listed below. 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), Hog Heaven, a small walk-up spot near Centennial Park that serves a phenomenal smoked turkey sandwich (115 27th Ave. N.; tel. 615/329-1234), 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).
What’s in a Name?
The Gambling Stick is an old Appalachian name for a stick used to hang a pig from a tree limb. The stick is threaded through the heels of the pig and supports its weight, and the gamble is whether or not the stick can do that job. If not, the whole hog could come crashing down on the butcher’s head.
Changing Coffee Culture, One Cup at a Time
In 1892, a Nashville company decided to sell its coffee in 5-pound canisters rather than the typical brandless 10-pound bags. They put a picture of their hotel on the front, and Maxwell House became one of Nashville’s first and most recognizable brands. That, in turn, created more interest in manufacturing here. According to lore, the company’s slogan came from a visit President Theodore Roosevelt made to Andrew Jackson at Jackson’s estate. When he was served Maxwell House coffee, he reportedly said it was “good to the last drop,” which gave the company its slogan. It’s a fun story, despite the fact it’s never been proven.
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.
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.