Music City may be best known for crooning ballads and cowboy boots, but it’s the boundary-pushing food scene that now brings visitors back, and back again. What started as a homegrown movement among young chefs and artisanal producers is now drawing marquee names, with branded venues opening at a dizzying rate.
That said, it’s the upstarts who bring the party, highlighting the bounty of Tennessee’s farms and ranches as they put their own spins on Southern traditions or create unforgettable dishes from international inspirations.
Restaurants for Dinner
Some of these places also serve breakfast and lunch, but go here for dinner to get a taste of what these chefs do best.
Geist is the kind of place where you end up staying all night, especially if you’re sitting on the backyard garden patio. It’s located in Germantown—Nashville’s oldest neighbourhood—inside one of the city’s oldest buildings, which was once a 20th-century blacksmith shop. Try the roasted tomato burrata or the burger served on a potato bun and settle in amongst the brick walls, dim lights and velvet-covered seating.
Locals frequent this American brasserie located at the Kimpton Aertson Hotel in midtown for its artsy vibe and long list of craft cocktails (try the Attention to Detail made with gin, lime, cedar and douglas fir). The dinner menu changes seasonally and includes share plates that feature fresh, local ingredients sourced from as close as a few miles away. Try the squid ink gemelli and shrimp or the beef tartare when available.
Beautifully preserved, this circa-1882 heritage site, features a backyard carriage house. The restaurant’s evolving menu of Southern dishes includes classics such as fried chicken and shrimp and grits.
This farmhouse meets wine bar in the trendy 12 South neighbourhood put chef Andy Little on the map when it opened in 2012. His roots in the Pennsylvania Dutch region shine through in the Amish tomato appetizer and the Nashville hot scrapple. Don’t leave without ordering pastry chef Kayla May’s peach cobbler for dessert.
French cuisine, yes, but that’s only part of the story; Midtown’s Le Sel eschews the traditional heavy sauces of French fare in favour of lighter, ultra-fresh options, including a seafood raw bar.
Chef-impresario Sarah Gavigan’s Little Octopus has an internationally inspired small-plates menu full of the unexpected. Try the cornbread with plantain, lime preserves and cheese from Chihuahu, Mexico.
A destination must-do since it opened in Germantown in 2012, Rolf and Daughters pushes pasta beyond all expectations. For something really special, try the garganelli topped with pork ragout.
The Southern is conveniently located in the SoBro (South of Broadway) district within steps of many Music City attractions including Bridgestone Arena and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Try the wood-fired baby back ribs rubbed with Nashville’s own James Bros. Barbecue Sauce. If you fall in love, you can buy a bottle to take home with you at the Southernaire Market next door. The market also sells locally made Nashville prints and a to-die-for gumbo.
Nashville Hot Chicken and Southern Barbecue
You can’t leave Nashville without trying its famous signature cuisines.
Tiny Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack is where the dish was born. Invented, so the story goes, to punish a philandering boyfriend, hot chicken even has its own festival and cooking competition (held every year over the July 4 weekend). It’s as spicy as the name suggests and quite addictive.
There’s almost always a line-up out the door at this contemporary hot chicken restaurant, but it’s always worth the wait. Heat levels here range from none plain fried chicken) to “Shut the Cluck Up.” The long list of sides includes pimento mac and cheese, black eyed pea salad and red skin potato salad.
West Tennessee whole-hog barbecue is king at Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint, which has two locations in Nashville. In the downtown restaurant’s backyard beer garden, enjoy a barbecue baked potato with pulled pork.
A billowing cloud of aromatic smoke from the open pits lets you know you’ve arrived at this barbecue hot spot, tucked away in the formerly industrial part of The Gulch district. Aficionados respect owner and pitmaster Carey Bringle’s allegiance to Tennessee’s “que” traditions, and, whether you choose the West Tennessee dry ribs or the pulled pork, you will, too.
Bars with Live Music
It is Music City after all. Enjoy craft beer, tasty drinks and casual eats while you listen to the local talent at these top spots.
Vince Gill plays at 3rd and Lindsley every Monday (as The Time Jumpers), and that tells you all you need to know about this popular haunt where the drinks are strong and the music is stronger.
Every music fan should visit the iconic Bluebird Cafe, made famous by CMT’s TV show Nashville, but long known for giving a firmament of stars their first gigs.
For a more local experience, head to the listening room at The Family Wash, where patrons go to catch buzzy bands on the rise—and to partake of the artisanal craft beer and cocktails.
Robert’s is known as one of the city’s most authentic honky tonks. It also serves up a mean fried bologna sandwich. Pair it with a bag of chips and a Pabst Blue Ribbon for just US$5 for a late-night (or next morning) snack.
Doughnut Shops, Bakeries and Chocolatiers
Nashville’s not all biscuits and barbecue. Indulge in the city’s sweet side.
For delicate lemon madeleines and incredible scones, head to Dozen, a Wedgewood-Houston bakery-café that continues to draw in the crowds.
While Goo Goo Cluster may have put Nashville on the candy-making map, it’s Olive and Sinclair that’s now winning awards for confections like duck fat caramels and Bourbon nib brittle. This East Nashville bean-to-bar chocolate factory also offers tours.
[A version of this story appears in the July 2016 issue of WestJet Magazine and has since been updated.]