A place nicknamed ‘Music City’ has a reputation to uphold, and Nashville certainly hits the right notes. Up and down Broadway, country music ebbs and flows from open-fronted venues like a rhinestone tide. But there’s considerably more to this city than just neon-powered honky-tonks and heartbroken harmonies. Nashville’s evolving into a thriving hub for young creatives, squeezed out of cities like New York by astronomical rents. They’re contributing to a restaurant scene that saw over 100 new openings last year, a lively farmers’ market, a flourishing rooftop cocktail culture and a boutique hotel boom. It sounds like Nashville is changing its tune — or at least adding a few new riffs.
The best way to discover left-leaning East Nashville is with an appetite. Here, in the traditional artisans’ district across the river from downtown, you’ll find a veritable feast of eating options, from quirky family-run cafes to hipster-friendly fusion restaurants. A favourite with aspiring musicians and young families alike, East Nashville is the kind of place where you find crumbling thrift stores and shady tattoo parlours next door to slick modern art galleries and stylish restaurants.
The smartest approach to the neighbourhood’s head-spinning menu of venues is to join a Walk Eat Nashville food tour. They’re led by local journalists, full of stories about the area’s history (like the time outlaw Jesse James hid out under an alias in one of the neighbourhood’s grand Victorian homes), as well as the colourful characters who reside here today. One of these personalities, Margot McCormack, runs a neighbourhood institution, Margot Cafe & Bar, renowned for its daily handwritten menus and stellar Sunday dinners.
“It’s simple — what we serve depends on the fresh produce we can get our hands on that particular day, and how we feel like preparing it,” she says, when we sit down for a snack and a glass of wine as part of our six-stop tour. She explains the cafe’s ethos: “We like to keep people guessing.”
That sense of relaxed creativity wafts across East Nashville, from diaphanous boutiques like Hip Zipper, Wonders on Woodland and High Class Hillbilly, to independent coffee shops like Barista Parlor. The latter — in a converted automobile repair shop decorated with Edison light bulbs — is part cafe, part motorcycle garage, part science lab. Don’t miss the ‘Vietnamese Cold Brew’, a punchy pick-me-up containing ginger, lemongrass and assorted spices.
But there are plenty of places serving up stronger drinks too — try the art deco Fox Bar & Cocktail Club or Urban Cowboy, which doubles as a classy B&B. But the pick of the bunch has to be Attaboy, a dimly lit speakeasy where you knock for entry and there’s no bar menu: simply rock up, tell them what you like and they’ll surprise you.
And in a neighbourhood of this size, with its rambling residential streets, it’s no surprise that dining options are just as plentiful as boozers. Butcher & Bee is a breezy bodega serving intriguing Israeli-inspired food, while Cafe Roze is a beautiful, award-winning bistro run by Croatian-American Julia Jaksic. But don’t miss the area’s newest opening, FOLK, serving sharing plates in an airy warehouse-style setting under swaying Chinese lanterns.
South of Broadway — or SoBro — has been a Nashville fixture for years, not least because it’s home to the must-visit Country Music Hall of Fame. But of late, its northerly neighbour has started sashaying out of its star-spangled shadow. NoBro, the area directly north of Broadway, has risen high on hipster hit-lists, elevated by a bubble of boutique hotel openings.
The latest addition, the Fairlane Hotel, is a classic case in point. Opened in spring 2018, the 81-room luxury property contains plenty of stylish nods to the building’s former calling as a 1960s bank, combined with deft 21st-century design touches. It’s the kind of place you can image Sean Connery’s Goldfinger-era Bond checking into, but with better gadgets in the rooms.
You won’t need an Aston Martin — or even an Uber — to check out NoBro’s two other properties du jour. The Bobby Hotel, with its incredible rooftop bar (including a retrofitted Greyhound bus parked precariously on the edge) is directly across 4th Avenue. Meanwhile, the neighbourhood’s other star, Noelle, is just a cowboy boot’s throw further down the street. It’s also crowned by a rooftop cocktail bar, Rare Bird, but grub at its wonderfully named upscale tavern-style restaurant Makeready Libations & Liberation is also easy to swallow.
These three boutique properties are about to be joined by a second wave of rivals, led by Dream Nashville. This new kid on the block will be exactly that — positioned directly between Noelle and the Bobby Hotel.
If art’s your thing, NoBro’s got you covered too. The district is home to a collection of phenomenal galleries, clustered on or around 5th Avenue, including The Arts Company, Tinney Contemporary and The Rymer Gallery. The best way to explore these is as part of the city’s First Saturday Art Crawl, when more than 20 galleries open for free from 6-9pm, and most even offer guests a complimentary glass of wine or two.
NoBro, of course, is more than just a shiny pocket of beautiful hotels and art galleries. Head to Printer’s Alley — a narrow thoroughfare, tucked Diagon Alley-style between Union and Commerce Streets. It was once home to a thriving publishing industry, but is now the place to find several English-style drinking dens, including the appropriately named Fleet Street Pub.
Meanwhile Woolworth on 5th — the site of Nashville’s first lunch counter sit-ins during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement — is a fascinating visit too. Half a century ago, the campaign was built upon disciplined non-violence in the face of aggressive racial provocation, and the actions taken by black students set an example that resonated throughout the nation. Woolworth remains a diner-style restaurant, with a warm, upbeat atmosphere that often includes swing music and dancing. It also serves one of the finest brunches in town: order the Hoppin’ John Omelette — you won’t regret it.
‘Meat and three’ is a time-honoured Nashville tradition. This hearty Southern-style meal consists of one meat and three side dishes from a list of options. The very first restaurant, Monell’s, is still standing — and serving — in a grand Victorian house within the city’s oldest district, Germantown. No visit to Nashville is complete without a hungry pilgrimage here, where the dishes are served family-style at communal tables — think crispy fried chicken, steaming mashed potato and buttery green beans.
Germantown might be ancient by Nashvillian standards (it was founded by European immigrants in the 1850s) but it’s currently riding a wave of new development, particularly in terms of bars and restaurants. Here you’ll find well-heeled wine bars tucked away on leafy streets and chic eateries stashed away in atmospheric old warehouses, all within a tight, six-block square just north of the state capitol building.
At the centre of this genteel suburb is the Nashville Farmers’ Market, open 362 days a year and spanning an impressive 12 acres. There are more than 150 vendors here, ranging from ranchers to cheesemakers, supplying locals and restaurants alike, including the feted ‘modern peasant menu’ at award-winning Rolf and Daughters nearby.
Additional Germantown foodie highlights include the Southern twist on Italian dishes proffered at the perennially popular and James Beard Award-winning City House, and the mouth-watering brisket tacos gobbled up in the convivial beer garden at rustic-chic Tex-Mex specialist Butchertown Hall.
One of the best things about Germantown (as opposed to East Nashville) is that all the best venues are closely packed together, and are therefore within easy walking distance. Another standout here is Henrietta Red, which has been attracting national acclaim for young chef Julia Sullivan’s innovative seafood dishes. Nashville native Sullivan named the restaurant after her paternal grandparents.
An easy stroll from most of Nashville’s major hotels, Germantown is well placed for a pub crawl. Frothing steins of beer are the order of the day, with top spots including Jack Brown’s (try the excellent Wagyu burgers), Bearded Iris (a microbrewery with leather armchairs) and Germantown Café (some of the finest skyline views in the city). For the perfect snack to end your evening, head to Slim & Husky’s, a colourful late-night pizza joint serving crazy Willy Wonka-esque gourmet ‘pies’ — tested for months on homeless volunteers around the city before being deemed menu-approved.
When in Nashville…
Nashville is renowned for its hot chicken — there’s even a Hot Chicken Festival here every 4 July. Local favourite Hattie B’s is considered one of the best places to sample the dish, serving its chicken at six different heat levels, from mild to ‘Shut the Cluck Up’.
A great way to discover new talent, or see established acts in the flesh, Songwriters-in-the-Round nights are a local institution. Visit venues like Bluebird Cafe and Listening Room Cafe on one of these nights and you might just strike gold.
It gets hot in Tennessee. And that makes rooftop bars extremely popular in Nashville. Across NoBro are plenty of boutique hotels topped with outstanding cocktail bars (the Bobby and Noelle for starters), but the current al fresco drinking spot of choice is Acme on Lower Broadway. A self-described ‘funkytonk’, its rooftop bar offers 360-degree views of downtown.
In 2011, Nashville’s last specialist bookstore closed — finished off by online competition. That was when bestselling novelist and local resident Ann Patchett decided to fight back. By the end of that year, she’d opened the beloved Parnassus Books — a shop and arts space where bookworms can grab a weekend paperback for a dollar or two then hit one of the local parks to relax.
Second only to live performances in Music City is vinyl. There are specialist shops all over Nashville selling pretty much every genre imaginable. In particular, check out Fond Object Records, The Groove and Vinyl Tap in East Nashville, The Vinyl Bunker downtown and Jack White’s celebrated Third Man Records in Pie Town.
How to do it
Published in the November 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)