Malcolm Jolley eats and drinks his way through three days in Music City.
It’s not that I went to Nashville on an eating holiday by mistake, it’s just that I don’t think I would have thought to have gone if my good friend Ben hadn’t suggested it. He and his wife, Monika, live in L.A., and my wife, Apple, and I have a habit of meeting up with them in some city other than our own on this continent, when we can. The big ones have been crossed off our list: New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Montreal. Nashville struck us as an ideal spot to escape to for a few days. It helped that we all like both kinds of music (country and western), and it certainly helped that Nashville’s nascent restaurant scene has recently been attracting all kinds of attention, not least from Anthony Bourdain. So, we booked our tickets and brought our appetites. Here’s where we ate and drank, in the order we did it in, when we weren’t checking out the Country Music Hall of Fame and seeing Kelsey Waldon live at the Station Inn.
Whiskey Kitchen – The Gulch
Whiskey Kitchen is part of a group of restaurants owned and operated by the same company in an up and coming area of Nashville, just west of the downtown, called ‘The Gulch’. Whiskey Kitchen is the ‘American’ restaurant, next to the Japanese, Italian and Mexican ones. To be honest, we chose it as out introduction to Nashville eating because we were tired and hungry (and hot – temperatures were in the high 20s in early November), and it wasn’t to far from our hotel. It was also busy, which is always a good sign. I had a pulled pork sandwich, in the style of neigbouring state North Carolina, but the big treat was a plate of fried green tomatoes dressed with a honey and horseradish sauce, washed down with a local IPA. It was good.
Bar Sovereign – Rutledge Hill
For whatever travails may afflict the United States of America, one thing our American cousins do well is bars. Bar Sovereign is a neighbourhood dive, or hipsterish version of a dive, with some excellent taxidermy. They also make a mean cocktail. Cocktail culture is alive and well in Nashville, and there are all kinds of ways to enjoy Tennessee whiskey being concocted by young men with well groomed beards or young ladies with creative piercings and thick rimmed glasses. We drank well here, as we did all over the city. Bar Sovereign also has a big thing going for it: it’s the closest good bar to Husk.
Husk, Nashville – Rutledge Hill
Anybody and everybody who offers advice on where to dine in Nashville will bring up Husk. For good reason. ‘Supper’ at Chef Sean Brock’s Nashville outpost is a cavalcade of delicious, modern(ish) takes on traditional Southern foodways. It’s really good and over delivers on all the hype. Here is the menu from the evening we went. It was as good as it reads. We pretty much ate it all, and then we had dessert. So, really the question with Husk is not so much should you go, but how do you go. First, book early. Seriously, book your dinner reservation before your flights and hotel. It’s popular and hard to get into. Second, try and book a table of four or more, so you can try the most things. And third, make it your evening, and just go with what they do. There is one sitting at 7:30 and kitchen and waitstaff are geared up to take you through the night. Consider the small plates at the beginning it’s own meal within a meal and they’ll come in a succession and build up to the main courses. It’s quite a ride.
Chauhan Ale & Masala House – The Gulch
Chef Maneet Chauhan’s downtown restaurant is exactly what its name suggests: an upscale curry house with craft beers brewed at her companion brewry, Mantra. It’s a little bit hard to find and out of the way, but worth seeking out, especially for her version of the standard Nashville lunch of ‘meat and three’, as in three veg. Chauhan serves a thali: a meal centred on a curry, which changes daily, and surrounded by side dishes and pickles, with naan. When washed down with a saffron infused I.P.A., it’s a beautiful cross-cultural thing.
The Patterson House – Music Row
It’s been a long time since I stood in line to get into a bar, but we did at the Patterson House. Or rather, stood around in their waiting room, on the other side of a closed door that leads into the barroom, or saloon proper. You see, the Patterson House has rules. One of these rules is that no one gets served unless they are sitting down, and there are only so many seats in the room. The room itself can only be described as hipster paradise. The good news is that most patrons come to the Patterson House for only one or two of their very fancy, and very good, cocktails, so the wait is usually not so long. Two cocktails is enough, anyway, and the Patterson House is charming place to work up an appetite for dinner.
The 404 – The Gulch
Demographically, Nashville has the feeling of a young city. This may be because it’s a college town (its prevalence of universities once earned it the nickname of “Athens of the South”). And it may be because Music City attracts young women and men looking to break into the country music scene. In any event, the motif for our trip was definitely high hipster. And what, we thought, could be more hipster than a restaurant built out of a shipping container? I tell you what: a restaurant built out of a shipping container with a five room boutique hotel above it. That’s what we read about The 404, and we couldn’t resist. Luckily for restaurant patrons and hotel guests, the shipping container part of The 404 is a small part of the restaurant that leads to a real building. Chef Matt Bolus a deceptively simple and small menu full of interesting twists, like cinnamon in the steak tartare (it works), that are served in a charming room with a beautiful big old bar.
Josephine – 12 South
If our Uber driver is to be believed, then 12 South is Nashville’s up and coming residential neighbourhood. Here we saw more strollers than downtown, and on a Saturday afternoon it seemed to be the place to go for a stroll and check out the boutiques. Josephine is a sophisticated farm to table restaurant in the thick of the 12 Avenue South strip. It was busy with a weekend brunch crowd when we went for lunch. The menu featured updated takes on Southern food, like the “hot” catfish sandwich I ordered, and scrapple. Scrapple is mixture of pork off cuts, reduced to a paste and then fried. At Josephine, our waiter told us, they only use shoulder, which disappointed us a little bit. The scrapple itself did not dissapoint at all. It comes as a side, and the order we shared was gone quickly. The best way to describe scrapple is that it’s a crispy fried block of pâté. Delicious.
Bar 308 – Nashville
Bar 308 is in East Nashville, across the river from Nashville’s downtown. East Nashville has a bit of a strip of restaurants and bars, but isn’t touristy. Bar 308, like Bar Sovereign, is replete with taxidermy and (we thought) locals. It’s a little bit away from most of the action, but they make complicated and delicious cocktails, and its the perfect spot for a drink before dinner.
The Treehouse – East Nashville
The Treehouse features an ambitious kitchen that puts out plates with small piles of crumbly things and streaks of other things. This could be a problem, but it isn’t because the ingredients are top rate and the novel techniques work. They also do some things very simply and well, so we had lovely dinner that began with complicated starters and finished with a massive two and a half pound rib eye. It was pleasing combination of town and country, a bit like Nashville itself.
Wine and Whiskey
A quick note to say the wine programs at the above restaurants were excellent, especially at the top of the lists, and pleasingly unusual, especially form France. We found wines from the Jura, Cahors and Corsica, and all kinds of other things we don’t see too much of in Ontario. Most places will also, of course, have a list of Tennessee Whiskeys and Kentucky Bourbons to help aid digestion.
I did not have hot chicken in Nashville. This didn’t happen for a bunch of dumb logistical reasons, mostly involving the timing of the line-up at Hattie B’s, which was close to our hotel. My friend Ben did get to experience Nashville hot chicken because he lined-up at 10:30 in the morning on the day that Apple and flew back to Toronto. The pictures of the spicy dry-coated fried chicken he sent us looked good on our phones when we got off of our plane. We’ll have to go back and try again.