Nashville, Tennessee, is all about the music, right?
Well, yes. And no.
The city of 680,000 is widely known as Music City USA, and it is intensely proud of that moniker.
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From the colorful brick buildings of Honky-Tonk Row — packed cheek-to-jowl along Broadway, between Fourth and Fifth avenues — to the Grand Ole Opry, the Country Music Hall of Fame and the historic recording studios on Music Row, Nashville is an indisputable leader in the music industry.
But Nashville is also the capital of the state of Tennessee. Its historic structures include Southern plantations, a replica of the Parthenon, the Frist Center for the Visual Arts and The Hermitage, home to Andrew Jackson, seventh president of the United States.
The Tennessee State Museum has just moved to a spectacular new building near Capitol Mall. And Nashville also has two major sports franchises, the Tennessee Titans of the National Football League and the Nashville Predators of the National Hockey League.
So at any given time, there are tens of thousands of additional visitors enjoying Music City. And people have got to eat.
If you’re minding a budget, you might want to start at Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint, close to the south side of downtown. This is what might be called “whole hog barbecue”: Entire sides of pork are pit-barbecued, smoked for six to 24 hours, and served with all the fixin’s – crispy okra fries, deviled eggs, catfish fingers.
There are 500 seats in the 13,000-square-foot restaurant, including the backyard beer garden and bar, where you can watch any game you want as long as you know the words to “Rocky Top.” (Here’s a clue: “That’s why all the folks on Rocky Top drink their corn from a jar.”)
An honored tradition in Nashville is “hot chicken,” Southern fried with peppers and spices to send steam spiraling from an average diner’s ears. Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, founded by Thorton Prince during the Great Depression era of the 1930s, is credited as the original. It’s still in the Prince family. Pick your pieces of the bird — breasts, thighs, wings, legs, or the whole thing — and accompany with coleslaw, potato salad and/or baked beans.
Another good choice for hot chicken is Hattie B’s, which lets you choose your heat level. It also offers a wider variety of sides and desserts.
Arnold’s Country Kitchen is a ma-and-pa spot that’s been around since 1982. Honored for more than three decades as one of the South’s most popular restaurants, it’s a “meat-and-three” weekday lunch joint that changes the menu daily, but always offers roast beef, three or four other meats and eight sides. Come on Wednesday for fried catfish with black-eyed peas and stewed okra.
You won’t want to miss I Dream of Weenie in the hip Five Points neighborhood east of downtown. This is a hot-dog food truck partially built out of a bright yellow, retro Volkswagen van, and it’s earned quite a locally following.
When you’re ready to step up the price index, head for Husk, a farm-to-fork Southern-style restaurant on Rutledge Hill just east of downtown. “If it doesn’t come from the South, it’s not coming through the door,” says executive chef Sean Brock, a former James Beard Foundation honoree. One must assume he’s talking about food and not restricting clientele.
The restaurant occupies a circa-1882 doctor’s home, its interior refurbished to emphasize Southern style and intimate dining while streamlining kitchen and service flow. The nods to the past are not merely cosmetic; they extend to Husk’s culinary philosophy. The restaurant grows much of its own produce, concentrating on heirloom grains and vegetables that once flourished locally. Whatever is immediately fresh is incorporated into the evolving menu. Whatever can’t be used immediately is preserved and pickled. I loved the sassafras-glazed pork ribs with pickled peaches and butter beans.
Another amazing restaurant is 5th & Taylor in historic Germantown, Nashville’s oldest residential neighborhood. Chef-owner Daniel Lindley describes his restaurant as an homage to the family Sunday dinners he remembers as a youth. If you come for dinner, try the “beer can chicken,” with braised greens and green onion, or the “duck’am,” with blackberries, smoked cabbage and red-wine gravy.
The Chauhan Ale & Masala House has found a way to blend Southern food with the native Indian cuisine of its owner-chef, Maneet Chauhan. Vegetarians delight in her rice-and-jackfruit casserole and her chile paneer relleno with yogurt sauce. And I found the seafood cioppino in a coconut garam masala broth to be one of a kind.
To suggest where one might drink in Nashville might seem condescending. Certainly, every club on Honky-Tonk Row — from Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge to Robert’s Western World and Legends Corner — thrives on the sale of beer and whiskey. So, too, do the classic music clubs in other parts of the city, including The Bluebird Café, the Station Inn and the West End’s Exit/In, once a hangout for Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson.
What many Nashville visitors don’t know, however, is that there are a couple of excellent craft distilleries in the light-industrial Wedgewood Houston (“WeHo”) neighborhood southeast of downtown.
Nashville Craft Distillery owner Bruce Boeko, a former forensic biologist, introduced me to his Naked Biscuit, made from sorghum syrup. His other products include Tennessee Waltz, a blend of two bourbon-mash whiskeys; Grandgousier, a moonshine-style corn whiskey; and Nashville Honey, a cardamom-spiced liqueur.
And at the Corsair Distillery, co-founder Darek Bell, the author of two books on whiskey-making techniques, promises “hand-crafted, small-batch, ultra-premium booze for badasses.” Bell and partner Andrew Webber offer an unusual range of spirits (18 in all), from pumpkin-spice moonshine and red absinthe to a quinoa whiskey made with cereal grains from South America.