I lived a total of almost 15 years in Nashville, Tennessee and before a flood of new residents moved in from New York and California moved in, I could take visitors on a terrific southern food tour—as long as they weren’t real health-conscious. It got a bit better each year and I was sad to leave at the a few years back as the explosion of interesting restaurants—in all price ranges—showed no sign of stopping.
Now it’s hard to open a food or travel magazine without seeing something about Nashville. Here are the main categories of places to try in the city to really get a sense of place. Articles will generally list only one in each of these categories and they tend to all copy each other and pick the same one to play it safe. Experiment and be adventurous: except at the top end you’re not laying out a lot of dough anyway. Nashville hotels are mostly clustered around three separate areas, so it can often make sense to use your location to decide—especially if you’re on foot. That’s easy downtown, tougher on West End/Vanderbilt, impossible out by Opryland.
Nashville Hot Chicken
If I had to point to one thing you should eat in Nashville that you can’t easily get elsewhere, it’s this. And it’s been that way for decades. The hot chicken served here is breaded with spices and then slathered with hot sauce. It can range from spicy enough to make you sweat to so damned spicy that friends of mine have been laid up in bed the next day from stomach problems. That latter version would be from famous Prince’s Hot Chicken, where the top-notch version is really just meant for masochistic idiots trying to prove something.
Prince’s always has a long wait though, so go to Gallatin Road in East Nashville and hit Bolton’s Hot Chicken & Fish or Pepperfire. This awesome deliciousness you see in the photo above is from the latter. I haven’t eaten at newer 400 Degrees, but it’s got a great location two blocks from the Country Music Hall of Fame, near the convention center.
Meat & Three
Loved by hearty eaters, disparaged by doctors, the meat and three (often just “meat n three”) presents southern food in all its caloric glory. The meat can be fried chicken, pork chop, barbeque, meatloaf, or “chicken fried steak” (don’t ask, just enjoy). Then the three sides can be widely varied, from vegetables like collard greens or barbeque beans to mac ‘n cheese and cornbread. Or sometimes you get three things and cornbread. You may need a nap afterwards. Usually these places don’t serve beer. If you want to go classic, get a sweet iced tea.
Arnold’s is the tiny lunch-only place with all the publicity, but my personal favorite when living there was the more varied Copper Kettle Cafe down Granny White Pike. They now have a downtown location at 94 Peabody too. I can also vouch for Sylvan Park, Swett’s, and Loveless Cafe, though none of those are all too easy to get to. Downtown try Katie’s in the Arcade downtown or the Pie Wagon between downtown and Music Row. Monell’s is in a much fancier building in the Germantown area where you eat family style and the food keeps coming until you give up.
No, Nashville is never going to beat out Memphis, Kansas City, or parts of Texas and North Carolina for the bar-b-que crown, but if you think people who argue all day about which pulled pork sandwich is the best are insufferable, you’ll find dozens of good ‘cue places to choose from. The hot place of the moment can change quickly though: my old favorite near Shelby Park just plain disappeared one day and two weeks later a different unrelated one opened a two-minute drive away.
The chains like Whitt’s and Bar-b-cutie aren’t great, but they’ll fill a craving and are easy to find. There’s even a Whitt’s in the Nashville airport. As with the meat n threes, many of the great ones are in oddball locations, so head to Jack’s Bar-B-Cue on lower Broadway for a good pork plate and a cold longneck in the thick of the honky-tonks. Visit simple Hog Heaven if you go check out the Parthenon replica in Centennial Park, or if in hip East Nashville you can choose from Edley’s East or Drifter’s.
Upscale Southern Food
There’s no good label for what you find in the best slow food restaurants of Charleston or Nashville, but the general idea is to take regional ingredients and dishes that are traditionally from the south and give them a lighter, more presentable face. A face that borrows techniques from kitchens that don’t depend on a deep fryer as their main piece of equipment. Ones that have stood the test of time in Nashville include Capitol Grille in the Hermitage Hotel, Eastland Cafe, Watermark, and City House. Margot and Marche in East Nashville share the same owner/chef and both have been consistently great for many years. Newer hotspots are nearby Lockeland Table, plus welcome downtown entries the Southern Steak & Oyster and Husk.
And hey, don’t forget that Benton’s Bacon, the fave of bacon-obsessed foodies across the country, comes from Tennessee. If you see it on the menu somewhere, there’s your shortcut on what to order. There are several good local breweries, Yazoo being the most established and consistent. And people here know their bourbon, so ask a bartender if you’re lost in the sea of bottles on the wall.
Find out more:
The Visit Music City website is far more helpful than most official tourism sites and has extensive listings of where to eat, drink, and be entertained. The weekly Nashville Scene newspaper distributed free around town is a great resource. For the best Nashville hotel deals, hit Trivago.com to search multiple booking sites at once.