Live music is pervasive in Nashville and nearly every venue we frequented during our weekend in Music City had a band, including the bar at the airport. While country music is what Nashville is famous for, it was the laid back food scene that impressed the most. From Tennessee barbecue to an upscale rift on hot chicken to locally roasted coffee, our weekend in Music City revolved around eating and drinking with impressive tunes playing in the background.
Neither my husband or I are country music aficionados. That is not to say that I don’t enjoy country music, but aside from a few select artists I don’t know much about the genre. Most of my knowledge is gleaned from the soapy television show Nashville. From the show, I learned that our first stop had to be to the Parthenon of country music, the Grand Ole Opry. Thanks to American Airlines our flight was (characteristically) delayed. The show had started by the time we slipped into our pew-like seats with drinks in hand. While I knew that the Grand Ole Opry was an iconic music venue, I did not know that its origins were as a daily radio broadcast dating back to 1925. This explained the commercials. On the night we were there, eleven different artists performed. Their styles represented the range of country music from old-timey crooners to rock-inflected jams. Perhaps my favorite act of the night, was Bobby Osborne and the Rocky Top X-press. At 86 years old, Bobby Osborne is still performing under a wide brimmed hat and a sequined jacket. The group played the iconic ode to Tennessee, Rocky Top. This was the first time I had heard the song, but it would not be the last. Many of the bands we heard whipped up the crowd with their renditions of the song throughout the weekend in Music City.
We slipped out early to make it to our late-night dinner reservation – a tactic I recommend if you are relying on ride-sharing as your main form of transportation. The Grand Ole Opry is nearly 25 minutes from downtown Nashville and the rush of everyone leaving at the end of the show would have resulted in a protracted wait. Despite our 9:30pm dinner reservation, Rolf and Daughters was packed with diners enjoying the seasonal cuisine in an industrial-chic space. Of all of the eateries we sampled, this one seemed to be the least frequented by the tourist masses who flock to Nashville. We feasted on a kale dish with a tangy yogurt sauce, pasture-raised, tender chicken (that our server said is their most popular dish), and home-made pasta. The loud, convivial atmosphere and respectful treatment of the seasonal ingredients kept me awake (well past my bedtime).
Having a South African partner means that Saturdays (no matter where we are) belong to rugby. Knowing this, we woke up early to try and hit up Biscuit Love before the game. Even at 8:00am the line snaked up and down the sidewalk. We opted for Plan B. Barista Parlor Golden Sound was less than a ten minute walk away and like any good Nashville establishment, it had flaky, buttery biscuits. This is perhaps the coolest coffee shop I have frequented. The coffee counter occupies the center of the room like a stage. The baristas unhurriedly concoct espresso drinks for the runners, families with children in strollers, and 20-somethings on laptops who all came here to enjoy the locally roasted beans and cool vibe. Since I was craving a biscuit, we split a breakfast sandwich and sipped cappuccinos before returning to our mod room at the Thompson Hotel.
While Callum shouted at the rugby, I (a planner at heart) plotted the rest of our day. By noon we were back on the street enjoying the autumnal temperatures and walking toward the downtown area. The plan was to go to the Johnny Cash museum, but our growling bellies got the better of us and we diverted to Martin’s B-B-Que Joint. Like many no reservation spots that have gained notoriety in Nashville, this restaurant had a queue out the door. Despite Callum’s laments about waiting, we joined the line. Martin’s smokes it’s meat on-site and they serve until they run out. With ribs, brisket, pulled pork it was a touch choice, but 45 minutes in line gave us plenty of time to make up our minds. I opted for the brisket sandwich with broccoli salad and hushpuppies while Callum went for the ribs, coleslaw, and Mac-in-Cheese washed down with cold beer. You order from the counter and then can sit in the air-conditioned restaurant or go upstairs to the expansive covered patio. The space is surprisingly homey. The use of plants and furniture arrangements creates intimate spaces to eat and enjoy the sunshine. This is also where they smoke the meat. Even if you aren’t hungry, I would recommend enjoying a drink or two here – just remember you can skip the line if you aren’t ordering food.
After having started day-drinking, we decided to continue bar-hopping. We made our way over to Broadway taking our time to explore on foot (or in Callum’s case) on one of the ubiquitous scooters that have overtaken many US cities. When we made it to Broadway, it was time to weave throw the throngs of people occupying every inch of sidewalk to take in the honkey-tonk scene. At Robert’s Western World we grabbed PBRs and listened to the house band play country hits from Rocky Top to Johnny Cash and June Carter’s famous duet, Jackson. The crowd was older and more subdued. Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge next door was body-to-body packed. There was a different band jamming on each floor and beer, not music, seemed to be the main draw. Of course that could have been due to the fact that the majority of the patrons were Eagles fans in town for the football came. After a few more beers, we headed back to our hotel to enjoy the sunset and Nashville skyline from the rooftop bar, L.A. Jackson. The bar is conveniently located in the our hotel and this is the place to come for expansive views, a post atmosphere, and craft cocktails.
Dinner was at Husk, the Nashville outpost of the Charlston-based restaurant where Southern cuisine is elevated from its humble roots to fine dining. The historic home dates back to the late 1800s. We sat in the front dinging room and sampled Southern cuisine at its best. We did not feast as we would normally have done, primarily because we were still full from our barbecue extravaganza. Every plate that came out of the kitchen was comfort food. It reminded me of my early years growing up in the South. Callum tasted his first pimento cheese with pickled serrano peppers. The star was the crispy, fried chicken skins with honey and hot sauce – an upscale rendition of hot chicken. All the entrees looked amazing, but we split the locally raised beef with a side of mushrooms and bok chow. The meat was perfectly cooked and the dish was rich and hearty.
The following morning we slept off the excesses from the previous day, and rose in time to grab a coffee from the coffee shop in the lobby of the hotel before setting out on foot to Hattie B’s to sample Nashville’s most famous dish, hot chicken. While Hattie B’s is a relative newcomer on the hot chicken scene, it has already achieved notoriety. We arrived shortly after Hattie B’s opened and still had to wait in line. The restaurant is cramped, but we grabbed a seat at a communal table on the patio and ogled all the versions of hot chicken on offer. Food envy kicked in when I saw the hot chicken and waffles. Not to say, our crispy, chicken sandwich wasn’t good; it was one of the best things we ate all weekend.
Seeing as we had not done enough drinking the day before, our next stop was Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery for a whisky tour and tasting. In full disclosure, this is probably only the third time I have ever tried a whisky neat and overall whisky and bourbons are not my beverage of choice. Despite that, the tour was one of the highlights of the weekend. The distillery has such a fabled history and our tour guide was lively and brought the story of a family that operated one of the largest pre-prohibition operations in the country to life. The great, great, great grandsons stumbled upon their family history and relaunched the business in 2014. The whiskey’s are young. We tried a 2-year whisky that will be phased out as soon as their 4-year whisky hits the shelves, but for this whisky novice, not to bad. Perhaps most instructive was learning how to properly sip a whisky, no smelling it first.
With only a bit of time before our flight, our final stop was Pinewood Social a cavernous space near the river that has a restaurant, 5 lane bowling alley, a plunge pool, and bocce. The food looked sublime, but by now we were unable to consume another morsel. We sat at the bar and reminisced about our weekend in Music City.
If you are looking for a posh place to stay, the Thompson Hotel is a great base for exploring the city. The Gulch is a hipster neighborhood that is walking distance to all of the attractions. The hotel is stylish and the mod rooms are contemporary and comfortable. Plus who can resist a hotel room with a record player. This is Music City after all.