Times are a-changin' in the south when it comes to foodie trends, writes Veda Gilbert.
Until recently, Nashville was on the map for "meat and three" restaurants, a low-country staple in which diners pick one meat and three vegetable side dishes; and cayenne-dusted hot chicken. Southern chefs headed north to hone their cooking skills, swapping country ham for pork loin with apples, pecans, and parsnips, and fried okra for tempura zucchini blossoms stuffed with goat's cheese.
In the past 10 years Nashville's restaurant scene has gone gangbusters and no longer are Southern chefs moving north, but northern chefs are moving south, such as chef-owner Jonathan Waxman of New York City's Barbuto, who opened Adele's in Nashville's Gulch area in mid 2014. Even Southern chefs are heading to Music City, with Sean Brock opening a branch of his Charleston-based Husk in 2013.
"I opened Husk Nashville because I'd lived and cooked in the city before, had a lot of good friends there, and I love it," Brock says. "Nashville is growing at a very positive rate. It has its own voice and identity. People are proud to be from Nashville and it creates an energy that's inspiring and contagious. It's not just the food people, but all people from all creative industries are supporting each other and thriving off each other's positive energy."
Aaron Turner, who recently opened Victoria's second Nashville-style hot chicken restaurant, the Hot Chicken Project, in Geelong, agrees. "Nashville has a certain unexplainable energy, one of those places you get to and immediately feel at home," he says.
"It's the people, the creative energy and the willingness to accept and thrive on the creative forces of artists free to express, whether it's music, food, fabric or performance art. Nashville has a spirit very few cities can achieve."
Ten must-visit Nashville restaurants
The Southern Steak & Oyster
On the first floor of the sleek 29-story glass-faced Pinnacle tower at Symphony Place, The Southern has all-day menu offerings combining indigenous flavours with global influences. The large, light circular space with contrasting dark wood fixtures comprises a shuck-to-order oyster bar, custom-cut steak selection and impressive bourbon offerings. Must-tries include smoked hard-boiled Devil of an Egg, halved and doused in Louisiana hot sauce, and the grilled halibut Fish N' Grits with creamy sweet potato replacing traditional ground corn.
150 3rd Avenue South, thesouthernnashville.com
A slick, earth-toned interior and prime downtown location in the heart of Music City, Etch combines intimate dining options with anything-goes open kitchen and bar seating. Chef Deb Paquette received many accolades for her former Nashville eatery, Zola, and is set to do the same here with a menu combining influences from Morocco to Asia, implemented with Southern ingredients. Happy Hour offerings include signature tempura catfish on compressed watermelon, covered in tart Aleppo chilli blueberries, Himalayan salted walnuts and a sprinkling of shredded fennel; cocoa-chilli spiced venison is a dinner-menu must.
303 Demonbreun Street, etchrestaurant.com
Acme Feed & Seed
Giving new life to the century-old Acme Farm Supply building on bustling Broadway Street, Acme is the latest concept by Tom Morales. The upscale honky-tonk offers down-home Southern fare with a modern twist, such as seasoned fried pork with black beans, plantains, and a sweet habanero sauce, while upstairs Nashville's own sushi master, Sam Katakura, hand rolls like a boss. Twenty-eight regional craft beers are on tap, along with handcrafted cocktails; a boutique on the ground level sells Nashville-based artisan goods.
101 Broadway Street, theacmenashville.com
Sean Brock created quite the buzz when he announced plans to open a branch of Husk in a historic home atop Rutledge Hill in the SoBro neighbourhood. A celebration of Southern ingredients, the similarities to its Charleston sibling are evident, though the decor is more bold and, well, Nashville. A market-driven daily changing menu keeps chefs and diners on their toes; the Husk 12-spiced fried chicken lunch plate, with two daily sides such as creamy mac'n'cheese, is not only a nod to the area's hot chicken, but a rite of passage.
37 Rutledge Street, husknashville.com
In a former trolley barn in the Rolling Mill Hill area, Pinewood Social is a "place to meet" created by brothers Benjamin and Max Goldberg. Offering a classic American diner-style menu modernised to suit a discerning palate – buckwheat waffles with apple butter, and meatloaf with jalapeno mac, wilted kale, and a tomato sorghum glaze – entertainment comes in the form of a bowling alley, two dipping pools, a bocce ball court, and an Airstream bar offering cocktails with hand-chiselled ice.
33 Peabody Street, pinewoodsocial.com
Rolf and Daughters
A forerunner of the area's chef-driven movement, Rolf and Daughters has a high-end feel with down-to-earth attitude. Chef Philip Krajeck infuses the menu with influences from his time in Europe, resulting in modern peasant dishes that use quality southern meats and produce. Heritage pork might come with sauerkraut, apples and spaetzle, while hand-rolled ricotta cavatelli pasta basks in a tree-nut ragout with SarVecchio cheese. The 5½-metre ceilings in the former Boiler Building in the redeveloped Werthan Lofts in Germantown make for interesting acoustics, but it all adds to the authenticity.
700 Taylor Street, rolfanddaughters.com
Chef Tandy Wilson might be a native Tennessean but he cooks like a full-blooded Italian. Locals flock to the Sunday suppers at this transformed Germantown art studio, where the menu is divided into sections designed for sharing. Though the belly ham pizza is a favourite, the fresh-off-the-peach-truck peaches pizza with buttermilk cheddar, red onion, and strutto is a must – the sweet peaches popping against the slightly sour cheese.
1222 4th Avenue North, cityhousenashville.com
The 404 Kitchen
Chef Matt Bolus, formerly of Charleston's Fig, creates some of the most noteworthy dishes in Music City. The European-influenced, ingredient-driven menu uses the best seasonal local produce. Served in an effortlessly comfortable converted shipping container in The Gulch neighbourhood, standout dishes include the palate-cleansing crudo starter of thinly sliced gruner and marcona almonds, with pickled strawberries and pea tendrils.
404 12th Avenue South, the404nashville.com
The industrial feel remains at this converted former garage and repair shop, giving way to a sophisticated urban restaurant in the heart of The Gulch. An ode to Jonathan Waxman's mother, who inspired his career, Italian influences are evident throughout the seasonal menu, where fist-sized meatballs rest on polenta finished with grated grana, and the catch of the day might come with greens and cider butter. Waxman's career has spanned both coasts; this position in the South is fitting indeed.
1210 McGavock Street, adelesnashville.com
The Catbird Seat
A bucket-list essential: 20 bar seats circle a U-shaped bar around an open kitchen, allowing Trevor Moran, formerly of Noma, and his team to interact with guests as they cook.. There's a multi-course tasting menu of highbrow cooking with Southern flair that might include freshly ground tartare with green almonds, pistachios and herbs, or maple thyme bacon custard in a hollowed-out egg shell. Bookings for this sought-after experience are on a 30-day cycle, meaning you need to jump online 30 days prior to secure your spot; those in the know choose a later booking so as to enjoy a pre-dinner cocktail downstairs at The Patterson House.
1711 Division Street, thecatbirdseatrestaurant.com