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The Essential Nashville

The Essential Nashville
Written by Erin Byers Murray | Photos by Andrea Behrends

We [Heart] Nashville

From meat-and-threes to ticketed tasting menus, these are our Music City musts

Get in line.

Nashville is a city fueled by music, steered by history, and revved up with a dynamic food and drink scene. And the best way to begin to understand it is with a red tray lunch at Arnold’s Country Kitchen.

Meat-and-three at Arnold's

Even if you arrive at Arnold’s right when they open at 10:30 am, you’ll probably be faced with a line of hungry patrons who queue up Monday through Friday for this Nashville institution’s legendary meat-and-three lunch. The line doesn’t take too long—and you’ll encounter just about every slice of Nashville’s community there, from construction workers and teachers to judges and world-famous songwriters. Before you know it, you’ll be pulling a red tray down the stainless-steel counter, pointing to the savory contents of a loaded steam table.

It’s not a meal you could eat every day—nor should you. Meat-and-three lunches are modeled on the country farmhouse tradition of eating a large meal at midday. You’ll start by choosing a meat, like fried chicken, roast beef, breaded catfish, liver and onions, or chicken fried steak. (The selection changes daily.) Next, figure out your sides—turnip greens, pinto beans, fried apples. I like to keep an eye on proprietor Kahlil Arnold’s social media posts, where he announces when he’s firing up the smoker for a plate of cherry-smoked ribs or putting meatloaf on the menu. It’s always affordable, deeply filling food that usually rings up for less than $11.

The Arnold family has been running this spot since Jack Arnold took the space over in the 1980s. Today, his wife, Rose, and son, Kahlil, run the joint like a family should: scooping food on to plates, manning the dining room, working the register—always quick with warm and welcoming smiles. It’s a genuinely Nashville experience that immediately reveals the heart of what the city is all about: soulful food and great hospitality.

Arnold's offerings change daily.

Take a seat at Margot’s table.

The Five Points neighborhood in East Nashville is buzzing with life—restaurants, bars, coffee shops, and pizza haunts—are all jam-packed. Colorful murals pepper the urban landscape. But eighteen years ago, as Margot McCormack was putting the finishing touches on an old service station to turn it in to her eponymous cafe and bar, you could hardly find a good cup of coffee, let alone a condo. The native Nashvillian gambled, and in the process, helped transform the neighborhood into a destination. 

Margot Café & Bar is the kind of comfortable, bustling restaurant that every neighborhood craves. The bar is cozy, so you can chat with those around you. The dining rooms, both downstairs near the open kitchen and upstairs on the balcony, put diners elbow-to-elbow in pillowed banquettes. The daily changing menu, created by McCormack and chef de cuisine Hadley Long, showcases the pair’s appreciation for creative French, Italian, and Southern dishes. Think scallops over shaved cauliflower and carrots laced with preserved lemon; pan-roasted steelhead trout over basmati; baked rigatoni with herbed ricotta and italian sausage ragu. It’s thoughtful, familiar fare that’s served on old china set out over bare wooden tables.

Seek out Nashville’s signature hot chicken.

André Prince Jeffries; Prince's Hot Chicken

The story of Prince’s hot chicken has been told and retold, dissected, reported, and passed along in various forms. And while it does involve the tale of a woman cooking up a pile of chile pepper-laced fried revenge for a cheating boyfriend, it is also a story about struggle and triumph within Nashville’s African-American community.

Hot chicken has now been replicated and riffed on by everyone from passionate fans to KFC. But Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, located in North Nashville, is where locals will tell you to find the real deal. The strip-mall location maintains its old-school ways as a long-standing, family-run joint, where the wait and eventual reward are shared with long-time fans as well as visitors making the pilgrimage.

Other variations are worth seeking out too. Bolton’s Spicy Chicken and Fish goes deeper on the pepper with its dry rub. (And don’t skip the hot fish; there’s a reason it gets equal billing.) Pepperfire Hot Chicken aims for the same depth of flavor as Prince’s, but like many of the restaurants now doing iterations of hot chicken, they offer a wider range, from “southernified” (no heat) to XX Hot.

Hattie B’s Hot Chicken, which opened its first location in Midtown in 2012, offers a gateway option, with its bright branding and multiple locations. They, too, offer a range of heat styles, along with a selection of house-made sides—you can’t go wrong with a black-eyed pea salad or the pimento mac and cheese.

Hot chicken, black-eyed pea salad, and banana pudding at Hattie B's.

Find the spots that put the city on the culinary map.

When the Catbird Seat opened in Nashville in 2011, its intimate thirty-two-seat counter and chefs-on-stage experience gave the city a place to channel creative coolness. Chefs Erik Anderson and Josh Habiger were doing something experimental and daring for any part of the country, let alone a city whose culinary talents had just barely begun to reveal themselves. On the menu, you’d find rabbit with morels and smoked yogurt; albacore tuna with citrus, chiles, and sea beans; and braised veal cheeks with beets and dill. (There was also a play on hot chicken: a snack of super crispy chicken skin dusted with cayenne.)

The restaurateur brothers behind the concept, Max and Ben Goldberg, are still the city’s most boundary-pushing conceptualizers. Seek out the all-day cafe and bowling alley Pinewood Social for large-format cocktails and buckets of fried chicken. At the stylish seafood- and vegetable-driven Henrietta Red, settle in for oysters on the half shell and a sherry-based cocktail.

And there’s Bastion, an evolution of the Catbird Seat, which was created by Habiger after he and Anderson left. Tucked behind an industrial bar of the same name, the intimate restaurant also puts diners at a chef’s counter, but additional table seating, a rotating selection of vinyl curated by the chef himself, and sultry lighting give this space its own relaxed coolness. The ticketed meal can be an à la carte or coursed-out experience. On the plate, Habiger injects whimsy into dishes that are listed simply—scallops + pistachios, carrot + yogurt—yet packed with flavor. A sunchoke and crab dish, for example, arrives as two pillowy fritters over a foamy hollandaise.  

The Catbird Seat, meanwhile, enters its fourth iteration this spring. The jewel-box space is now under the helm of two chefs, Will Aghajanian and Liz Johnson, who are bringing their combined experiences cooking at spots like Per Se, Mugaritz, and Empellon Cucina to the city.

A tasting spread at Bastion.

For a taste of the new classics, follow the awards. 

Since opening in 2007, City House has exuded a quiet confidence, putting down roots in an evolving neighborhood and plating up honest, Italian-inspired Southern fare under native son Tandy Wilson.

Tandy Wilson's Pizzas

From a perch at the pizza counter, you can feel the warm glow of the wood-burning oven as chefs push and pull mozzarella-scattered pies around in the embers. Octopus with smoked sausage, chickpeas, and hakurei turnips might have been considered bold at Wilson’s opening, but it’s now a locally adored staple, as is the belly ham pizza and a bread gnocchi tangled with rabbit sugo. After several years of nominations, Wilson was named Best Chef: Southeast by the James Beard Foundation in 2016, solidifying his place as one of the region’s best. 

The Beard Foundation has turned more attention on Nashville’s chefs in recent years, putting McCormack, Habiger, and Andy Little of Josephine on its regional semifinalist lists. Lockeland Table received a nomination, as did the Catbird Seat, both for being superb new restaurants when they opened.

Chef Julia Sullivan; Henrietta Red is known for its oysters.

In 2018, Henrietta Red continued the streak when it picked up a Best New Restaurant nom, while its chef, Julia Sullivan, was named to Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs list. Judging by the constant buzz inside the dining room, just a short block away from City House, the restaurant is destined for similar status as a Nashville staple. The space is comfortable, chic, and feminine. And Sullivan’s menu—a balance of focused small plates—emphasizes vegetables and seafood; you’ll find mushroom steak topped with a sourdough crumb, baked ricotta with delicata squash. It’s relaxed and jovial in here, but there is serious work being done both in the kitchen and behind the bar.

The culinary scene’s award-winning streak is likely to continue.  Later this year, superstar Sean Brock plans to open his dream restaurant: Focused on the foods of his Appalachian upbringing, the two-story space will house both a casual, approachable downstairs dining room, as well as a second-story tasting menu space. 

The bar at Henrietta Red.

Locals (occasionally) fuel up on Broadway, too. 

Yes, it’s the heart of Nashville’s tourist scene. And yes, it’s loud and rowdy with music pouring out over the cowboy-booted passersby. And yes, it now boasts at least a half dozen honky tonks sporting country music’s biggest names—FGL House, Blake Shelton’s Old Red, Dierks Bentley’s Whiskey Row. But locals still do love Broadway.

Inevitably, when I’m down that way, I find my way to Robert’s Western World where there’s homegrown talent on the stage and cold, cheap beers being passed over the bar. One wall is lined up with vintage boots and another stacked beer bottles; snapshots fill just about every uncovered inch. I come here to tap my feet, scoot around the cozy dance floor, and toss appreciative tips into a bucket when the band passes one around.

But no trip to Robert’s is complete without a fried bologna sandwich. Whether I’m there late into the night braving shots and bottles of High Life or stopping through with my family for some afternoon tunes, that perfectly griddled slab of bologna squeezed into a bun—and accompanied by a fiddling crooner—seems to set everything right in the world. 

Robert's Western World

Go ahead and snap your mural selfie.

I’ll admit, when I see a line of folks waiting to get a selfie in front of one of Nashville’s many, many outdoor murals, I’m tempted to roll my eyes. But I don’t. Because although the Instagram-driven phenomenon seems to have invaded the city’s streets, it’s also become a part of what makes Nashville so literally attractive. An explosion of street art has washed the city’s exterior walls with vibrant color and poignant messages, giving us a full scope of public art.

Biscuits piled high at Biscuit Love

The mural-selfie phenomenon started when street artist Adrien Saporiti put up his now iconic “I Believe in Nashville” mural in 2012. Slowly at first, new murals cropped up, including remakes of Saporiti’s original. But recently, a spate of new art projects, whether done by traveling artists or with the help of local arts initiatives, have made their mark in many of Nashville’s neighborhoods. Stroll down 11th Avenue in the Gulch and you can’t miss the Nashville Walls Project’s soft greens and blues framing Laurel Street, or the “wings” mural by artist Kelsey Montague. Charlotte Avenue now has a block-long string of murals thanks to the Off the Wall project, funded by local businesses.

What’s more, they often lead to or are placed strategically beside Nashville’s favorite restaurants. After lining up for a selfie with the wings, you can queue up for the Gulch’s beloved local brunch hang, Biscuit Love, for plates of buttered biscuits smothered in gravy. In 12 South, seek out the cool-casual Lebanese hit Epice, and then the “make music not war” mural on its side wall. And Rolf & Daughters, one of the city’s best haunts for European-inspired small plates, can be spotted by the quirky line drawings that take up one wall of the former factory building. 

Rolf & Daughters

Don’t leave without a piece of the pie.

Nashville has a long-lasting love affair with sweets. The electric cotton candy machine was invented here (by a dentist, oddly). And famed candy maker Goo Goo Cluster, which has been in production for more than one hundred years, has come back from obscurity to become one of the city’s calling cards. Today, it’s our dessert and pastry chefs who are satisfying our collective sweet tooth.

Pastry chef Lisa Marie White

Best to start with a local favorite. The longtime pastry pro at City House, Rebekah Turshen, brings heat and soul to her desserts. Whether it’s an almond ricotta skillet cake or her crackly, crispy cookies, her finishes perfectly cap a meal.

Newer to town but no less beloved is pastry chef Lisa Marie White, who moved to Nashville after cutting her teeth in New Orleans where she helped open the much-lauded bakery Willa Jean. She shows her range through the restaurants at Thompson Nashville, putting out big, bouncy biscuits and ultra-gooey cinnamon rolls with the coffee at Killebrew, or finely plated sweets like hazelnut mousse cake at Marsh House.