The 24 Most Essential Nashville Food Experiences
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After a year where restaurants’ business was slowed to a drip by capacity constraints, the spigot is now wide open, and diners are excitedly returning to visit their old favorites and discover what’s new. Fortunately, Nashville has a plethora of fantastic dining options from low-down to upscale. Now that business is booming, the experience of sliding your feet under a restaurant table alongside friends and family is comforting and exhilarating at the same time. Here are some of your best choices to relive the thrill of actually dining out.
Pick your plate at an iconic “Meat & Three”
While it’s no longer unique to Nashville, the tradition of a “meat & three” meal where diners slide cafeteria trays down a serving line and choose their protein and three vegetable side dishes from a steam table filled with a cornucopia of delicious options originated here and still is an integral part of local lunches. Fortunately in Nashville, macaroni ‘n’ cheese, jello, and stewed raisins count as “vegetables” on these sorts of menus. Arnold’s Country Kitchen is acknowledged as the archetype of meat & threes, with lines stretching out the door waiting their turn to choose from a selection of meats that changes daily. Some locals base their weekly calendar on Fried Chicken—Monday, Meatloaf; Tuesday, Pork Chop; Wednesday, etc.—memorizing the daily specials like a mantra, and now that they’ve added night and weekend service, there are even more chances to step up to the counter. In West Nashville, Wendell Smith’s has been serving perfectly fried chicken, catfish, and pork chops alongside vegetables like gramma cooked for more than six decades. Swett’s is another family-owned example of a classic meat & three that has been in operation since the middle of the past century. In addition to classic Southern and soul food fare, they feature a smokehouse that pumps out some fantastic ribs, pulled pork, and brisket. Speaking of soul food, Silver Sands Cafe is still a secret to many because of their hidden location near the Nashville Farmers’ Market, but if you know, you know. There’s no better spot in town for chitterlings, pigs feet, oxtail, neck bones, and hog maw—all the parts of a pig or a cow that you probably don’t normally think of eating, but you definitely should!
How to order: Don’t try to hold a seat at a table until you’ve gone through the line and chosen your food. The delicate calculus of a meat & three means that by the time you’re ready to sit down, a spot has almost always opened up.
East Nashville has been waiting a long time for another standout restaurant like Cafe Roze—open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Here, quality ingredients meet innovative techniques and international inspirations under the watchful eye of chef Julia Jaksic. Unafraid to go traditional with an archetypical steak frites platter or riff on the classics with Asian and Mediterranean elements added to classic dishes, Jaksic has really hit her stride in the past year, and the neighborhood is luckier for it.
How to order: Call 615-945-9100 for reservations or carryout, or make your reservations online.
Long the best spot in town for a power lunch between music industry executives, politicos, downtown workers or in-the-know tourists seeking a great meal before setting course toward the honky tonks, Midtown Cafe is one of those reliable restaurants who still recognize the importance of impeccable service in addition to quality ingredients. The menu exhibits continental influences along with dashes of California cuisine and Southern cookin’, so there’s something for everyone. Be sure to start with a bowl of the famous lemon-artichoke soup.
How to order: Call 615-320-7176 or make reservations online. Takeout or delivery is also available from the website.
Since moving across the street into bigger digs, The 404 Kitchen has taken full advantage of the additional space. The restaurant has expanded its menu to include even more hearty dishes that showcase premium proteins grilled, seared, fried or smoked, all under the expert hand of chef Matt Bolus. Veggies don’t get the short shrift either, but it’s the meat that best complements Nashville’s best whiskey bar, Gertie’s, on the ground floor of the restaurant.
How to order: Call 615-251-1404 for reservations or order curbside-to-go online
Take an international tour of restaurants on Nolensville Road
While it seems like Nashville’s restaurant scene revolves around elevated Southern farm-to-table and hot chicken, the city also has a vibrant global culinary community. You just have to go looking for it, and the best street to find it is along Nolensville Road, an extension of 4th Avenue that stretches from just outside of downtown to, well, Nolensville. Populated with fantastic small restaurants, some of which are tucked into the back of international markets, a tour of Nolensville Road exposes intrepid diners to a plethora of fascinating food. King Tut’s permanently parked their popular food truck and added a covered deck, and now foodies are flocking to try their Egyptian family recipes. Nashville is home to the largest Kurdish community in the world outside of Kurdistan, and spots like Newroz Market and House of Kabob offer Middle Eastern specialties such as shawarma, tabbouleh, flatbreads baked in a unique barrel-shaped oven, and delightful pastries for dessert. La Hacienda is a neighborhood stalwart serving regional Mexican favorites and the best huevos rancheros in town. Central America is represented by Pupuseria Reina La Bendición, a Salvadoran restaurant offering traditional pupusas, tortas and empanadas.
How to order: Don’t worry if you can’t speak the language. Part of the fun is asking for help or just pointing at the menu to receive a delicious surprise.
Nashville’s only native-born James Beard Award-winning chef Tandy Wilson continues to set the bar for local culinary expertise with his innovative versions of rustic Italian cuisine made using primarily locally-sourced seasonal ingredients. Add in an excellent wine list and cocktail program, and you’ve got a beloved spot for date night dining. From the iconic belly ham pizza (get it with an egg on top!) to the best catfish entree in a town full of fried whiskerfish dishes, City House is a star in the local dining firmament. The addition of outdoor dining under twinkling strings of lights has been another nice development.
How to order: Call 615-736-5838 for reservations or pickup.
Eat like a tourist (but better) at these fantastic hotel restaurants
Nashville is blessed with plenty of hotels at different price points to service the tourist trade, but many of those visitors immediately rush out the door into the fray of Lower Broad without realizing that some of the best restaurants in town are actually inside their hotel. Smart tourists or locals seeking a fine meal with great service should check out Capitol Grille at the Hermitage, Bourbon Steak at the JW Marriott, The Thompson’s Marsh House or Gray & Dudley at 21C for the best chance to actually dine where the tourists aren’t. Sean Brock’s contemporary American ode to classic elegant hotel food at The Continental is an intriguing addition to the local culinary scene.
How to order: Don’t forget that many of these restaurants also offer breakfast and lunch as an amenity for their hotel guests, and most are also fine with carryout, so you’ve got plenty of options.
Get spicy and saucy with some Nashville Hot Chicken
The story of how Nashville hot chicken was originally invented by a spurned lover to punish a boyfriend with a wandering eye is oft told, and Thornton Prince’s girlfriend probably didn’t imagine how much he would love it or that she was creating the city’s most iconic food. Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack is still operating in the family and is definitely the most popular purveyor of piquant poultry. Now we’re not talking about spicy like your average Buffalo wings; Nashville hot chicken is intended to be painful with its infernally dark crust brushed with cayenne-laden lard before serving. Most importantly, you can’t have good hot chicken without starting out with great fried chicken, and you’ll find the best at old school spots like Prince’s, Bolton’s Spicy Chicken & Fish, Slow Burn, and 400 Degrees. For a more convenient and familiar dining experience, newer restaurants like Hattie B’s and Party Fowl have multiple locations that feel more like a restaurant than a “joint” or a “shack.” There’s now even hot chicken at the Nashville airport, but we suggest you reserve that option for inbound flights, if you know what we mean...
How to order: Consider the heat levels listed on the menu to be inflated. If you normally like it hot, try medium. Even mild packs some spice at most places, so aim a little low or try a few different heat levels to take the entire ride.
Except for the untouchable heritage pork ragu, which has been on the menu pretty much since opening night, the rest of the offerings at this temple of Mediterranean food changes seasonally and based on the whim of the talented kitchen staff. Vegetables are frequently the star of the show, and toothsome pastas play important supporting roles. Don’t be concerned if you don’t recognize every ingredient in a menu item’s description; put your faith in the chef and make the leap!
How to order: Make reservations online or for curbside pickup, order here.
The artful plating at Etch is indicative of the care that kitchen puts into every dish. Chef Deb Paquette is an expert at layering exotic flavors inspired by international ingredients to create a truly unique menu of delights. The chef’s bar is the prime spot to view the delicate dance in the open kitchen as the staff creates and plates items ranging from the mandatory app of roasted cauliflower to a culinary world tour of entrees like Argentinian beef tenderloin and Indian chicken.
How to order: Call 615-522-0685 or order online
This shrine to Southern cooking has survived, nay thrived, during executive chef changes through the years. Continued excellence stems from the restaurant’s puritanical dedication to using seasonal regional ingredients, and they are especially talented at stretching out the seasons through preservation and pickling items for year-round use. The plate of seasonal vegetables is often overlooked on the menu, but the quartet of composed plates that arrive at the table aren’t just a combination of side dishes.
How to order: Call 615-256-6565 for reservations or carryout, or hold your place at the table by going online
Smoke ’em if you got ’em at these barbecue joints
While Memphis gets most of the barbecue attention in the state, Nashville features some legit smoked meats, as well. Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint is one of the last practitioners of whole hog cookery in Tennessee, and each of its locations has at least one smoker big enough for an entire pig. Peg Leg Porker specializes in West Tennessee-style dry rub pork ribs and don’t sleep on the yardbird or pulled pork. Edley’s Bar-B-Que treats smoked meats in novel ways, like the Tuck’s Special, a decadent brisket sandwich topped with pimento cheese, red and white bbq sauce, and an over-easy egg. The Gambling Stick doesn’t look like much, operating out of a trailer in a parking lot with a canvas tent as a dining room, but it prefers to spend money (and time) sourcing the best pasture-raised antibiotic-free meats to smoke and use in interesting dishes like brisket & black eyed pea chile or “pigsket,” a unique cut of pork that combines elements of beef brisket and pork tenderloin.
How to order: Order instructions vary
For a restaurant with the word “tacos” in its name, there certainly is a lot of buzz about the chicken tortilla soup at Mas Tacos. This East Nashville fixture does serve some remarkable tacos, especially the cast iron chicken with salsa verde and sour cream or the vegetarian quinoa and sweet potato taco topped with shredded cabbage. It can get a little cramped in the small dining space, but there’s also a lovely outdoor option to enjoy your bounty of tacos and soup.
How to order: It’s no surprise that they don’t take reservations at this casual tiny taqueria, but you can order to-go by calling 615-543-6271.
Most of the best Thai restaurants in town exude a grittier vibe, basically sparse dining rooms adjacent to multiple woks cooking over burners that sound like jet fighters. That’s fine and all, but Thai Esane prefers to offer a more refined dining environment to enjoy their flavorful platters of traditional Thai. New locations in Brentwood and in the Assembly Food Hall downtown have made it easier for more people to discover this fantastic food. While you can get it as hot as you can handle, this isn’t just stunt food. It’s beautifully composed and thoughtfully seasoned food that raises Thai Esane to the top of the heap.
How to order: Order online or call 615-454-5373 for carryout.
The proud possessor of Nashville’s oldest beer license, Brown’s Diner unashamedly embraces its dive bar status. Originally opened in a retired streetcar, even the smallish additional dining space maintains the appropriate dinginess, which is the perfect setting to enjoy a longneck beer and a classic griddled cheeseburger. Music industry veterans populate the dark bar in the older streetcar section, and occasionally one of them will jump up on the tiny stage to try out a new composition. It’s a true taste of authentic “Old Nashville” before country went corporate.
How to order: You can call 615-269-5509 to order for carryout, but you might as well just sit at the bar and nurse a beer while they cook your burger for you.
Chef Margot McCormack was forced to close her sister restaurant, Marche, after the double hit of the March tornado and pandemic, but she’s rolled the greatest hits of that menu into her already popular cozy European-style bistro. The convivial attitude of the dining room is amplified by the fact that many fans maintain standing reservations every week, so it’s like eating with family. There’s no finer spot in town to feel like you’re dining in a Provencal farmhouse while tucking into a meal of classic French cuisine.
How to order: Call 615-227-4668 for reservations or order online for Mar ToGo
The multi-course dining experience at The Catbird Seat is unlike any other in Nashville. Reservations for the few coveted spots around the kitchen arena fill up weeks in advance, and those who are quick on the jump are rewarded with dishes prepared right in front of their eyes before being artfully plated and presented to diners. Some courses are just a single bite to tantalize the palate with explosions of unique flavors, while others are slightly more substantial. Optional beverage pairings are ingeniously matched to the food menu and are definitely worthy of consideration. It’s not a cheap date, but you buy the ticket and you take the ride.
How to order: Reservations open up 30 days in advance at midnight, so make yours online in advance.
Who knew that Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine created using classic French cooking techniques would be so popular in Nashville? But that’s exactly the case at Josephine where chef Andy Little applies those influences to locally sourced ingredients to elevate normally mundane dishes like fried bologna, biscuits and gravy, cornbread, beef tongue, and catfish into some really special dishes. An astutely curated wine list and cocktail program rounds out any dinner or brunch experience.
How to order: Call 615-292-7766 for reservations or carryout, and use Postmates for delivery
Bastion occupies a building with an industrial vibe, but the warmth of the staff and the cuisine make you forget about the warehouse exterior. Divided into two distinct spaces, the Big Bar serves unpretentious cocktails and a single food item: nachos. But they are transcendent nachos with your choice of pulled pork or vegetarian chorizo, pickled vegetables, cotija cheese, and two house hot sauces. Under the direction of chef Josh Habiger, Bastion consistently serves some of the absolute best and most interesting food in the city.
How to order: Bastion has temporarily discontinued their popular large portions feast, but they’re still welcoming parties up to four diners for set menu dinners with advance reservations. Make yours online in advance.
The sultry vibe of celebrity chef Maneet Chauhan’s flagship restaurant makes it the perfect destination for an evening of festive food and drink. Knowing that not all diners are familiar with the intricacies of classic Indian cuisine, the chef makes it easy and fun to order from her menu thanks to clever takes that introduce more familiar elements and names. That lamb keema? She serves it on nachos made using papad chips. Unsure of whether to order the tandoori chicken? How about as part of a rich poutine plate made with cheese curds and masala fries? Go for it.
How to order: Call 615-242-8426 or go online to make reservations or order carryout online through Chauhan’s website.
The quintessential neighborhood restaurant, Lockeland Table hosts popular community Hours where the proceeds from happy hour food and drink specials are donated to local schools. Whether it’s at a seat at the bar to enjoy a creative cocktail or a table with a view of the infernal pizza oven, there’s always a buzzy vibe in Lockeland with plenty of interesting things to see. Chef Hal Holden-Bache’s menu skews Southern farm-to-table but with the occasional delightful detour to international destinations like empanadas or red Thai curry mussels or rustic pasta plates. A pizza out of the wood-fired oven is always an excellent choice as a starter or a prodigious palate cleanser.
How to order: Call 615-619-6006 for reservations or back door curbside takeaway.
Early supporters of the craft brew movement, this neighborhood hang is probably the first place that a lot of Nashvillians discovered a beer more complex than a Bud Light. It’s still a primary destination for adventurous beer lovers seeking craft drafts and more than a hundred other beer options in bottles and cans. A tight menu of sandwiches, burgers and salads make 12 South Taproom a one-stop shop for a meal and the chance to linger over a few beers with friends while watching the packs of bachelorettes stroll by on shopping sprees. It’s a true oasis in the occasional madness of 12 South.
How to order: Call 615-463-7552 or order curbside carryout online. Delivery is available through Postmates.
It’s a bit of a long haul all the way down Highway 100 to reach this iconic Southern cafe, but at least it’s a pretty drive. Sure, there are often a bunch of tourists eating there who read about the Loveless in some national food magazine, and the after-church crowds on Sundays can be intense, but if you’re looking for exemplary fluffy buttermilk biscuits and delicious jams and jellies or some of the greatest fried chicken in the known universe, it’s totally worth the effort. Just maybe consider going during off hours.
How to order: Call 615-646-9700 or make reservations online. They’ve even got a convenient app for online ordering.
Rosepepper is almost as well known for the pithy messages on its sign stationed out front in view of the street. In addition to funny aphorisms and inspirational sayings, there have even been marriage proposals posted on the iconic sign. Those relationships may very well have started over a couple of Rosepepper’s neighborhood favorite margaritas and some platters of its Sonoran-style Mexican specialties. If you start out with an appetizer of the cheese-laden carne asada fries, you may not make it to the rest of the menu.
How to order: Call 615-227-4777 or go online to order takeout.