All-Time Greats

The 24 Most Essential Nashville Food Experiences

Go big or go home.

Nashville diners aren’t going to let a little pandemic get between them and their favorite restaurants—either for carryout, delivery, or under the current dine-in capacity restrictions. The myriad visitors to town may seek out some spot they read about in an airline magazine (back when those were still a thing), but Nashvillagers know what’s what, and these restaurants and dishes are the stalwarts that locals really treasure. Here are the most iconic food experiences to cross off your Nashville bucket list.

Pick your plate at an iconic meat and three

Various locations
While it’s no longer unique to Nashville, the tradition of a “meat and three” meal where diners slide cafeteria trays down a serving line and choose their protein and three vegetable side dishes originated here and still is an integral part of local lunches. Fortunately in Nashville, mac and cheese, Jello, and stewed raisins count as “vegetables” on these sorts of menus. Arnold’s Country Kitchen is acknowledged as the archetype, with lines stretching out the door to choose from a selection of meats that changes daily. 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 and it even features a smokehouse that pumps out some fantastic ribs, pulled pork, and brisket. 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.
How to order: Order instructions vary

Spend all day at Cafe Roze

East Nashville
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.

Splurge on meat and whiskey at The 404 Kitchen

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

Indulge in James Beard-worthy Italian cuisine at City House

Nashville’s only 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.
How to order: Call 615-736-5838 for reservations or pickup.

Get spicy and saucy with some Nashville Hot Chicken

Various locations
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. 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. 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.” Whether that’s better or not is up to you.
How to order: Order instructions vary

Share veggie-centric small plates at Rolf & Daughters

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: For curbside pickup, order here, or for delivery order through Postmates, Uber Eats, or DoorDash

Take an international food tour on Nolensville Road

Various locations
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 scene. The best street to find it is along Nolensville Road, an extension of 4th Avenue that stretches from just outside of downtown. Populated with fantastic small restaurants, some of which are tucked into the back of international markets, this tour exposes intrepid diners to a plethora of fascinating food. 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, and flatbreads baked in a unique barrel-shaped oven and delightful unfamiliar 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: Order instructions vary

Take in the scene at Etch’s open kitchen

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

Experience the best in farm-to-table Southern cooking at Husk

Rutledge Hill
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

Various locations
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

Order drunken noodles at Thai Esane

Demonbreun/Music Row
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. 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.

Have a beer and a burger at Brown’s Diner

Hillsboro Village
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.

Pretend you're in the South of France at Margot Café

East Nashville
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

Get fancy with a multi-course dinner at The Catbird Seat

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.

Eat like a tourist (but better) at these fantastic hotel restaurants

Various locations
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.
How to order: Order instructions vary

Try some new comfort food at Josephine

12 South
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.

Appreciate the beautiful combo that is cocktails and nachos at Bastion

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 these are transcendent—with your choice of pulled pork or vegetarian chorizo, pickled vegetables, cotija cheese and two house hot sauces. During the pandemic, the smaller dining room has temporarily moved into the bar area, but they’re still serving up set menus of large format main courses and multiple small plates for sharing, 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: The Big Bar is open to walk-ins Sunday through Tuesday, but reservations are mandatory to dine any other night of the week. Make yours online in advance.

Discover Indian poutine at Chauhan Ale & Masala House

North Gulch
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.

Try wood-fired pizza for a good cause at Lockeland Table

East Nashville
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.

Grab a beer at 12 South Taproom

12 South
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.

Have a power lunch at Midtown Café

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.

Slurp chicken tortilla soup at Mas Tacos, Por Favor

East Nashville
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.

Make the trek for Loveless Cafe’s fried chicken

West Nashville
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.

Drink margs and get inspired at Rosepepper Cantina

East Nashville
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.

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Chris Chamberlain is a food, drink, and travel writer based out of his hometown of Nashville. Find him on Twitter @CeeElCee.
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