After years of being known mostly for its music and supposedly flattering similarity to the ruins of an ancient Greek city, Nashville is now truly coming into its own, and is fast becoming one of the country’s finest culinary destinations. But while new spots are opening virtually every day, we thought we’d pay tribute to the dozen restaurants that form the delicious foundation of that newfound success...
The 12 Essential Nashville Restaurants
The 2012 opening of Deb Paquette's upscale dining project paved the way for SoBro (that's South of Broadway if you aren't from these parts) to morph into the latest dining destination in town. Paquette's cauliflower appetizer with truffled pea pesto, feta crema, and salted almonds is known far and wide, but don't discount her pork belly (w/ kimchi & ginger caramel) either. Entrees run the gamut of a Wagyu beef hot dog, Turkish-spiced cobia, a deviled egg sandwich, and a curry-like Thai chicken and quinoa. Also? They have Pastry Chef Megan Williams working solely on desserts, with her current frontrunner being a pretzel bar w/ dark chocolate ganache, chocolate caramel mousse, malted milk cream, and caramel sauce.
This breezy café located smack in the middle of retail heaven Hillsboro Village is a favorite among Vanderbilt students, and with good reason: the specialty coffee drinks like the Local Latte or The Winnebago (brown sugar, Benton's bacon, Yazoo Hop Project, lemon, espresso, and milk) are some of the best in town, and the food likewise. Although the lines look long, thanks in part to its proximity to two college campuses, the space is large, spanning three connecting rooms, and the food arrives quickly (you'll order at the counter and a server will deliver your meal to the table when ready). The chef whips up one of the best, underrated burgers in town, and the daily specials are always on point. Local tip: skip breakfast at the over-hyped Pancake Pantry across the way and make a beeline for Fido instead.
There's no dearth of barbecue joints in town, but Martin's has taken the prize for the one most beloved by locals. The classic pulled pork BBQ sandwich drenched in the Sweet Dixie Sauce reigns supreme, but the brisket is mighty fine, as well. Not a fan of Southern-style barbecue? First of all, you need to take a long, hard look at your life, but second, there are plenty other items on the menu that might entice, like the Redneck Taco, turkey legs, or fried bologna sandwiches. Martin's original location is out in Nolensville and has expanded to include two additional locations in the 'burb of Mount Juliet and up in West Virginia.
Even if you've never been to Tennessee, you've still likely heard of this homegrown country diner out in the far reaches of West Nashville, on the fringe of town. Expect to leave 5lbs heavier, as the fare -- country ham, grits, okra, chicken biscuits, catfish, pork chops -- is mostly battered and fried and not for the light of heart, but it is worth it. Breakfast is the meal Loveless is most known for, but if you go for lunch or dinner, you can justify a pie tasting as the final course (we won't judge, though, should you order pie before noon). Visiting on a Saturday or Sunday? Prepare for a long wait; the best time to go is late morning during the week to avoid the weekend warriors, though you can always kill time in the general store.
Charleston-based celeb chef Sean Brock elated many Nashvillians when he brought his highly acclaimed concept, Husk, to town in 2013. While the original location is dedicated to food from the sea, this newer outpost -- housed in an old, dressed-up Victorian home -- focuses more on dishes from the dirt (it's one of the rare places when ordering the vegetable platter is highly recommended), though the menu itself changes twice a day, so you never know what Southern-influenced dishes will make an appearance.
8th Avenue South
This classic meat-and-three has been keeping the masses fed for more than three decades. Catfish, chicken & dumplings, fried green tomatoes, cornbread -- Arnold's serves a little of everything, and it's all done cafeteria-style (and cheap at that, with meals topping out around $8). Don't miss the banana pudding, though the scratch-made chess or chocolate pies aren't shabby, either. Important note: the small, red restaurant is only open for lunch on weekdays so plan accordingly.
Tom Morales was one of the city's original restaurateurs (he also owns the wildly successful movie and special events catering company TomKats), and his veteran experience showed when he opened his rustic chic Downtown eatery in Spring of 2012. A fusion of old recipes with modern touches, the menu combines down-home dishes like the Saffire Steak Biscuits with seafood delights like fried oysters, which are shucked in-house and served atop a mash of veggies. The bar -- kind of like a theater in the round plopped in the middle of the room -- only adds to the spot's charm, particularly as the generous happy hour runs from 3-6pm on weekdays.
There are few spots that will give you a more accurate feel for the creative, easy-going vibe that pulsates through this neighborhood (often called "the Williamsburg of Nashville") than the cozy nook that is The Silly Goose. With its reclaimed furniture, Mason jars for drinking, bandanas for napkins, and adorable hipster staff with their wacky hairdos and sailor-level tats, this eatery accurately represents this area of town in all aspects. But the food is what keeps the booths, bar, and communal tables packed: the couscous dishes are killer -- try out the Mexico City if you like your food a wee bit spicy or the King Kong if you're a seafood lover -- and there's not a bad sandwich on the menu.
The Goldberg brothers always stand at the forefront of the local F&B scene (think: The Patterson House, The Catbird Seat), and Pinewood Social is no exception. Never did a Nashville eatery debut to such national media buzz; after it opened in December 2013, you couldn't flip to the food section of a national magazine without seeing the dapper twosome grinning back at you. While the food is indeed tasty -- after all, Catbird Seat veteran Josh Habiger helms the kitchen -- people seem to gravitate to Pinewood for the social scene, because that's what happens when you put six bowling lanes in your resto, and because of the heavy-pour cocktails Bar Director Matt Tocco throws together. Keep an eye out for the outdoor space to debut late Summer, as eventually it will have a swimming pool, private cabanas, bocce ball, and other fun components. (Editor's note: The Catbird Seat would make our list, as well, if it weren't one of the hardest tables to book in town.)
Embracing the fertile farms surrounding Nashville, Rolf & Daughters harvests off the local community in the classic farm-to-table vein. Drawing from eclectic ingredients like "Happy Rich" (a broccoli variant) or guanciale (cured meat from pork jowl), the menu will have you asking your server "WTF?" in regards to most dishes. The Mediterranean-inspired menu uses what's available in the geographical area, so just take the staff's lucid recommendations and go with it, as Rolf serves nary a bad meal. The softly lit patio is absolutely glorious in warm months, but reservations are only taken for indoor seating so if you want to sit outside, get there early, or just make your base at the bar and watch the mustachioed mixologists in their element.
In an era of buzzy joints helmed by celebrity chefs, the tried-and-true mainstays often get overlooked, which is why we feel the need to give a shout-out to Capitol Grille, housed in the historic Hermitage Hotel. It's a special occasion kind of place with fancy food and impeccable service. Be sure and have a drink in the Oak Bar, then take a peek in the men's bathroom (if you're a lady, we have to officially recommend you don't do that, but still, you totally should), which is pimped out in Art Deco décor and even includes a shoe shine stand.
The James Beard-nominated City House has become a Nashville staple for its creative spin on Italian dishes. One permanent fixture, the belly ham pie w/ mozz, Grana Padano, oregano, and chilies, remains a perennial favorite, and the pasta dishes such as a cornbread gnocchi dressed up with squash, beans, garlic, and Pecorino hit the spot every time. The weekly Sunday Supper with its ever-changing lineup is always a hot event, but be sure to make reservations in advance. The acoustics are quite loud, so it's not the best spot for an intimate date, but City House is great for groups.
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1. Etch303 Demonbreun St, Nashville
2. Fido1812 21st Ave S, Nashville
3. Martin's Bar-B-Que Joint3108 Belmont Blvd, Nashville
4. Loveless Cafe8400 Highway 100, Nashville
5. Husk37 Rutledge St, Nashville
6. Arnold's Country Kitchen605 8th Ave S, Nashville
7. The Southern Steak & Oyster150 3rd Ave S, Nashville
8. The Silly Goose1888 Eastland Ave, Nashville
9. Pinewood Social33 Peabody St, Nashville
10. Rolf & Daughters700 Taylor St, Nashville
11. Capitol Grille231 6th Ave N, Nashville
12. City House1222 4th Ave N, Nashville
Etch is the go-to destination to kick off or cap off an evening of Downtown fun for those looking for a fine-dining experience near the various sporting and entertainment venues in the surrounding neighborhood. Chef Deb Paquette loves to have fun with her food and shares the joy by using bold spices and dramatic flavors to create exquisitely plated meals. If you're not in the mood for a full meal, their happy hour menu is worth checking out, complete with some small plates, draft beers, and featured wines.
This breezy café located smack dab in the middle of Hillsboro Village is a favorite among Vanderbilt students, and with good reason: the specialty coffee drinks and all-day breakfast plates. Although the lines look long the space is large, and the food arrives quickly (you'll order at the counter and a server will deliver your meal). The chef whips up one of the best, underrated beef and lamb burgers in town, and the daily specials are always on point.
This Belmont meatery does an array of BBQ deliciousness (brisket, turkey legs, fried bologna sandwiches, etc.), but its claim to fame is the classic pulled pork BBQ sandwich drenched in the Sweet Dixie Sauce. Martin's is definitely in the top ranks for the best BBQ in Nashville.
This legendary Highway 100 diner sets the standard for Southern homestyle fare, with loads of tantalizing standards like country ham, chicken biscuits, catfish, and pork chops. The restaurant has seen several different owners since it first opened in the 1950s, however, the top-secret biscuit recipe has stayed the same. Breakfast is the meal Loveless is most known for, but if you go for lunch or dinner, you can justify a pie tasting as the final course (we won't judge, though, should you order pie before noon). Visiting on a Saturday or Sunday? Prepare for a long wait; the best time to go is late morning during the week to avoid the weekend warriors, though you can always kill time in the general store.
This SoBro spot focuses on dishes from the dirt, changing its menu twice a day according to what produce and protein goods are freshest that day. Self-described as “a celebration of Southern ingredients,” most of the courses here use local ingredients (including herbs for a backyard garden), and diners are encouraged to pair courses like shrimp and grits and hot fish sandwich with a pick from the lauded drink menu of over 60 bourbons. And while the dress code is casual, the meals are all served in a historic mansion setting, turning your comfort food into regal fare.
This classic meat-and-three has been keeping the masses fed for more than three decades, with cafeteria-style meals like catfish, chicken, dumplings, fried green tomatoes, cornbread, etc., which will only run you about eight bucks a meal. While the line can get long and sometimes even stretch out the door, it moves quickly and is absolutely worth the wait. Don't miss the banana pudding, though the scratch-made chess or chocolate pies aren't shabby, either. Important note: the small, red restaurant is only open for lunch on weekdays so plan accordingly.
The Southern Steak & Oyster is a downtown favorite, with a menu that offers a combination of down-home dishes like the Saffire Steak Biscuits and seafood delights like fried oysters, which are shucked in-house and served atop a mash of veggies, in a rustic-chic setting. And don't forget about their sweet shot-and-beer specials.
This cozy East Nashville nook is filled with reclaimed furniture, mason jars for drinking, bandanas for napkins, and an adorable hipster staff, but the food is the obvious draw. Expect terrific sammies, tasty couscous dishes, and a homemade lemonade that you can't beat.
This waterfront spot in Rolling Mill Hill has the layout of an MTV Cribs home -- just look at its 6 vintage bowling lanes, dining room, lounge and outdoor courtyard. While the food is indeed tasty -- after all, Catbird Seat veteran Josh Habiger helms the kitchen -- people seem to gravitate to Pinewood for the social scene; it's very much a see-and-be-seen kind of place, which goes hand-in-hand with the pool, bocce ball field, and the strong cocktails.
This Germantown restaurant and bar harvests off the local community in the classic farm-to-table vein to create a Mediterranean-inspired menu and terrific craft cocktails, and they also feature indoor and outdoor patio seating that, while plentiful, is always packed. The kitchen’s expertise with pasta and slow-cooked meats is definitely worth the wait, and you can always enjoy a delicious cocktail (or three) at the bar.
The Capitol Grille, attached the the Hermitage Hotel, has been featured in publications across the country both for their amazing food and the odd popularity of the men’s Art Deco-style bathroom. A large part of what makes this restaurant so unique, and all of its food so damn delicious, is that it’s a true example of farm to table. The Hermitage Hotel owns a 250-acre cattle farm as well as Double H Farms where much of their produce and vegetables are sourced. Needless to say, all of the food that you'll get at the Capitol Grille will be very fresh and creatively presented.
The James Beard-nominated City House has become a Nashville staple for its creative spin on Italian dishes. The weekly Sunday Supper with its ever-changing lineup is always a hot event, but be sure to make reservations in advance. This Germantown spot is also a great place for wine lovers. Its small, secluded bar is a great place to meet with friends for a quick glass after work, and even solo diners can have a great experience sitting at the pizza bar with a glass of Sangiovese and watching the talented kitchen work the wood-fired oven.