I have been a freckle-faced, countrified foodie from as long as I could remember. When I was a child in the ‘60s we would come into Nashville proper and I could hardly contain myself because I knew we were going to eat with the chubby little boy in the red-checkered overalls – the original Shoney’s Big Boy – where I would have the more well-prepared version of a Big Mac with fries, usually topped off by a gratis piece of hot fudge cake à la mode. This was the beginning of my flavor journey through Nashville, that has now spanned half a century.
Nashville’s restaurant scene is constantly elevating and reinventing itself, but to offer an adequate perspective on the ways that the scene has changed, let’s examine the ways it has not!
Loveless Café, Elliston Soda Shop, Brown’s Diner, Wendell Smith’s and Sweat’s Cafeteria, among others, all demonstrate one theme that is still thriving in Nashville: the humble “Meat and Three.” Even now, many of Nashville’s complex flavor structures such as Etch’s sizzling chicken and rice, or the Kurobuta pork chop at Church and Union are built on the foundation of this soul satisfying “farm food.” It’s like a meat and three, but with layers.
In the seventies I discovered ethnic food at Siam café and the International Market. All those flavors all at once, together but separate, spicy but sweet, hot but sour. Hooked, I warmed to the notion that there’s a massive food universe with tons of flavor combinations to be discovered. If there was a new restaurant opening, I was there in search of that go-to dish. Houston’s hot bacon honey mustard spinach salad? Carmen’s deep dish pizza? Ireland’s steak and biscuits? These long-gone venues were destination dining.
The eighties served up Faison’s broken heart fettuccine, Stockyard’s porterhouse steak
and Gerst House’s sauerbraten. The nineties featured F. Scott’s braised duck, Boundary’s ostrich and Zola’s paella. Not to mention Vallero’s chili three ways. The aughts rang in Miss Saigon’s Bánh Xèo, Café Margot’s Moroccan Lamb Stew, and Rotier’s cheeseburgers on a slab of French bread.
It was around 2010 that the Nashville’s culinary Big Bang happened. Its food universe exploded from the foundational energies of iconic restauranteurs like Jody Faison, who essentially founded the Nashville independent restaurant landscape by starting six benchmark venues, to Randy Rayburn, iconic for such landmark restaurants as Midtown Café, Sunset Grill and Cabana Taps. This new Nashville attracted celebrity chefs from around the country such as Shawn Brock ( Husk, Audrey) and Maneet Chauhan (Chauhan Ale and Masala House), as well as local culinary innovators such as Tandy Wilson (City House, Mop and Broom Mess Hall), among others.
The current culinary zeitgeist appears to be migrating from quantity to quality with freshly layered flavor structures replacing the southern habit of excessive fats and sugars. Tremendously compelling taste staccatos never before seen in Nashville abound. Die-hard Nashville foodies congregate everywhere to share their latest restaurant opening, hole in the wall food pick, or next amazing flavor discovery with each other. Menus boast everything from high end chic fusion (The Catbird Seat) to complexly seasoned meat and threes (Monell’s); from clean farm-to-table fare (Adele’s), to gluten-free (Butcher and Bee), to vegetarian (The Wild Cow).
What’s more, ethnic dishes that I have never even seen in their countries of origin are waiting patiently in food trucks up and down Nolensville Pike and Dickerson Road, begging to be discovered and lovingly celebrated. You may come to Nashville because of its music scene but you will leave raving about its cuisine. The last 50 years of eating my way through Nashville have been transcendently ineffable and I expect no less for the next 50. I LOVE this city. Come and taste it with me.
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