Weekend in . . . Nashville
The country-loving Tennessee capital is expanding its repertoire, writes Christan L wright
Country music is alive and well in Nashville; you might even see a young family in broad daylight practising their line dancing on the pavement outside a bar downtown – all in cowboy boots, including the toddler who just learned to walk.
But these days, there’s much more to the Tennessee capital than country. One of seven cities chosen to begin Google for Entrepreneurs Tech Hub Network, Nashville is bustling with new business. The dynamic food scene draws an international clientele and chefs from bigger cities. There’s money to preserve historic buildings and revitalize neighbourhoods, like Germantown, which was established by European immigrants in the 1850s. Add a farmers’ market, some enticing shops and a batch of very stylish hotel rooms, and it’s hard not to conclude that the city is changing its tune – or at least adding a few new riffs.
1 Welcome aboard
The Music City Center, the new $598-million convention centre with the curvy roof and guitar-shaped ballroom, gets all the attention as a totem of Nashville’s bright future, but Union Station is an anchor to the past. Built in 1900, and all but abandoned by 1979, the stately Gothic railway terminal was spared demolition by a group of Nashville investors.
Today, limestone fireplaces, oak doors and panels, and a 65ft vaulted ceiling marked by golden stained glass distinguish the building, now a hotel, that sits on a hill, just south of the Capitol and a stone’s throw from the live music downtown. Both buildings are open to the public; for a free tour of the mammoth convention centre, reserve online well in advance.
2 Grand ole evening
The sexy, bourbon-centric bar on the ground floor of Husk – a luminary in the new constellation of ambitious restaurants and a sister to the original in Charleston, South Carolina – is a good place to alight for a drink (cocktails start at $9) and snack to start the evening. If they’re on the menu, order the Rappahannock oysters, with green garlic butter, bottarga and preserved lemon ($14), which are served warm and will sate you through a show at the Ryman. The storied auditorium, built in 1892, before the advent of microphones, sells daytime tours, but to get the full effect of the exceptional acoustics, go at night, when a full range of musicians, as disparate as the local hero Vince Gill and the English misanthrope Morrissey, have taken the stage. (Ticket prices vary.)
3 Nashville on Hudson
Called Nashvegas for its glitzy glamour, the city could just as easily be called the sixth borough of New York. It is filled with Manhattan refugees, while lots of creative companies are setting up shop here as a cheaper, nicer alternative.
And in the gentrifying Germantown section, there’s Rolf and Daughters, which might have been plucked from Brooklyn and inserted into its century-old brick warehouse – except for the southern charm: an unflappable bartender, a waitress with great food knowledge yet no pretence, and a kitchen that turns out what it calls “modern peasant food” but is, in fact, deft and sophisticated. Recent menu items include a starter of beets with cashew butter and aleppo pepper ($13) and a surprisingly light squid-ink pasta with shrimp and pancetta ($17).
4 Neon lights
The honky-tonks on and around Broadway are classic, just as corny and twangy, loud and boozy as you’d hoped they’d be. Many charge no cover, but drinking is encouraged. You can do a little planning and check nowplayingnashville.com in advance, or you can just squeeze into Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge to see who’s standing and singing on the bar, or hit Robert’s Western World for some traditional country heartbreak or, darlin’, set right down anywhere in between. It’ll be all right.
5 Local flavour
Barista Parlor opened in May 2012 in a converted auto-repair garage behind a dusty old store called Rainbow Fashions in increasingly hip East Nashville. It is a highly stylised coffee house where they spin vinyl, decorate with Edison bulbs and old motorcycles, use blue bandannas as napkins and do not serve decaf.
It’s a communal place – a kid with a “Franny and Zooey” paperback in the pocket of his low-slung jeans might take a stool by a willowy woman in a big sweater editing footage on her MacBook Air – that is serious about local ingredients.
The sausage in a crumbly buttermilk biscuit is from Porter Road Butcher next door; the baristas’ canvas aprons with leather straps are from the workshop of the leather goods company Emil Erwin, across the river in Marathon Village; and the Olive and Sinclair chocolate in this morning’s scone? Stone ground in Nashville. (Breakfast for two, about $25.)
With the Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach, who lives and operates a recording studio in Music City, Barista Parlor has just opened a second place on Magazine Street in the Gulch neighbourhood.
6 Food trucks and stuff
Poke around the rapidly changing east side, and you’ll find a district reinventing itself. The Craftsman-style bungalows, circa 1920s, that make up sleepy little residential pockets vary from student flophouse to renovated dream house. Creative types mill around I Dream of Weenie, a hot-dog stand fashioned out of an old Volkswagen bus. All the imaginative dogs cost less than $4.75.
In the Shoppes on Fatherland, there’s Moxie, a furniture shop opened by a former set designer where you might find the perfect Lucite ice bucket, and Jones Fly Co, where a fly-fisherman hand ties his feathery designs on a raw wood workbench.
Repair for a nouveau comfort-food lunch at the Silly Goose (red chile couscous with grilled chicken is $9.50) or, if the wait’s too long, head to Mas Tacos Por Favor, the groovy former food truck that’s serving fried avocado from a fixed address now. Tacos are $3; cash only.
7 A new frontier
In hilly Sevier Park, picnickers in fashion-sweatsuits settle in for the afternoon, while stroller-pushing mothers amble shoulder to shoulder, and plaid-and-denim-clad men throw balls for their rescue dogs. Here’s a chance to walk among the locals who staked a claim to the 12 South neighbourhood well before the current boom.
A pioneer on 12th Avenue South, Imogene + Willie, opened in 2009 in an old petrol station selling meticulously made jeans and has grown into a cool emporium with a branch in Portland, Oregon.
The avenue is now lined with independent businesses like Savant Vintage (packed to the gills with frocks, clutches, tumblers, and the like), Las Paletas unusually flavoured ice lollies ($2.50), Holly Williams’s nouveau general store White’s Mercantile, and Judith Bright, a jeweller that recently moved from Green Hills, where Ann Patchett opened Parnassus Books, drawing a crowd that’s equal parts Berkeley and Bridgehampton.
8 An all-purpose block
In the Gulch, the 404 Kitchen has fewer than 60 seats in a retrofitted shipping container, but has made a big impression.
One recent evening, the chef Matt Bolus chatted with Eric Close, who plays mayor Teddy Conrad on ABC-TV’s Nashville, while his kitchen wove southern ingredients into the confident menu. (Dinner for two about $100, not including drinks.) With the restaurant; its sister hotel, a 10-room hideaway that opened in March; and the city’s temple of bluegrass, the Station Inn ($12 to $15 cover charge) next door, you’d never need to leave the block.
9 Into the wee hours
Venture anyway for a nightcap at the Patterson House, if you fancy a little book-lined speakeasy with barmen in period costume who take their time with the ice balls and ginger syrup. Cocktails, about $12.
10 That old-timey music
You don’t have to care a lick about the earliest days of the Grand Ole Opry to be enthralled with the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum ($22).
Get an eight-ounce soy latte ($4.43) at the Bongo Java by the entrance of the splashy new Omni Hotel, stop into the Hatch Show Print gallery and the store where the old printing presses that made many iconic concert posters now live – all in the corridor that attaches the hotel to the museum as part of its ongoing integration into the Music City Center complex.
Go early, before the crowds descend.
11 Silence your mobile
Brunch at Marche Artisan Foods, just down the hill from the Turnip Truck organic market and the nicely stocked Woodland Wine Merchant, is easy, casual and languorous – spindly chairs, heavy curtains pulled back from the street-front windows, pastries under glass, natives in no hurry at all. (Expect to pay $30 for two.) Use of mobile devices is forbidden in the dining room.