Nashville's new groove

Cowboys and honky-tonks have long defined the Tennessee capital, but Music City is in the throes of a hipster revival that now sees its art, food and drink scene get equal billing.

By George Epaminondas
No matter where you venture in this world, Monday can be a drag for those in search of Friday-night decadence - except in Nashville, that is. If you find yourself in the Tennessee capital at the beginning of the week, make a beeline for The 5 Spot before the clock strikes midnight. Here, DJs Jacob Jones and Reno Bo will be playing a mix of '50s, '60s, rock, garage and old-school R&B for their raucous Keep On Movin'! dance party.
There's no idling on the sidelines here, as discovered during a recent visit. I was swept up, drink still in hand, in the crush of friendly locals clicking their heels to the swing beats. Nashville is associated more than anything else with country music but, in recent times, it embodies so much more. "Music City", as the southern hub is known, sings a slightly different tune these days.
Like Portland and Austin before it, Nashville is one of several mid-sized American cities whose hipster ratio is growing as people migrate here from more expensive coastal capitals. This infusion of the creative classes is converting the city into a far more layered and lyrical place. Emerging districts such as East Nashville, 12 South and Germantown are alive with exceptional restaurants, upbeat bars, and compelling retail stores that have transformed the city into a thrumming new tourist destination.
"Nashville is no longer just about Hee Haw and honky-tonks - it's a cutting-edge city," says Andy Mumma, who recently opened Barista Parlor, a sleek café typical of the new Nashville. Every percolating detail of the venture, from the staff uniforms to the custom-designed furniture, has clearly been mulled over. During the course of five days in Nashville, I found myself drifting back to Barista Parlor each afternoon.
The city's infrastructure is also booming. The first stages of the new $623-million development in Nashville's downtown precinct opened in May.
At the centre of the plan is Music City Center, an enormous conference hall in the shape of a guitar, and an 800-room Omni Hotel. Earlier this year The New York Times described Nashville as the nation's "It city", while GQ magazine christened it "Nowville". At the same time, the racy television series Nashville, starring Connie Britton as a fading country music star, is doing for the city what Dallas did for Texas in the '80s.
Nashville also boasts its share of celebrity locals, including Jack White, Faith Hill, Carrie Underwood, and Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban. The Australian couple resides on a sprawling farm just outside the city, and the two are frequently sighted everywhere from yoga classes to local restaurants. No doubt they too appreciate that the city's most appealing new eateries have moved beyond traditional "meat-and-three" diners, famous in these parts, towards more nuanced culinary offerings.
Even with all its fresh urban diversions, honky-tonkin', or bar-hopping, is an essential pursuit for visitors and locals alike. Most of the dive bars are located on Broadway, unmissable thanks to its neon signs, cowboy hats and thronging tourists. Nashville is home to more musicians than you could poke a drumstick at, and good live music is everywhere, from the old-timers who've been performing for decades to budding musicians plying their trade.
Its most interesting spots are best navigated with a car, and you'll likely want to explore outside the city, including nearby communities such as Leiper's Fork, with its galleries and antique stores. Summer has music festivals, but autumn might be the ideal time to head for Nashville: that's when the hills surrounding the big smoke emit an orange glow befitting its red-hot status.
Bolton's Spicy Chicken & Fish
The firebird is a Nashville specialty - chicken is brined in cayenne pepper, dipped in flour and deep fried to crisp sublimity - and there are numerous hole-in-the-wall establishments claiming to offer the leading interpretation. We liked Bolton's the best: while my lips definitely tingled, I didn't need to extinguish the fire with ice. Admittedly, I ordered medium-spicy. Masochists can order it hot. As I left, I heard Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" playing on a patron's car radio. A fitting soundtrack, I thought. 1108 Murfreesboro Rd, +1 615 399 3998
The Catbird Seat
Chefs Erik Anderson and Josh Habiger - a fastidious and focused pair - toiled at Noma in Copenhagen and Alinea in Chicago before opening this highly regarded temple of gastronomy. The cramped space accommodates just 32 guests, the reservations are backed up for weeks, and the only thing left to do is submit to the inventive tasting menus that change frequently. 1711 Division St, +1 615 810 8200
Las Paletas
Paletas are Mexican-style iced confections that typically come in an array of creamy, fruity and sugary options. Hibiscus, tamarind, avocado and chai tea are among the most exotic renditions at this popsicle palace, dreamed up by sisters Irma Paz-Bernstein and Norma Paz-Curtis. To their credit, the pair has created natural recipes free of artificial colouring and corn syrup. 2905 12th Avenue South, +1 615 386 2101
Lockeland Table
An inviting and bustling restaurant that opened in August last year in a residential neighbourhood. Amiable chef Hal M Holden-Bache has a clear-cut vision for his food, with delicious wood-fired pizze (the version with clams, pancetta and shaved Asiago was a standout), and fresh twists on the familiar farm-to-table credo (such as cornmeal-dusted catfish with caramelised-onion basmati rice). The convivial space, rendered in repurposed woods, is enlivened with bright jars of preserves and pickled vegetables. 1520 Woodland St, +1 615 228 4864
Margot Café & Bar
This cozy bistro, owned by pioneering chef Margot McCormack, is beloved by locals for its seasonal fare, rustic interiors and genial service. The French- and Italian-inspired menu changes daily and depends on produce from nearby farms. It's particularly charming for brunch, when natural light bounces off the copper pots, antique mirrors and mismatched china that decorate this former service station. 1017 Woodland St, +1 615 227 4668
Imagine a family meal at Grandma's house - if Gran was a hospitable African-American woman who lived in a charming Victorian-era house and knew her way around a kitchen. There are no menus here. Instead a flurry of soul-food dishes are delivered to the table and passed to the left: cornbread, peach preserves, cheese grits, corn pudding, meatloaf, catfish and skillet-fried chicken. The communal tables mean that you're rubbing shoulders with everyone from churchgoers to cheerleaders, which makes for fascinating chit-chat. Monell's in Germantown, 1235 6th Avenue North, +1 615 248 4747
The Pharmacy Burger Parlor & Beer Garden
The name suggests they specialise in the food equivalent of prescription drugs, but on a Sunday afternoon the place is jammed with diners enthusiastically indulging in house-made sodas and elaborate burgers. One lustily combines beef with Swiss cheese, caramelised onions and stroganoff béchamel. Patrons can dine in the dark-timbered interior, in an enclosed patio or on a grassy knoll at communal tables. 731 McFerrin Ave, +1 615 712 9517
Rolf and Daughters
North meets south at this tempting new restaurant housed in a historic building - northern Italian and Mediterranean cuisine with southern ingredients to be exact. The two worlds come together under the eye of James Beard Foundation Award-nominated chef Philip Krajeck. Dishes such as squid-ink canestri with prawns, squid and chorizo, and Yorkshire pork with cannellini beans and red cabbage are elevated enough to inspire repeat visits. 700 Taylor St, +1 615 866 9897
Barista Parlor
An enormous wooden arrow punctuates the vibrant exterior of this café on a drab strip in East Nashville. You are here - and you may never want to leave. The people-watching and handsome interiors are all part of its appeal. The coffee beans might originate in far-flung places but all else, from the artwork to the furniture and lighting, is produced by talented local artisans. Even the chocolate by Olive and Sinclair is locally made. 519b Gallatin Ave, +1 615 712 9766
The Crying Wolf
"There's no other venue like us in Nashville," says Dave Young, who recently opened this bolthole with friends Daniel and Erica Ness and Jake Manny. Indeed, Nashville's buzziest new lounge redefines the concept of a drinking hole. It's a bar, restaurant, gallery, event space, flea market and rollicking party venue with an outdoor pool all rolled into one. The two-storey space has purpose-built furniture and original artwork by illustrator Shepard Fairey, while the bar serves addictive libations and victuals. 823 Woodland St, +1 615 474 7382
The 5 Spot
The live music offerings at this venue veer from pop to punk, bluegrass to indie rock. In addition there are regular nights such as Monday's ebullient Keep On Movin'!, and Wednesday's Old-Time Jam. The latter features local musicians jamming on guitars, banjos, fiddles - pick up some spoons and join the fun. It's a real hootenanny. 1006 Forrest Ave, +1 615 650 9333
No 308
Some of the cocktails at this swanky bar are named after famous writers. To wit: The Bukowski, a shot of Four Roses Bourbon followed by a glass of Miller High Life. If that doesn't get the creative juices flowing, we don't know what will. Whiskey Disco, their louche Sunday night party, attracts a spirited crowd. 407 Gallatin Ave, +1 615 650 7344
The Patterson House
This latter-day speakeasy offers moody lighting, book-lined walls and libations aplenty. Nattily attired mixologists prepare drinks including a Bacon Old Fashioned, which balances the smoky flavour of bacon with the light sweetness of maple syrup. The strict seating policy - it's a small space - can seem vexing, but it's worth the wait. 1711 Division St, +1 615 636 7724
Goodbuy Girls
An excellent repository of vintage clothes and pre-worn cowboy boots for women, from $65 to $325. The latter are fetchingly arranged on a wall like an art installation dreamed up by Dolly Parton. Their men's store, Hello Boys, is a few doors away. 1108 Woodland St, +1 615 281 9447
Hatch Show Print
As one of the oldest letterpress print shops in the US, Hatch has created vibrant posters for countless country music performances, as well as vaudeville, circus, and minstrel shows across the country. One of their best-selling posters is the Triple Johnny featuring, you guessed it, Johnny Cash. 316 Broadway, +1 615 256 2805
Imogene + Willie
The place to go for deep, dark and rakishly cool raw denim jeans. Though the store is less than five years old, owners Matt and Carrie Eddmenson have worked in denim for a lifetime and know their craft well. The store also carries plaid shirts for men, gauzy tunics for women and edgy jewellery. 2601 12th Avenue South, +1 615 292 5005
Old Made Good
This emporium carries home décor, vintage clothes, antique jewellery and curios. "As many one-of-a-kind pieces as possible," says Kate Mills, who owns the store with Ashley Sheehan. It's the sort of place you could pick up a vintage kilim pillow, a cameo necklace and deer antlers all on the same visit. 3701b Gallatin Pike, +1 615 432 2882
Otis James
"I'm not interested in selling to big stores," says Otis James, who has a cult following among dapper gents for his bespoke ties and caps. James hand-makes ties in eye-catching fabrics including plaid, houndstooth and gingham from this studio and retail space in the Marathon Motor Works building. Suite 15, 1200 Clinton St, +1 615 638 1469
Parlour & Juke
Owner Cali DeVaney sought to create an "anti-salon where people could hang out", and, with its purple lounges, colourful memorabilia and artworks, this coiffure parlour does have an unusually happening vibe. When it comes down to a signature look, the most popular cut for guys is a tailored Mad Men crop (add a sleeve of ink), while for gals it's a mixture of '60s bangs fused with a '90s blunt bob. 521 8th Avenue South, +1 615 730 8068
Peter Nappi
Old-world craftsmanship reigns supreme at this airy store and studio, which carries spiffy boots handmade in Italy as well as stylish leather goods designed on-site by owner Phillip Nappi and made by his capable team of artisans. The supple boots range between $395 and $800 in price, and will last a lifetime. 1308 Adams St, +1 615 248 3310
Third Man Records
A studio, performance space and record store owned by rocker Jack White, who has the status of a semi-divine being in Nashville. White thumbs his nose at the digital revolution, instead carrying rare vinyl for turntablists, and embellishing the store with quirky details such as retooled jukeboxes that play videos for steampunk enthusiasts. White has also been known to perform at Third Man Records. 623 7th Avenue South, +1 615 891 4393
Belle Meade Plantation
History junkies will relish the antebellum grandeur of this museum with its manicured gardens and pre-Civil War buildings, including horse stables, carriage houses, and a Greek-revival mansion. A tour of the latter structure, which comes with a costumed guide, turned out to be a little too rambling for this visitor. Given I was on a tight schedule, I had to be admitted from the locked building. 5025 Harding Pike, +1 615 356 0501
The Bluebird Cafe
Ignore the fact this music venue is located in an unprepossessing strip mall. It's revered for featuring renowned and upcoming performers as well as songwriters, and is regularly featured on the TV series Nashville. It still attracts label scouts looking to sign new talent: Taylor Swift and Garth Brooks were discovered here. Reservations essential. 4104 Hillsboro Rd, +1 615 383 1461
Cheekwood Botanical Garden & Museum of Art
When you need an escape from the hubbub, head to this beguiling 55-acre estate on the fringes of the city with an art museum, botanical gardens and a restaurant. The art museum itself, housed in a Georgian-style mansion, features a roster of American and European exhibits, and has an impressive permanent collection. 1200 Forrest Park Dr, +1 615 356 8000
Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum
A flawlessly curated collection of country-music memorabilia, including Elvis Presley's gold Cadillac, and Dolly Parton's spangled costumes. The exuberant output of clothier Manuel Cuevas is omnipresent, and he still has a working atelier in the city. Interactive jukeboxes and listening stations flesh out the picture. 222 5th Avenue South, +1 615 416 2001
Frist Center for the Visual Arts
A cultural focal point for the city, with a jam-packed schedule of ever-changing international and local exhibits. The art deco building, once home to a post office, is adjacent to the Union Station Hotel. 919 Broadway, +1 615 244 3340
Robert's Western World
Visiting Nashville without experiencing an authentic honky-tonk would be akin to exploring Vatican City and skipping the Sistine Chapel. Sacrilegious, in other words. Take a seat, order the fried pickles and an ice-cold Pabst Blue Ribbon, and enjoy the rockabilly and traditional country music. It's open by day, but the night-time scene is more engaging. Be sure to tip when they pass the pickle jar around. 416b Broadway, +1 615 244 9552
Ryman Auditorium
This landmark venue was once home to the Grand Ole Opry, the live radio show that broadcast country music to the world. The Victorian Gothic-revival building, completed in 1892, was updated in the '90s and now plays host to various musical genres and artists. 116 5th Avenue North, +1 615 889 3060
Tootsies Orchid Lounge
Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline and Kris Kristofferson all passed through the doors of this legendary honky-tonk. In fact, the walls are lined with signed images of the countless VIPs who have stopped by for a spell of toe-tapping country tunes. Today it still hosts a slew of emerging and established artists, and attracts a swarm of tourists each day. 422 Broadway, +1 615 726 0463
  • undefined: George Epaminondas