Where to eat, drink in Nashville
Heading to Nashville soon? (Who isn't these days?!) Whether you're looking for an excellent, fancy-feeling country fried steak with an egg to help you cure your hangover, or just want to keep drinking (but not on Broadway!), we have a list of some of the best restaurants and bars to hit while you're in town.
We considered every possibility during the 30-minute conference call to name this endeavor. Torts Illustrated. Sporks Illustrated. Ribs Batted In. No pun was left unturned.
By the end of the call, we came back to the name we'd first suggested. We chose SI Eats for a specific reason. Most food writing focuses on fine dining, but we're sportswriters. We don't dine that often. We eat every day, though. That probably describes most of our readers, too. So we decided to spend most of our energy highlighting dishes and restaurants that will never have a chance to earn a Michelin star.
That said, not everything you eat should be served in an upside-down batting helmet. Every once in a while, you should treat yourself. That doesn't mean you should blow an entire paycheck, though. There are times when fine dining and reasonable prices can intersect, and those times are usually between 11 am and 2 pm.
That's when three of us arrived at Husk on a recent Saturday. We had no reservation, but two of us had raging hangovers. We sat outside the renovated mansion set atop a hill with a glorious view of downtown Nashville for only 10 minutes. Then we were beckoned past the board noting the sources of each piece of meat and produce, down the stairs and into the bar. Instead of letting the bar descend into first-come, first-served Darwinism, Husk controls the ingress and egress to ensure the people seated at the bar get the same level of service as those seated at the tables. In our case, that meant promptly delivered iced teas and Parker House rolls to start nursing those hangovers.
Chef Sean Brock's original Husk in Charleston celebrates the seafood bounty of South Carolina's Low Country. Brock's Nashville location takes advantage of the farms of Tennessee. The abundance of livestock and produce allow for creativity at lunch and brunch, but the cooks at Husk are careful not to add so many flourishes that they render the dishes unrecognizable.
Biscuits and gravy are just that—soft, fluffy, buttery biscuits with a small crock of velvety milk gravy. Monkey bread (basically a break-apart cinnamon coffee cake) tastes like dessert before the main course.
Of the dishes we ordered, mine probably was the most chef-y. Loose chicken boudin sits under tomato cornmeal gravy, and all of it gets topped with a coddled egg and shaved pickled okra. This mixture is designed to be stirred together—not eaten as disparate pieces. The mixed version doesn't take a pretty picture, but it feels wonderful on the throat after a night of yelling over loud bar music. A heavier meat might overwhelm the rest, but the spicy chicken boudin plays nicely with the tangy, savory gravy, the still mostly liquid egg and lively okra shavings. Husk has no catchy name for this dish, but Hangover Stew feels right. Serious thought went into the construction of this dish. That usually means it sells for a serious price, but this one went for $14.
The country fried steak came with the requisite milk gravy and with a welcome fried egg, but it was only lightly battered and had a texture like an uncased sausage. This isn't a bad thing. Country fried steak is a wonderful idea—use the frying process to turn a tough cut of meat delicious—but some cooks rely too heavily on the fryer and annihilate all the flavor. Husk's country fried steak highlights the meat and not the batter.
A country ham plate looked like a charcuterie plate from Tuscany. The thin, salty slices made great biscuit filling, but those accustomed to a great slab of the stuff suitable for dunking in redeye gravy will be disappointed. Such carnivores should instead order the burger, where thin patties are stacked to form a thick tower of beef broken only by layers of melted cheese.
The burger runs $14, which is more expensive than the one you'd get at Chili's (but not by much) and much better. We walked out of Husk having spent about $36 each. We felt fancy—and far less hung over—but we weren't broke. So yes, there is a time for fine dining. That time is lunch.
The smoked wing is better in so many ways than the Buffalo wing, but given the choice, most restaurateurs opt for Smokey's flash-fried, sauce-tossed cousin.
Why? While wings don't take hours to smoke like a pork shoulder or a brisket, they do take time. But they fry up in minutes, and at the worst establishments they can go from freezer to plate in about the time it takes to pour the beer that will make diners too drunk to care how their wings taste. Plus, it's tough to make fried chicken to taste bad—making Buffalo wings something even the most incompetent, stoned kitchen staff can't botch. It's far easier to fry wings, which is why the smoked wing usually gets reduced to an appetizer at barbecue joints.
Fortunately, there is a place where they believe smoked wings should be the main attraction, even if the name suggests otherwise. Smokin' Thighs makes for a great sign and a catchy T-shirt, but you're not coming for the pulled, smoked thigh meat served on a plate with two sides. You're coming for the smoked wings, possibly served from the bed of a giant toy dump truck.
Forget all the other stuff on the menu. It says an accident created the bacon mac and cheese, but the only accident is ordering it. It's too soupy, and it's a waste of stomach space that could be filled by more delicious smoked wings. Get them rubbed Nashville Hot style. Get them tossed in Buffalo sauce. Get them covered in bacon, mushrooms and jalapenos and served in that big yellow dump truck. They're big. They're juicy. They're smoky. They don't pack as many calories as their fried brethren, so load up.
Smokin' Thighs has lined the walls with TVs and curated an excellent beer selection, making it Nirvana for anyone seeking a place to watch an out-of-town game. You don't have to settle for fried chain wings and boring beer.
If the rest of us are lucky, the proprietors of Smokin' Thighs—or someone else who understands the smoked wing is the superior wing—will take this idea nationwide. If not, we'll have to eat them by the truckload every time we visit Nashville.
Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack
Prince's came in first place in my Hot Chicken Power Rankings, and for good reason. I ordered extra-extra-extra hot, and the lady working the cash register asked me if I knew what I was getting myself into. I’d been to Prince’s before, and I knew that Medium was hot and Hot could potentially liquefy internal organs. This was the hottest thing in the place, and she wanted to make sure I wouldn’t come back whining because I couldn’t handle the heat.
You can watch for yourself and judge how I handled it. The XXX Hot kicks like a mule at first bite, but its true power emerges after about five seconds. A cayenne bomb detonates somewhere toward the back of the mouth and then mushrooms through the entire body. But here’s the thing. After that first bite, your mouth is coated so thoroughly in pepper paste that it forms a new baseline. Suddenly, the crisp of the skin and the juice from the meat come bursting through. It’s more than fried chicken; it’s a heightened state of consciousness.
The bread under the XXX Hot does help rip away some of the heat, but if Prince’s wanted to make some real money, the proprietors would sell milk for $15 a pint. No one would pay that price up front, but after a few bites, diners would be throwing money over the counter for even a drop of mouth-coating moo juice.
Meanwhile, the Medium at Prince’s remains the ideal for the average palate. It’s hot enough to know that woman was really mad at Thornton Prince but still approachable for those who don’t enjoy a little suffering with their elation.
And now, for some bar tips...
Bar Guide: Where To Drink Without Stepping Foot On Broadway
They land in Music City with matching T-shirts and a dream. Not of country stardom—that's someone else on the plane—but of one last hurrah for their pal before he or she settles into domestic bliss back home. So as soon as they hit the ground, they're headed downtown to Tootsie's Orchid Lounge or the bar the guys from Florida-Georgia Line just opened.
Here's how to avoid all those people.
I spent a lot of time in Nashville in my 20s, but work hasn't taken me here much lately. Also, most of my friends have been happily married for a while. So I apparently missed the federal law mandating that every third bachelor party and every other bachelorette party shall take place in the 615 area code. While you haven't lived until you've seen the bride, the mother of the bride and the grandmother of the bride all holding back puke while sitting together on the steps of a moderately priced hotel, these probably aren't the people you want to be surrounded by all night. Or perhaps you're planning the party and want the bride or groom to have an experience that doesn't involve $7 Bud Light purchased from a tub. Here are a few suggestions for destinations off Broadway where the booze is just as potent but the vibe is far less FM Country.
Nelson’s Green Brier Distillery: Kick things off by learning how Tennessee whiskey and bourbon are made from the family that dominated the market from the 19th century until Tennessee banned alcohol in 1909. It took a century, but they're back up and running not far from downtown. You'll have your first taste of Belle Meade Bourbon on the tour, but it won't be your last.
Smith & Lentz Brewing Company: These guys came from Austin to hang their shingle here, and their brewery is the next logical stop after some hot catfish at nearby Bolton's. Get the Mosaic IPA if you want hoppy, citrusy and complex. Get the brown ale if you just want to drink dessert. And if you're still burning from hot chicken or hot fish, buy a freeze pop for $1.
Rosemary: Members of the Shins, Cadillac Three and Cherub banded together to create a place that plays great music (but not so loud that you can't hear the person next to you) and pours a strong Belle Meade Old Fashioned (told you it wouldn't be the last one). Let everyone else hang downtown with Florida-Georgia Line while you take your cocktail out to one of the tables on a patio that feels like a relaxed backyard party.
Urban Cowboy Public House: Nashville is the Brooklyn of the South, so it's only fitting that Brooklyn's only Bed and Breakfast/bar opened an outpost here. The crowd is tad too precious. Cutoffs and mom jeans are worn ironically and hats that should be worn ironically are worn earnestly. But the drinks are mixed with care, and the food is outstanding. Have some of the beef fat grilled olives with a martini. Soak up some booze with the garlicky grilled bread. Miss dinner? Order the pork tacos and get right back to drinking. The star of the menu is the Spicy Sugar Baby. That's slices of Sugar Baby watermelon coated in chile oil. It sounds odd but tastes divine.
Bastion: I definitely wasn't cool enough to go to this warehouse-turned-bar, but the hipsters running the place didn't hold that against me. They still let me order a can of Wild Heaven White Blackbird Saison and shockingly great nachos. They smoke pork butts out back and then shred them over the nachos with cheese, pickled red onions, black olives, radish slices, sour cream and fresh cilantro. It may look like a bar snack, but it's one of the best meals in the city.