Italian With a Tennessee Twist at City House
They were playing an old George Jones record when Sturgill Simpson, one of the hottest acts in country music right now, came breezing through the front door of City House during happy hour on a recent evening. I watched him as he sat down, alone, for a bite to eat at the chef’s bar, and I couldn’t help noticing he was wearing sneakers instead of boots. It’s an apt star sighting for City House, I suppose—a restaurant that shares Simpson’s understated manner. The walls are white stucco, patches of brick are the only “art,” and the bartender might wear nothing fancier than a pair of blue jeans and a Lazzaroli Pasta T-shirt.
In the decade since it opened, City House—which I’ve always considered an Italian restaurant with a Tennessee twist—has stayed true to its roots by continuing to serve local ingredients in a rustic style reminiscent of the best of the boot. I’ve watched Chef Tandy Wilson, one of the nicest chefs you’ll ever meet, blissfully take a saw to the limb of a whole hog in the restaurant’s kitchen before carefully breaking it down for house-made salumi as well as sausage for his pizza. (He also used it for lardo for his bruschetta and cracklings for his meaty cannellini beans.) Maybe that’s why I was surprised late last year when Wilson told me he wanted to showcase more vegetables from local farmers at his restaurant. He followed through on that promise, and now shows off Tennessee produce in not just straightforward side dishes but also the crunchy, creative salads I’ve fallen hard for lately—think chopped cauliflower with crisp cabbage and toasted almonds, tossed with a dressing of puréed raisins.
That sweet, earthy dressing reminds me of a favorite dish from my past—the stewed raisins that were served with the meat-and-three at Hap Townes, a bygone but beloved Nashville institution. And, while nostalgia might gently tap me on the shoulder at City House, it never wallops me over the head. Take the sour corn cake, served over white beans with beet tops, garlic, and olive oil. It puts me in the mind of the soup beans and cornbread of my Appalachian youth, but Wilson’s version is a thin pancake that’s perfectly crisp at the edges, balanced atop a bed of beans turned pink by the tender beet greens.
And there’s more to City House than just memories. Wilson’s penchant for Italian food is also manifested in pizzas made with dough that’s aged for three days, to give it a touch of tang before it’s kissed with char in a wood-fired oven. His toppings are always fresh, and always spectacular, whether it’s the tomato sauce for a classic margherita or something more unexpected, like a slightly singed broccoli pie with Grana Padano, mayo, and garlic, speckled with bits of fiery dried chili. Regulars know to ask for a runny egg on top of their pizza, which creates a hot mess of a dish that’s as delicious as it is sloppy.
Like the best Italian cuisine, the food at City House shows off the seasons, with dishes like delightfully bitter chard, its stems still a bit crunchy, served with pan-roasted whole trout. If I’m lucky, I’ll sometimes catch Wilson’s occasional riff on his mom’s Jezebel sauce (caramelized onion, rhubarb, and sorghum, heated up with horseradish and mustard) on roasted chicken or catfish. And, whenever I show up for the restaurant’s popular Sunday Suppers, I always spot servers, chefs, and restaurateurs from other local establishments, sampling the kitchen’s most playful menu of the week. Wilson thinks of Sunday as an R&D day: a chance to try out new dishes and explore the staff members’ diverse culinary heritages.
Prime Rib at Skull’s Rainbow Room
Even in touristy downtown Nashville, where crowds shuffle from karaoke bar to cover bar under a galaxy of neon lights, it’s still hard to shake the ghosts of the city’s fabled past. The spirit may grab you at honest honky-tonks, like Robert’s Western World or Layla’s Bluegrass Inn. But for something even more otherworldly, head a few blocks over from the main strip of Lower Broad for prime rib and a burlesque show at Skull’s Rainbow Room.
The late David “Skull” Schulman opened his place in Printers Alley in 1948, hosting a collection of characters, from showgirls to Hee Haw cast members to friends like Johnny Cash. The alley itself once housed the newspaper printing presses that gave the row its name—workers retreated there to blow off steam, making it a haven for drinking, gambling, and ladies of the night.
But poor Skull. The flashy owner, who wore rhinestones on his denim and carried wads of cash in pants held up with belt buckles bigger than saucers, met his fate in 1998 during a robbery turned murder at the club. Rumors have swirled ever since that he still haunts the place.
The new owners reopened Skull’s about nine months ago. It’s near the shuttered Brass Stables strip club and Ms. Kelli’s Karaoke Bar in what looks like a patch of cobwebbed New Orleans, with wrought-iron railings and guitar riffs ricocheting off narrow alley walls from nearby bars.
But inside, Skull’s has a speakeasy feel, with piano-playing, polished mahogany, and pressed tin tucked between cave-like stone walls. It’s fancier than the original version, but relics of the old Skull’s remain: His jackets are displayed behind glass, and the original menu is framed in dressing room lights on the wall—short-order T-bone steaks with fries and draft Pabst. From the new, swankier menu, order the prime rib, a Flintstone-sized slab resting in jus. It fills a platter to its edges, tastes like butter, and slices just as easily. A separate side dish of potatoes, mashed with their red skins on, comes with roasted Brussels sprouts sweetened with bits of red pepper. Wash it all down with a tangy, effervescent “Skull Schulman”: George Dickel whiskey with sage honey and blood orange soda. Because if Skull’s spirit still lurks, he would surely want you to drink in his name.
Parking Lot Chicken From Carniceria San Luis
If you drive down Nashville’s Fourth Avenue from downtown, you’ll find a collection of international restaurants and vendors representing the city’s growing diversity—Kurdish markets with fragrant lavash bakeries, Mexican taco trucks, and Thai mainstays like Siam Cafe. And, if you drive past a place called San Luis Carniceria with the windows rolled down, the smoky, meaty aroma wafting from its parking lot will make it hard not to hit the brakes.
The first time I visited, I crossed paths with an employee hoisting a hog over his shoulder—San Luis Carniceria is a butcher shop, after all. But, past the counters of raw meats and bins of bulk sauces, you can order to-go chicken from the smokers at the front of the parking lot. A Styrofoam cup of bean soup comes alongside a hunk of onion and half a juicy chicken, both charred to black in places and caramelized for a smoky and sweet flavor. Tear off some pieces of chicken and toss them on some tortillas for a bright bite, drizzled with fresh salsa verde. It costs less than $10, will easily feed two people, and makes for one of the best and most delicious deals in town.
“Meatloaf” Sandwich at the Nashville Farmers’ Market
With more than 2,000 visitors each day (and double that on the weekends), the Nashville Farmers’ Market brings together diverse groups of people over food—construction workers in neon vests come for lunch alongside State Capitol employees and, of course, farmers and chefs of all ages. Chef Sam Tucker of Village Bakery and Provisions opened his shop in the Market House in May 2015. “I wanted to be close to farmers,” he told me. He looks to fifth-generation farmer Troy Smiley of Smiley’s Farm for the greens that go into his collard and black-eyed pea soup, as well as a little advice on how best to use his ingredients. “That’s one thing I knew would be part of the experience,” he says. “Having older cats like him to draw from.”
From younger farmers out of the Bells Bend area, Tucker also buys duck that he confits. He uses the flavorful gelatin that remains from cooking the poultry to add heft and meaty richness to soup stock. For his “meatloaf” sandwich, he makes a country pâté, a firmly pressed but tender blend of local pork, lamb, pickled garlic scapes, and nuts. It’s seared and served on sweet brioche with greens, drizzled in savory Henry Bain sauce, a rich steak sauce from Louisville, Kentucky, that blends a hodgepodge of umami bombs, including Worcestershire, chutney, and chili sauce.
Sunday Chicken and Waffles From Hattie B’s Hot Chicken
According to legend, Nashville-style hot chicken came to be when a scorned lover sought revenge on her cheating man by taking cayenne to his fried chicken. She meant to burn him, but he couldn’t get enough of it, and neither can I.
Upon your first visit to Nashville, you should absolutely head straight for Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack for the original version, served with white bread and pickles. But hot chicken can be a spiritual experience, and, just as we all have the freedom to choose our own church, I like to catch a bit of that spirit on Sundays, the only day that Hattie B’s offers hot chicken and waffles.
Syrup forms pools in the wedge-shaped waffles and mixes on the plate with hot chicken drippings for a sweet-and-spicy pairing that’s entirely different from the traditional tart-hot combo of chicken and pickles. A side of bacon cheese grits, also served on Sundays only, brings the meal a creamy texture and a deep smoky flavor that’s freshened with bits of green scallion.
You’ll likely have to wait in line at either of Hattie B’s two locations, but I like the slightly less hectic West Nashville outpost on Charlotte Pike best (mainly because it’s located next door to Bobbie’s Dairy Dip, an old-school ice cream shop where I like to cool my palate after all that hot chicken). Order at the counter, then take a number and a Jackalope beer to the picnic tables out back. Though you can choose from heat levels at Hattie B’s that go as low as practically nonexistent, I suggest you go with the basic “Hot.” No one ever made a big deal about Nashville-style medium chicken. With outdoor lights swooping overhead and artificial turf underfoot, you can toss beanbags into targets to pass the time until the chicken arrives.
A Cozy Barside Dinner at Margot Café
In 2001, just a few years after a tornado ripped through an already-gritty East Nashville, Margot McCormack took a chance on a rundown 1930s service station and, without knowing it, helped change Nashville’s food scene forever. The Nashville native had returned home in the late 1990s after culinary school and a stint in New York City, where Chef Danny Saltiel of Danal encouraged her to study the likes of Elizabeth David and M. F. K. Fisher. There, she’d also had access to the riches of the fertile Hudson Valley, so, back home, working at F. Scott’s Restaurant and Jazz Bar, she kept wondering, “Where are the Tennessee farms?” She forged partnerships with local growers, ultimately bringing their produce to the table at her own restaurant, Margot Café & Bar. By 2014, Time magazine was calling her the Alice Waters of Nashville. When she opened, you could have heard a pin drop (and a few police sirens) in East Nashville: but the area is now a hotbed for dining. And she’s mentored others who’ve gone on to open local favorites, including Tandy Wilson of City House.
Margot Café is one of the coziest, most romantic rooms in town, with copper pots on brick walls, dainty but mismatched china, and food inspired by the South of France, Italy, and McCormack’s mother’s kitchen. Sit at the bar in the heart of the room for views of the small downstairs dining room, the loft area on the second floor, and the best conversation with bartender Brian Jackson. The menu changes daily, but everything’s wonderful: The roasted cod has a crackling skin and a luscious dollop of fennel cream, and the pan-roasted chicken is brightened with a garnish of pickled strawberries that can be scooped up with Nashville hot water cornbread. Also try her golden beets with watermelon radish, scallion, and pistachios, made tangy with rich buttermilk dressing.
The Cheeseburger at Brown's Diner
On a recent Friday at Brown’s Diner, a group of regulars sat around the bar staring, in a trance-like state, at the local news on a fuzzy, non-HD TV, the way people stare at an open fire. It was the calm before a busy night of live music, performed for the crowds of locals and Vanderbilt students who frequent the joint. The beat-up blue swivel seats in this former trolley car have held the likes of John Prine, Cowboy Jack Clement, and many others since the place opened in 1927.
People come here for the company and the cheeseburger. Simplicity rules at Brown’s—this burger isn’t a massive, fussed-over mound that requires a knife and fork. It’s more old-school instead, with flavor from its time on a well-worn griddle. Melted American cheese, onion, pickle, shredded lettuce, and tomato mix between the bun to add some drip factor, and the patty is small enough to warrant two burgers when appetite allows.
Pair your burger with a Budweiser in a frosty mug. It’s the only choice they’ve got on tap, and sometimes the best choice is having no choice at all.
Community Hour at Lockeland Table
There are parts of the Lockeland Table story that should be read with a Dolly Parton accent, à la Truvy the Hairdresser in the film Steel Magnolias. Because this is a building with a past (pay-asst).
Built in the 1930s along an old East Nashville trolley line, it began its life as a grocery store. But it might be better known in the neighborhood for its time as a beauty shop, where, during the course of a domestic dispute, the disgruntled lover of a hairstylist decided to crash his car into the front of the building. Lockeland Table still has the beauty shop’s number, and its mural on an outside wall, which prompts the occasional call for a coif.
And, in keeping with its grocery and beauty-shop origins, Lockeland has become a neighborhood gathering place, too. Most of the staff lives within shouting distance, and, rather than happy hour, Lockeland holds “Community Hour,” with a portion of proceeds going back to the nearby school’s parent teacher organization. Moms, dads, babies, and friends are invited to the bar and communal table built by owner Cara Graham’s mother.
The owners—Graham at the front of the house and business partner Chef Hal Holden-Bache in the kitchen—have done their best to honor the building’s history, with sepia-toned photos of its various incarnations hung along the dining room wall.
If you’re hungry, start with warm whipped goat cheese striped with honey and served with grilled leeks and pita for dipping, or paper-thin slices of Tennshootoe (a Tennessee country ham made in the style of prosciutto, dry-cured and aged at least 18 months at Bob Woods’s Hamery just south of Nashville) along with fresh fruit, house-smoked salt, and fig vinegar. Stay for main plates, too, especially the bowls of rich bison stew over pillows of gnocchi, or the shepherd’s pie with potatoes, cabbage, and short ribs, sealed under a bubbly layer of Tennessee smoked cheddar.
A Cocktail and Nachos at Bastion
It might be one of the hot new spots in town, but Bastion is no flash in the pan. The idea for it came from Josh Habiger, one of the chefs who opened The Catbird Seat, the acclaimed restaurant known for performing wizard-like moves on its seven-course tasting menu—the place that helped put Nashville on the national restaurant map when it opened in 2011.
Bastion lives inside the former American Syrup and Preserve Company building, with its soaring ceiling, white-painted brick walls, and comfortable little nooks situated under clusters of garage-sale art. Just a few years ago, the neighborhood was too unknown to merit a cool name. Then, after artists’ coworking spaces and an art crawl popped up, it went from “Wedgewood-Houston” to “WeHo” in 2.5 seconds flat.
Catering to the artistic crowd is part of Habiger’s plan here. The drinks are strong, creative, and fairly priced, and you can order the best nachos of your life: smoky chicken piled high with a spritz of lime, bits of pickled onion, and the crunch of radish on a bed of chips, held together in a blanket of white queso. Squeeze bottles on the bar hold a variety of house-made pepper sauces offering a range of colors and flavors: black charred pepper, neon orange fermented pepper, and a vibrant fresh green pepper sauce. Nachos are the sole menu item so far, but I figure Habiger has another trick up his sleeve.
A “Thing” of Popcorn and a Pitcher of Yazoo at the Station Inn
Full disclosure: I love the Station Inn so much that I'm getting married there in July. But my Big Day won’t make a record’s scratch in the monumental musical happenings that have gone down in this tiny listening room over the years. With glass office buildings rising all around it in the formerly industrial Gulch—an area that gets its name for being a topographical depression where the train lines came together—the Station Inn sits like a cinder-block bunker for escaping modern life. This is a room that will make you feel something.
The dark ceiling hangs low enough to graze with your fingertips, and wood-paneled walls have been plastered in Hatch Show posters and neon beer signs. The chairs don’t match. They look like they were curated from defunct church fellowship halls, old Pizza Huts, and school lunchrooms. It doesn’t matter, though. The focus here is almost always on the low stage and the sometimes high-profile artists, like Sheryl Crow or Vince Gill, who’ll stop by for a spell and sit in with a bluegrass band.
Order a pitcher of Nashville’s Yazoo beer, a “thing” of popcorn (yes, that’s what they call it on the menu), and some pimiento cheese on Ritz crackers. If you’d like more sustenance after the show, head next door to The 404 Kitchen for Chef Matt Bolus’s pasta with stone crab, Parmesan stock, preserved Meyer lemon, and tiny green ribbons of chervil. The walk will transport you from an old Nashville music box to a new Nashville jewel box in not just two steps, but maybe 10.