Despite what ABC’s Nashville would lead you to believe, Music City is not all cowboy boots and big hair. Sure, country music heritage is around every corner, but the city is also home to blues, rock and Americana artists such as members of the Black Keys and White Stripes leading man Jack White. Aside from the diverse music, you may be surprised to find that Nashville’s eclectic food and cocktail bar scene—one of the best in the South—ranges from rustic and charming in that American-flag-on-the-wall way to experimental takes on what Southern cuisine even means. Here’s how to spend two great days in Nashvegas.
Get acquainted with the locals at Barista Parlor, a roasting room and coffee bar in the Gulch neighborhood. The former recording studio-turned-café is sizable yet cozy with its long, communal wooden tables and exposed light bulbs hanging overhead. Try one of the bar’s signature mocktails like the Lady Victory, a chilled espresso drink flavored with jasmine, served in a fancy coupe and garnished with an edible flower. Pair your drink with a flakey strawberry-lemon Pop’s Tart (their homemade version of a frosted Pop-Tart).
Head around the corner to Third Man Records, musician Jack White’s vinyl shop. His studio is next door to the store, so you may even spot him while flipping through White Stripes and Dead Weather records. Feeling inspired? Third Man has its own recording booth—a refurbished, 1947 Voice-o-Graph machine—that lets you record up to two minutes of low-fi audio onto a commemorative six-inch disc.
Third Man Records
Photo: Brent Moore, CC-BY
You can’t visit Nashville without eating the local delicacy: hot chicken served with pickles and white bread. Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, located in a strip mall in north Nashville, is one of the best and sells juicy fried chicken quarters spiced from plain to XXX-hot. Even if you love heat, start with an order of mild or medium. Prince’s is legendary; expect to wait at least an hour for your bird.
Go downtown and take a backstage tour of the Ryman Auditorium, home to the Grand Ole Opry radio show from 1943 to 1974. Built as a tabernacle in 1892, the downtown venue has hosted rowdy crowds clamoring to see stars such as Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash for over a century. On the backstage and on-stage tour, you can sit in the no-frills green rooms, which are themed to honor music legends such as Hank Williams and are still used by artists who take the Ryman stage today.
Photo: Cliff, CC-BY
Walk down the street to Hatch Show Print, the renowned letterpress printer that has been designing handbills since the 19th Century. Watch the printing process take place and then browse the shop’s Haley Gallery, which sells restrikes of Hatch’s classic posters alongside modern-day monoprints made in the historic wood block style.
Go early to get a seat at the marble bar at Rolf and Daughters, a modern Mediterranean restaurant favorited by adventurous seafood lovers. Start with the sourdough bread served with salty seaweed butter. Then order the squid ink canestri, a black macaroni tossed with shrimp, squid, pork sausage and basil. Pair it with agretti, Italian greens which look like pine needles, sautéed with currants, capers and anchovies. The bar menu also serves a heavy pour of creativity: the Flat Cap cocktail includes Irish whiskey, orange cream soda syrup and bitters.
Rolf and Daughters
Photo: Andrea Behrends
Lower Broadway is the reason why Nashville gets the nickname Nashvegas. On this Bourbon Street-esque strip, a dozen honky-tonk bars pack in bachelorette parties and bachelorette party hangers-on all night long. The most famous of the bars, such as Tootsie’s Orchard Lounge or The Stage, may have surprise celebrity acts, but for the most part, expect to be squeezed in like a Miller-sipping sardine and listening to pop-country cover bands. When you’re ready for a break from the country, walk to Acme Feed & Seed for non-country indie tunes and delightfully country Mule Kickers cocktails: frozen lemonade mixed with moonshine.
Photo: Andrea Behrends
After a long night out, you’ll want to pop an aspirin and head to Pinewood Social, a brunch and entertainment complex overlooking the Cumberland River. Pull yourself back together over The Graceland, a waffle that’s topped with peanut butter mousse, bacon and sliced bananas. Perk up over a coffee cocktail made with the best beans from local roaster Crema; Easy Like Sunday Morning includes espresso, a little milk, Demerara sugar and Fernet, a dark Italian bitter. When you’re ready to rejoin the world, you can bowl on one of Pinewood’s vintage lanes, play bocce ball, go swimming or even rent out a private karaoke room to perfect your Kacey Musgraves twang.
The charming 12 South neighborhood is trendy boutique headquarters. Start at White’s Mercantile, a home goods store owned by Hank Williams’ granddaughter. White’s specializes in miscellaneous rugged items like twill Filson tote bags, enamel camp mugs and linen tea towels. Next walk up the block to Imogene + Willie, a custom denim heaven built in an old gas station. Here you can pick out your raw denim and style and get measured in the store. Then once the jeans are made, they are shipped directly to your house. The shop also sells cool flannels, leather sandals and turquoise jewelry. Cadeau, down the street, is a home décor shop filled with crystals, pillows, candles and funky goods such as jewelry holders shaped like animal skulls and ceramic cookie jars labeled “Quaaludes.” Hero, a nearby women’s clothing store, sells awesome MadeWorn vintage band tees that come pre-distressed, so you can own a Ramones shirt that looks like it’s been lived it for decades, without the time commitment.
You have two options for dinner: Old South or New South. If you’d like to get a rare taste of the heirloom crops grown in the Lowcountry centuries ago, go to Husk Restaurant, the Nashville outpost of Chef Sean Brock’s Charleston institution. Brock is trying to reintroduce heritage grains that were lost to time and grows many of the vegetables used in his dishes in a garden on site. The restaurant is located inside an intimate, 1800s-era home just off of Broadway. The menu can change hourly based on which ingredients are fresh, but you can bet Brock’s famous pimento cheese and “hot water” cornbread will be on the spread. Some other dishes recently offered at Husk were Cheerwine-glazed crispy pig ears and Florida swordfish served with popped sorghum.
Photo: Flickr/Daniel Zemans
For a glimpse at the South’s evolving food landscape, head to Chauhan Ale & Masala House, where Chef Maneet Chauhan incorporates Southern staples like black-eyed peas and collard greens into traditional Indian dishes like saag and daal. For a representative taste, order the “Meat and Three,” a Nashville-specific meal consisting of one meat dish like chicken vindaloo and three veggie sides. Even the restaurant’s bar is in on the cross-cultural pollination: the Glory Bullfighter cocktail is made with aged tequila, vermouth, Yellow Chartreuse and curry bitters. If this is what you can expect from the future of Southern cuisine, you may not want to ever leave.
American, Delta, Frontier, Southwest and United airlines, plus Air Canada, serve the Nashville International Airport.
If you’ve got the cash, the five-room 404 Hotel in Nashville’s Gulch neighborhood is a sight to behold. The boutique hotel is housed in an old mechanic’s garage and each king-sized room is outfitted like a Pinterest-worthy modern loft: sliding barn doors, spiral staircases and the requisite Malin + Goetz toiletries. Next door is the hotel’s popular restaurant, 404 Kitchen, which is built inside a neon orange shipping container.
For old-timey Southern hospitality, book a room at the historic Hermitage Hotel downtown. The opulent building has marble floors and columns, walnut walls, Persian rugs and a stained glass vaulted ceiling. This is the kind of hotel that has grand ballrooms and meeting rooms called the Governor’s Salon. Because it is located across the street from the state capitol, the hotel has played host to a half dozen presidents and was the headquarters of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association’s convention in 1914, six years before Tennessee ratified the 19th amendment.
But when it comes down to it, you’ll probably opt for the old standby Airbnb. Look for properties in the newly gentrified East Nashville neighborhood, where many homeowners have chickens in their yards and custom-built cottages out back. An Uber downtown will cost about $10 each way, a bargain when you’re paying less than $80 a night for your room.
Lead image: Thomas Hawk, CC-BY
Alyson Sheppard writes about travel and hangovers for Playboy.com. She currently resides in the great state of Texas.