My tenure in Nashville’s restaurant industry spans well over a decade. While working my way up from a cocktail waitress to a baker to a pastry cook to the pastry chef at two of Nashville’s best restaurants—City House and Husk—I have had the great fortune of meeting and working with many talented food people in this city. When I think about what draws me to my favorite bars and restaurants here, I think of one thing: the people behind the places.
These aren’t necessarily the places you’ll find listed in magazines or on award lists, except for one or two of them. Instead, these businesses are the gems that many industry folks like myself flock to on their one or two days off a week. I consider myself damn lucky to get to wander into them for a cup of coffee, a great burger, or a cheap and delicious taco and see the people behind them—my friends—live their dream and do the work they were meant to do. They’re the places that maintain an honesty and sincerity that cooks like me crave, and that everyone can taste.
This little fixture of East Nashville was once a smoky, grungy dive bar only frequented by locals for novelty’s sake; now, it’s one of my favorite spots in town to grab a good beer (several on tap, lots of bottles and cans), some frito pie in an aluminum tin, and a damn good greasy burger. Spearheaded by Miranda Whitcomb Pontes and Alex Wendkos, Dino’s is the place we all want in our lives: a no-pressure, simple, honest, home away from home. It’s the sort of place you’d feel comfortable going in your house shoes, and no one would blink an eye.
411 Gallatin Ave., Nashville, TN 37206
Martin’s BBQ Joint
I was a vegetarian for sixteen years; I’m not going to get into a regional barbecue argument because I really don’t care that much. But Pat Martin’s barbecue is so good that it made me jump the vegetarian ship. Now, I crave it like a junkie. This is the place I bring all of my out-of-town guests. There is something so honest about the experience of eating at Martin’s—it just feels like Nashville. It defines what I love most about this city: real, earnest food from the hands of a good person. Don’t miss the Redneck Taco: pulled pork on a johnny cake with coleslaw on top.
Martin’s BBQ Joint
3108 Belmont Blvd, Nashville, TN 37212
Arnold’s Meat and Three
The Arnold family is made up of some of the most humble, hard-working, good-natured people in town; they are practically the Von Trapps of Southern food. In 1983 they opened Arnold’s Meat and Three; thirty-two years and a James Beard award later, they are still churning out some of the best home cooking Nashville has ever seen. Highlights include fried chicken, perfect sweet tea, and banana pudding. And, as someone who prides herself on knowing a thing or two about good pie, I can truthfully say that the only pie I like better than my own is at Arnold’s. When you go, just get one of everything.
Arnold’s Meat and Three
605 8th Ave S, Nashville, TN 37203
Thai Esane/King’s Market
Several years ago, the Sayasack family opened a place just a short drive out of town called King’s Market, where they serve handmade sausages, dumplings, and noodles in the back of an international market that’s next door to a gold and silver pawn shop. It’s off of one of Nashville’s least-alluring roads, but it quickly became a destination for us chefs on our days off. Last year, the family moved their business into town, and we’ve all been significantly happier ever since. It’s the one place I could eat at every day and never tire of.
907 12th Ave S, Nashville, TN 37212
Full disclosure: City House is my old alma mater. I was damn lucky that seven years ago, as an aspiring pastry chef, I got the opportunity to work in the kitchen with Tandy Wilson and Aaron Clemins. They were the best years of my career. But my experience there has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that this place is hands-down the most solid restaurant I’ve ever borne witness to. Wilson’s consistency of vision and execution are second to none. The very minimal turnover he has in staff should speak volumes about the place to anyone that has ever worked in the restaurant industry. He is demanding and exacting, but always maintains an affable and generous spirit. This makes for good food and—lucky us—longevity in a field where others struggle to remain true, dedicated, and relevant. It’s truly the shining star of our city.
1222 4th Ave N, Nashville, TN 37210
Rachel and Ben Lehman opened Crema when there was practically zero coffee culture to speak of in Nashville. With it, they brought an education about the nuances, the culture, the history, and the current sustainability of coffee and its sources. Last year, they made a film about it. Education aside, Crema has become a meeting place, a gossip hall, a place to be alone, a place to be together and, simply, just a nice place to sit and have a perfect cortado while you look out over the Cumberland River and downtown. The quality of Rachel and Ben’s work has brought Nashville to another level; they are lodestars in what we should all continue to expect and hope for from our fair city.
15 Hermitage Ave, Nashville, TN 37204
This little hole-in-the-wall spot has been a neighborhood favorite for several years. And while it has become popular with the city’s hipsters, it’s still worth braving: It’s simple, easy, and cheap, and the family that runs it are some really lovely folks. The matriarchal feel of the place (and the fact that you can hear the mama in the kitchen giving the kids—who make up the front of the house staff—a serious what-for in Spanish when they aren’t moving fast enough) makes you feel like you’ve just walked into someone’s home. On the weekends we go for a big bowl of pozole, a big plate of guacamole, and a Mexican coke. The homemade salsas are incredible.
3225 Gallatin Pike, Nashville, TN 37216
The Oak Bar at The Hermitage Hotel
If you haven’t gathered by now, I’m a big fan of cozy. The Oak Bar is one of the classiest and coziest little bars I’ve ever had the pleasure of sitting in. They make a truly great Sazerac and the snack menu, developed by Chef Tyler Brown, is simple, unpretentious, and delicious. Usually, downtown is reserved for the tourists—locals are hard-pressed to find a reason to go—but The Oak Bar is my reason. It’s a pretty place to sit and have a good drink that is, quite frankly, usually full of elderly foreign tourists (yes please!) who don’t care what you’re wearing or who you’re with. If you make it there, head to the stunner of a boy’s bathroom adjacent to the bar. It’s legendary, and a great place to hang out with your girlfriends. Just knock first.
The Oak Bar
231 6th Ave N, Nashville, TN 37219