13 Excellent Restaurants to Try in Nashville

From classic meat ‘n’ threes to natural wine bars with fine-dining chops, this city’s food scene is on the upswing.

By Ellen Fort

Published on April 15, 2024

Nashville, “Music City,” has long been a haven for musicians and songwriters, but these days my hometown is also experiencing a surge of culinary talent. A decade or two ago, finding handrolls made with fish from Tokyo or natural wine by the glass was a challenge. Now, we’re in business, with more options coming down the pike at a rapid pace.

Born and raised in Nashville, I spent my childhood digging into plates of fried chicken with sides of squash casserole and turnip greens at Elliston Place Soda Shop, and meandering out to Highway 100 for a plate of biscuits at Loveless Cafe—establishments that have fed this city for generations. We’ve always eaten well here, but as the city has changed—becoming more international, and influenced by the East and West Coasts—so have its tastes, expanding beyond the down-home cooking visitors might expect. 

That’s a good thing. Ours is a vibrant dining scene that caters to all tastes and budgets, from experimental fine dining to tried-and-true lunch counters. There are way more than 13 excellent places to visit in Nashville, so use this as your primer to getting a taste of Music City. Whether you're craving a plate of hot chicken from Prince’s or artfully arranged Appalachian food from chef Sean Brock, Nashville has it.

Aside from hot chicken, Nashville’s other hometown food is the “meat ‘n’ three,” a plate lunch consisting of a protein and three sides. The Southern classic is a specialty of The Elliston Place Soda Shop. Opened in 1935, it is one of the few remaining (and best examples) of the genre. Generations of Nashvillians have graced the red leather booths and black-and-white-tiled floors over the years, tended to by staff that feels like it turns over about once a century. (Ms. Linda, “the pie lady,” still makes her beloved coconut meringue pies every morning.) Though Elliston Place moved to a newer space next door a few years ago, it still features the soda counter and pressed tin ceiling, which makes the milkshakes, sundaes, and off-menu Elmer—all made with ice cream from Nashville’s Purity Dairy—taste like the good old days.

Mary Craven

International Market introduced Nashvillians to Thai food in the 1970s, when it opened on Belmont Boulevard serving an exceptionally affordable steam table lunch of Thai and Chinese dishes. Now, with a new location (across the street) and new ownership (Anna and Arnold Myint, children of the original owners), the restaurant incorporates high-quality local meats and produce in an updated setting—though thankfully the original mustard-and-orange bench seating came along for the ride. The kitchen is now a proving ground for chef Arnold Myint, a recent James Beard Semifinalist. Menu items venture beyond the typical selections of curries with five-spice duck lo mein, shrimp and pineapple curry, and red curry rice ball wraps. At lunch, diners can choose from the classic steam table option or order from the menu; nighttime brings table service with Singhas and craft cocktails.

At Locust, chef Trevor Moran created his own culinary genre blending influences from Japan to his native Ireland. I’ve eaten briny Belon oysters that tasted—pleasantly—like licking a battery; a roast sole served with morels and uni; and a bowl of tiny sea snails served with toothpicks and spicy salt. The DIY beef tartare handrolls—freshly ground bottom round, fluffy rice, and smoky pickled egg cream, plus freeze-dried capers and nori for rolling—are a must, as is the tuna crisp, featuring house-cured slices of tuna loin and belly atop a fried wonton crisp slathered with horseradish. The chefs deliver these dishes to the tables themselves to an eclectic soundtrack featuring everything from Meat Loaf to old-school hip-hop. The drink list is heavy on natural wines, though my go-to is the Toki Highball cocktail or a can of sake. In homage to Moran’s birthplace, there’s also Guinness by the pint, and Irish gin and tonics compete with Orion beer and sake cups.

Camille Tambunting

The diminutive Kisser, modeled after a Japanese kissaten, a neighborhood spot serving comfort food where locals can eat, drink, and hang out, has been a smash hit since opening in 2023. After spending years in some of the best kitchens in L.A. and Nashville, co-owner couple Brian Lea and Leina Horii decided to focus on their own vision. Inspired in part by Horii’s family sushi restaurant in California, the menu blends traditional Japanese cuisine and their fine-dining techniques with dishes like onigiri stuffed with snow crab and avocado, a perfectly crispy chicken katsu sandwich on fluffy housemade milk bread, and bowls of udon in delicate broth. It’s one of the best places in town to enjoy fresh fish, particularly the chirashi bowl brimming with pristine sashimi and glistening salmon roe. Make sure to end your meal with a green melon-cream soda or a crackly miso crème brûlée. 

Folk is a neighborhood gem that Nashville needs now more than ever as hotels and chains threaten to take hold of the dining scene. The restaurant is perched on a quiet corner in East Nashville’s McFerrin Park and welcomes diners with wood-fired sourdough-crust pizzas—my favorite is adorned with Little Neck clams, parsley, bonito, and lemon—and rustic Italian-leaning dishes like Marcella beans with spicy pepper relish, bouncy focaccia with whipped ricotta, and more. From the high-ceilinged dining room, adorned with paper lanterns and exposed brick walls, you can glimpse the bustling kitchen and blazing pizza oven. Natural wines and classic cocktails are the move at the bar, where the afternoon light streams in during the daily apéro hour. The crowd of shockingly healthy houseplants are as well-nourished as the patrons. 

Not far from Folk stands a Tex-Mex taco shop with a sense of humor where you can gobble down one chef’s highly agreeable take on Taco Bell’s Crunchwrap. To make it, chef Bryan Lee Weaver (also of Butcher & Bee) fills his fluffy handmade tortillas with Texas red chili, pork green chili, or both when you order it “Xmas-style.” If tacos are more your speed, you’ll find toppings like brisket, tater tots, and freshly roasted Hatch chiles. To me, the sleeper hit is the vegetarian taco with charred poblano, whipped feta, and crispy rice, thanks to its variety of textures and smoky heat. The queso dip comes with more of those warm, velvety tortillas (never chips!), and the frozen margaritas are tart and free of sickly-sweet sour mix. The interior offers retro-diner vibes, with a formica bar and red leather booths, but there’s nothing like grabbing a patio seat in the summertime to let those margs work their Texas magic.

Emily Dorio

Chef Sean Brock has dedicated his career to studying Appalachian foodways and cuisine, from his time at Charleston’s award-winning restaurants McCrady’s and Husk to present-day passion projects like Audrey. Within this minimalist monolith of a building is a warm restaurant serving food that borrows from the chef’s upbringing in rural Kentucky. On the menu, chicken and dumplings with fines herbes and black truffles are based on a recipe from his grandmother, Audrey, who gave the restaurant its name. The dining room is centered around the kitchen and its woodfired grill; its walls display Brock’s collection of outsider art, from Butch Anthony to Moses Tolliver, selected to immerse diners in his dreamworld. 

Lucky for Nashvillians, former Per Se chef and Nashville native Julia Sullivan came home to open her first solo restaurant in Henrietta Red. This airy, tiled Germantown spot boasts an oyster bar glistening with mollusks including Maine’s salty Mookie Blues and Alabama’s buttery Murder Points. Despite Nashville’s landlocked status (the Cumberland River doesn’t count), Henrietta Red deftly combines coastal ingredients with Southern flavors in dishes like oysters roasted with ‘nduja butter and whole trout with dandelion greens. Wood-fired seafood is the focus here, but the fresh pastas and vegetables—particularly the beet salad with pistachio and mint—stand out, too. Brunch brings its own reason to visit, with dishes like shrimp toast with beets and tahini and smoked fish cakes with lemon-fennel aioli.

Victoria Quirk

So named because “opening a restaurant is a bad idea,” this natural wine bar is the brainchild of owner-sommelier Alex Burch and chef Colby Rasavong. You might kick things off, for instance, with a scallop-stuffed crêpe in a pool of nam prik blanquette topped by a lacy tuile, and follow that with a vegetarian laab made with sunflower milk, or pain perdu kaya toast topped with caviar. It’s all happening inside a repurposed church sanctuary with original windows and high ceilings. Worship at this altar of wine and food later in the night, and bar snacks are the vibe—think curry-caviar corndogs and fried bologna sandwiches (a late-night Nashville classic) with potato chip aioli. 

Despite the ever-widening swath of restaurants serving Prince’s signature dish around the globe, you have to visit the original purveyor to get real-deal Nashville hot chicken. As the story goes, the ultra-spicy sandwich was created as punishment by a jilted lover of Thornton Prince; but, instead of catching on fire, Prince loved the spice so much that he’d go on to perfect the recipe that launched his business. Today, Prince’s remains the best in class, serving up fried chicken spiced with cayenne pepper oil atop a slice of white bread with a pickle (a foil to all that cayenne).

Courtesy of Wendell Smith's

Wood-paneled walls line the dining room of this classic meat ‘n’ three restaurant that’s been serving up Southern soul since 1952. Every day, the fourth-generation owners welcome a regular crowd hungry for roast beef, baked ham, and pit barbecue, plus daily specials like fried catfish, chicken and dumplings, and throwback fixins like candied yams, turnip greens, baked apples, fried corn, and creamed potatoes. Wendell Smith’s is a slice of Nashville that has hung on to its corner lot despite unchecked development all around it, still sharing space with the adjacent liquor store of the same name that’s been operating just as long. 

What began 70 years ago as a humble motel and cafe at the start of the Natchez Trace Parkway has been thriving from the moment Lon and Annie Love began serving biscuits and fried chicken to travelers out of their home kitchen. After their continuing success, the couple turned their home into a restaurant and opened 14 rooms as a motel to accompany their new dining destination. The motel went out of operation years ago, and its rooms are now home to retail space with smoked hams, jams, and biscuit mix on offer. Though there is now expanded outdoor seating and an outdoor bar serving bloody Marys when the wait is long, there’s nothing better than grabbing a seat in the tiny dining room that still feels like home.  

An institution since 1974, this legendary West Nashville steakhouse is a windowless dining room featuring backlit stained glass, carpeting, a stone fireplace with a roaring fire (most nights), and sporty portraits of the hounds and horses that once lived on the grounds of the abutting Belle Meade Mansion. Martinis and Manhattans pair perfectly with Sperry’s steaks and seafood, from a filet Oskar smothered in crabmeat and Béarnaise to king crab legs served with drawn butter. Nashville’s very first salad bar remains gloriously intact here, where diners can pile their plate with neon green goddess and bacon crumbles (though the plated iceberg wedge salad topped with bacon and black olives is my choice). Bananas Foster, another highlight, is served tableside in a plume of booze-soaked flames and cinnamon-fueled sparks. The doors open at 4 for happy hour, when sausage-stuffed mushrooms and discounted cocktails draw a steady stream of locals each day. 

Continue to Next Story

Want more SAVEUR?

Get our favorite recipes, stories, and more delivered to your inbox.