As if prepared especially for a time-capsule retrospective 20 years in the future, the June 22, 1989, issue of the Nashville Scene included a broad roundup of popular kid-friendly dining spots. Among the highlights: Calhoun's, Darryl's, Dalt's, The Cooker, El Chico, T.G.I. Friday's, The Old Spaghetti Factory and the 101st Airborne. The kids whom the Scene steered to Applebee's and Bennigan's have all grown up—and so has the Nashville dining scene.
Today, an article about family-friendly dining in the Scene would include the likes of Watanabe Sushi and Asian Cuisine, PM, La Hacienda Taqueria, Fido and Savarino's Cucina—all locally owned independent restaurants whose menus and attitudes bridge the generation gap while expanding everyone's palate. And while Nashville kids are eating better on their coloring-book placemats than ever before, so are their parents. No longer content to scour the predictable American-food chains, Nashvillians have proved themselves hungry for variety and quality, in everything from fresh guacamole to foie gras to pho.
Credit the immigration patterns that have peppered the community with the culinary palettes (and palates) of Central America and Asia. Credit the music and health care businesses that have lured East and West Coasters—along with their demanding tastes for inventive cuisine and seasonal produce. Credit a dramatis personae of dogged restaurateurs, committed to improving Nashville's dining economy. Not least of all, credit the 16-year-old Food Network for filling our heads with visions of tapas, taco stands and top chefs. If the owner's personality was of dominant importance 20 years ago in Nashville, the superstars of today are in the kitchen. Mario Batali, Emeril Lagasse, Anthony Bourdain and Alton Brown have brought the best of dining into our living rooms, exhorting us to expect the best from our own kitchens—and our local restaurants.
"People have elevated themselves and allowed themselves to progress in their taste," says chef Deb Paquette, owner of Zola restaurant and a constant over the past two decades of Nashville dining. "Education of food and dining has stuck a pin in their butt to get up and try stuff. I think it's given much exploration. That's why there's now so many kinds of restaurants."
Sure, there's still the sturdy steakhouse fare lining the West End corridor. But 10 years after former Scene food critic Kay West famously lamented the lack of a French bistro-style eatery, Miro District Food & Drink in the Adelicia and Miel on the fringe of Sylvan Park now fill le vide français, and there's more French fare on the way. Meanwhile, moûles frites have practically become comfort food, and many Nashvillians not only know what a torchon of foie gras is, they have opinions about whether tayst or Watermark makes a better one.
Indeed, "choice" is the watchword of Nashville's new dining landscape. Since 1989, the number of food service establishments on file with the Metro Health Department has risen by half, from 2,250 to 3,400. Want Vietnamese noodles? Forage for pho on Charlotte Pike, where Kien Giang sits just across the parking lot from Miss Saigon. Craving a cupcake? Call Cuppycakes, Gigi's, the Cupcake Collection, Sweet 16th or Dulce Desserts. Searching for sushi? Choose among Ginza, Shintomi, Sonobana, Goten, PM, Zumi, Samurai, Koto, Virago or Wild Wasabi—to name a few.
The fact that Nashville is swimming with raw fish illustrates our improved access to fresh ingredients from all over the world. An increase in food purveyors over the years means anything from Wagyu beef to Berkshire pigs is on the menu, and chefs have a near-infinite toolbox of products and flavors to work with.
Not only are diners becoming more adventurous about their foods, they are also stepping out to explore their expanding city. Our civic lust for the newest chain seems as unquenchable now as it did in the bad old days of Planet Hollywood. But at almost every compass point, restaurants are adding unique flavor to distinct parts of town. As DUI rules have become stricter, neighborhoods have become more relevant than ever for diners who want to cluster their eating-and-drinking activities in a short radius.
Starving in 12South? Thank Mirror, Rumours and Mafiaoza's for blazing a trail in the once gritty neighborhood south of downtown. The district now houses Portland Brew, Frothy Monkey, 12South Taproom and Las Paletas. Peckish in Belmont? Thank two generations of Myints for nurturing the dining scene in the pedestrian-friendly college block. Across the street from Patti Myint's International Market, her son Arnold has launched PM and ChaChah, bringing both culinary whimsy and gravitas to the street.
Eating in East Nashville? Options have mushroomed beyond Five Points, where Margot Cafe, Marché, Rumours East, Batter'd & Fried, Mad Donna's, I Dream of Weenie and Beyond the Edge have made the East Side a dining stronghold. Now there's Riverside Village, where David Mitchell piles BLTs with Benton's bacon at his eponymous deli and Hide Watanabe holds the uncontested title of best bluegrass banjo-pickin' sushi chef in the city.
In the sleepy streets north of the newly renovated Farmers' Market, Germantown is blossoming with delicious entrepreneurship. Niche shops, such as Lazzaroli Pasta, The Cocoa Tree, Cupcake Collection, Zackie's Original Hot Dogs and DrinkHaus nestle among restaurants such as City House, Germantown Café and Mad Platter, ready to cater to the New Urban population filling in around downtown.
Most surprising, perhaps, is the gastronomic texture emerging in Cool Springs. Where once only chains dared to sprawl, now national nameplates compete with local independents such as Wild Ginger, Taste of Russia and Basil Asian Bistro. Meanwhile, the Nashville stalwarts have found a second market for their popular menus, and a parallel universe is rising with suburban outposts of Boscos, Noshville, Gigi's Cupcakes, Sportsman's Grille and Dan McGuinness.
As much as any other development, the emergence of The Gulch from a neglected railroad scar into a dynamic dining district illustrates the growth of Nashville's tastes and choices. Where once a sleepy meat-and-three offered the only fare, now an array of national chains and ambitious independents has rushed in to appease the appetites of high-rise dwellers. Watermark, Ru San's, Urban Flats, Cantina Laredo, Sambuca and Jimmy Carl's Lunch Box—not to mention the bygone trailblazers Radius10, Bar Twenty3 and Agave Tequila Lounge—brought vibrant life to the forgotten industrial district and choice to an increasingly affluent and bustling market.
Supply breeds demand, or at least a more demanding consumer. The surge of restaurants into The Gulch in 2005 and 2006 raised the bar for restaurateurs, says Zola's Paquette, who saw an influx of national chains (including Maggiano's Little Italy and Stoney River Steakhouse) invade her West End neighborhood around that time. "You have to give in to the customers," she explains, "because there are more chairs than diners in this city."
That makes for precarious living if you're a restaurateur or chef—and the list of local tombstones in recent months is saddening, from Andrew Chadwick's to Ombi. But it's undeniably a boon for diners. As patrons increasingly demand everything from outdoor seating and sustainably grown local produce to environmentally sound business practices, Nashville's restaurants are rising to meet those challenges.
And diners have noticed. Armed with heightened expectations and a new fluency in all things culinary, Nashvillians are talking nonstop about food. They're talking about where to buy sfingi and gelato (Savarino's Cucina), where to get an old-fashioned made with bacon (The Patterson House), where to dine by a fireplace (Tin Angel), where to eat green (tayst), where to eat late-night (Sunset Grill, where impresario Randy Rayburn remains proof of life after midnight) and where to dine if you're gluten-intolerant or vegan (Zola). They're petitioning for wine in grocery stores and voting with their wallets when it comes to establishments that still allow smoking in smoke-free Tennessee. They're chewing more than fat at Slow Food dinners, at food film series, at CSA drop-offs and at cooking classes across the city.
And of course, they're talking about food online, where a like-minded community of cooks and diners buzzes with culinary gossip, criticism and braggadocio. Nowadays, everyone's a critic, especially on the Scene's food blog, Bites, which launched in 2007. On any given day on Bites, the conversation about artisanal cocktails, food security and locavore cuisine offers a candid snapshot of the new dining landscape in Nashville.
But every now and then, the online conversation drifts toward the past. Voices wax nostalgic for a favorite bowl of soup from an extinct lunch counter, a sandwich from a bygone deli, or some other Ratatouille-like memory of the way we used to eat in Nashville. Over the 20 years to come, we'll start finding and defining the comfort foods of our future, that make us the place we are. For whatever our cardiologists tell us, even in a city with newly grown-up tastes, a little greasy kid stuff is sometimes good for the heart.
Explore Nashville's dining landscape during Restaurant Week, June 29 through July 5, when independent and locally owned members of the Nashville Originals will offer prix fixe meals and two-for-one meals priced at $20.09 and $30.09. For a list of participating restaurants, visit nashvilleoriginals.com.