If, for some reason, you haven't traveled 12th Avenue South in the past decade, you won't recognize it when you finally do. Where once a barren strip of asphalt climbed from a ragged railroad scar, now a gleaming universe of highrise towers, chic eateries and fashion and design landmarks lines the sidewalks of a pedestrian-friendly modern urban landscape. What a difference a decade makes.
Of course, in such a dynamic cityscape, a few months can make a big difference, too. Before you know it, Burger Republic will open in the Pine Street Flats, and farmers market favorite Juice Nashville will debut a storefront on Division, to name some pending arrivals. Meanwhile, a few Gulch pioneers have already evolved into a second incarnation.
Music City Flats Stoneoven & Bar610 12th Ave. S., 401-9103
If you liked the whole-wheat flatbreads dressed with figs and prosciutto or steak and blue cheese that debuted at the Icon's corner tenant in 2009, don't worry. They're still there. The namplate at the corner of 12th and Division now says Music City Flats, where once it said Urban Flats, but the edit reflects a change in corporate ownership, more than any substantive culinary metamorphosis.
"It's pretty much the same," the host and servers told us as we passed the familiar racks of wine bottles in the foyer of the sleek and soaring space. Last year, owner Henry Hillenmeyer severed ties with the Florida-based Urban Flats chain and rebranded the Gulch eatery as a locally owned independent enterprise. To that end, the Music City Flats team is currently working with the Convention and Visitors Bureau to assemble a collection of artwork and photographs that will play up the hometown image and showcase the diverse musical elements of Nashville.
While flatbreads and other signature dishes remain, executive chef David Gordon-Somers, an alumnus of Gaylord Entertainment, oversees a slightly expanded menu. In addition to salads, fish tacos, sandwiches and the popular tuna tartar — which cluster in the $10 range — there is a new selection of $15 to $21 entrees, including jalapeño cornbread-stuffed pork chops and steak medallions with parsnip mashed potatoes. We enjoyed a salmon fillet stuffed with baby shrimp, wrapped in bacon and plated with portobello caps and wilted spinach, and we were pleasantly surprised by osso bucco, a tender-at-the bone lamb shank braised in white wine and served over a decadent creamy risotto. The $21 entrée was an unexpected affordable indulgence.
The transformation from Urban Flats to Music City Flats is a subtle one, but another local independent business in the district is something to celebrate — maybe with a pint of pale ale brewed down the block at Yazoo.
Bond Coffee Company602 12th Ave. S., 810-9940
Of all the coffee joints in all the Gulch, Casablanca Coffee was the first to arrive and the first to depart, yielding its shiny floors and high ceilings to another independent java-slinger, Bond Coffee Company. Owned by Gulch dwellers Mel and Kimala Bond and operated by daughter Kathleen — a Turnip Truck Urban Fare veteran — the ground-floor grounds house offers a creative menu of espresso drinks, teas and chocolates, as well as oatmeal, yogurt-granola parfaits, breakfast bagels, panini and pastries in a room newly appointed with comfortable armchairs and soothing sky-blue walls. On our visit, new urban dwellers, presumably on their way to the office or back from their morning workouts, were chatting about European vacation plans as they waited for fresh quiche to finish baking. Meanwhile, a visitor on the Facebook page wants to know if Bond Coffee accepts payment in Bitcoin peer-to-peer digital currency. No, not yet. Things are changing in the Gulch, but not quite that much.
12 South Bistro907 12th Ave. S., 651-8474
If you've seen the inflatable stick man undulating over the restaurant parking lot, or witnessed the sign-spinners flipping their advertising placards at the corner of 12th and Division, you may have thought, "The neighborhood is stretching," because the 12South nickname has generally referred to the neighborhood along 12th Avenue between Wedgewood and Gale. In fact, 12 South Bistro — not to be confused with 12South Taproom & Grill — sits nearly a mile north of Wedgewood, in a zone we'd call Edgehill. Or maybe that's North12South? Geography may be more art than science, so we'll leave the nomenclature to the real estate professionals.
As for the "bistro," title, there is a certain European flair to Adam and John Payz's enterprise at the former site of At the Table. That makes sense, given that the Payz brothers, who co-own New York Pizza on Elliston Place and once owned Tazza downtown, hail from Russia. And chef Lassad Mnif is from France. Gone are the sweaty windows of the meat-and-three predecessor, replaced with a polished palette of chocolate-brown and crisp white, crystal chandelier, and a wall sculpture that reminded us of oversized cross-sections of marrowbone.
But don't expect to see anything as exotic as roasted marrow on the menu. For now, the broad-based roster of lunch and dinner includes European-inspired dishes so ubiquitous to casual dining that we've co-opted them as American cuisine: brick-oven pizza, pasta, panini, fried calamari, mozzarella sticks, tiramisu, kebabs and a Greek salad strewn with shredded cheddar.
In these first few weeks, Mnif, who trained in France and locally at Viking culinary school, hopes to build a steady clientele. Then he'll start rolling out items inspired by his time in Southern France and Northern Africa.
No matter the origins of the cuisine, the arrival of a white-tablecloth eatery along a thoroughfare long considered a "food desert" for its shortage of groceries or restaurants is noteworthy. The energy and dynamism of the Gulch are spreading. That means one thing for sure: The only thing to count on in Nashville's dining landscape is change.