They say hunger is the best gravy. To that, we might add that surprise is the best aperitif. Because nothing kicks off a meal better than a delightful element of the unexpected. Of all the things we liked about Pub5, the newest effort by 12 South Taproom owners Will Shuff, Jamy Borda and Alex Torres, it was the unexpected atmosphere that set the stage for delightful dining experiences.
First of all, we were stunned by the transformation of the quirky Wild Bill's Beignets & Bikes into a three-story layering of pub, intimate dining rooms and rooftop bar, where reclaimed barnwood, vestigial advertising murals, 200-year-old brick and retro filament lights conspire to create a warmth that is simultaneously modern and historic. Downstairs is the kind of clubby, pubby room where you can imagine sliding into a booth or perching on a barstool for a long winter's night of politics-and-pilsner-filled conversation.
On the second floor, intimate dining rooms accented with exposed brick, dramatic decorative murals, custom ironwork and original fireplaces make a welcome addition to the list of private venues for meetings and parties in the umbra of the new Music City Center.
But climb one more flight of the dark stairwell, lean into the door and ... surprise! Welcome to one of Nashville's most understated and impressive outdoor dining spaces. The rooftop aerie is like a box seat with a view of the arena and a soundtrack siphoned from the nearby honky-tonks, with benefit of a little distance to muffle the raucous volume of Lower Broad.
Our first experience at lunch was a perfectly serene affair: a balmy spring day shaded by cloud cover, sweating glasses of iced tea, and fresh bountiful salads that surpassed our expectations of pub grub. We particularly enjoyed a medley of shredded kale with beets, pine nuts and goat cheese. The black-eyed pea Cobb salad was a generous bowl of fluffy romaine with bacon, blue cheese, chicken and avocado slices, though the eponymous peas overwhelmed the traditional Cobb elements. (Here's an idea: Swap the peas for the excellent elotes — Mexican-style grilled corn trimmed off the cob and tossed with melted cheese, roasted peppers and minced herbs.)
Based on that peaceful experience, we marshaled a larger — and multigenerational — group to the rooftop for an early dinner. We were in for another less-welcome surprise when we arrived to the thumping tempo of weekend festivities. Our first few minutes were spent arranging our seats in ways to minimize the impact of the blazing sun, secondhand smoke and blaring stereo.
Just as my party was thinking it was all too much and considering retreating inside, surprise again. The sun slouched below a building, smokers traded cigarettes for appetizers such as poutine and fried green tomatoes, and the deafening stereo gave way to the softer sounds of a band somewhere below. Almost with a single collective nod, my party suddenly knew why I had led them there.
From there, our rooftop dining experience went uphill.
A dumbwaiter may facilitate the transfer of food and drink among the three floors, but there were no dummies when it came to service at Pub5. Our server handled our big group gracefully, taking time to talk us through the cocktail menu and steering us to intriguing recipes such as the Antioch (Farmer's gin, mint syrup and soda) and Ti Punch (rum, simple syrup, lime and celery bitters).
Chef Hernan Borda, who helped launch the Rumours restaurants, oversees a menu that is accessible and familiar without being dull. Chimichurri wings are deep-fried to yield thin skin that shatters like sheets of amber glass and melts away with a hint of fresh herbs. Nachos replace shredded cheddar with a molten ooze of cheese reminiscent of Ro-Tel, topped with deep-fried jalapeño shavings, pico and black-eyed pea salad. The $10 burger was juicy and generous, though arguably upstaged by the excellent salmon BLT. Even the grilled cheese on golden-toasted farm bread was better than the average kids' meal.
A highlight of the evening was the bowl of mussels, whose abundant wine bath bobbed with so much garlic, parsley and shallot that it could be a soup when all the plump mollusks are gone.
Yet another surprise: Tangles of fettuccine with the toothsome tell of handmade pasta wound around a deep bowl of salmon, shrimp, scallops and mussels in a delicate wine-cream sauce.
When it comes to the lamb frites, it's hard to decide where to start — with the four glistening chops of plump pink lamb or the haystack of perfectly crisp fries laced with zesty chimichurri. That said, in the case of sea scallops with lemon-honey beurre blanc, it was the exquisitely caramelized roasted root vegetables that stole the show from the scallops, which were slightly overcooked and tough.
While dining in tourist districts is often synonymous with exorbitant pricing, we were consistently surprised by the value in our meals — in terms of both quality and quantity. In fact, we carried so much food home with us — in biodegradable carryout containers, no less — that we enjoyed a follow-up meal the next day. Even reheated and served at the low elevation of the kitchen table at home, Pub5's pub grub scored surprisingly high marks.
Pub5 opens at 11 a.m. daily.