To borrow a line from country singer George Jones, Nashville’s hotter than a two-dollar pistol. Here’s why restaurateurs keep coming.

City House
Credit: Andrew Hetherington

To borrow a line from country singer George Jones, Nashville’s hotter than a two-dollar pistol. Here’s why restaurateurs keep coming.

Philip Krajeck ticks off a list of restaurants that are opening in Nashville. “I hear the folks from Au Cheval are coming from Chicago,” he says. “Every week it’s a new chef, a new place. Donald Link is bringing Cochon Butcher from New Orleans. Flip Burger, Farm Burger, Yeah! Burger: They’re all opening places. Tim Love is supposed to be coming from Texas. Jonathan Waxman is already here from New York City.”

“It’s like they found the golden ticket,” Krajeck tells me on my most recent trip to the Tennessee capital. He is a relative newcomer, the chef-owner of the two-year-old Rolf and Daughters. Even he is astonished by the pace of change. “I don’t know what to compare this to. Maybe the boom years in Vegas?”

Nashville is, to borrow a line from George Jones, hotter than a two-dollar pistol. Developer teardowns are so rampant that the Tennessee Preservation Trust recently named the city the most endangered place in the state. And competition for leases on the industrial Germantown buildings favored by chefs like Krajeck is so fierce that when superstar Sean Brock opened Husk Nashville, he ended up in Rutledge Hill, a newly gentrifying neighborhood across town. Olive & Sinclair Chocolate Co., the local candy company behind the prettily packaged salt-and-pepper bars that are now ubiquitous across the country, chose East Nashville for its open-to-the-public factory.

The city has been hot before. In 1969, Bob Dylan arrived to record Nashville Skyline. By 1975, filmmaker Robert Altman was calling Nashville the “new Hollywood.” Locals didn’t slander arrivistes then. And they don’t disparage the restaurateurs arriving now. That us-versus-them divide is an Old South trope. This is a New South city, welcoming all who respect this place and its institutions, all who do more than plaster walls with reclaimed wood and set tables with Mason jars. Nashville famously welcomes newcomers: Kurdish refugees (the city is home to the largest population in the US), rock and country pickers who still make pilgrimages here to cut a record, young chefs and expansion-minded entrepreneurs.

When I lived in Nashville in the 1980s, the restaurants that best showcased the city’s talent were lunch spots. Meat-and-three cafés like Hap Townes and Sylvan Park were justly famous for smothered pork chops, collards and hoecakes. Back then, André Prince Jeffries of Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, the doyenne of the hot-chicken phenomenon, had yet to welcome chefs like Thomas Keller to her strip mall joint for skillet-fried, cayenne-swabbed birds piled on white bread.

Working-class excellence still defines the Nashville lunch hour. What’s new is a genuine connection between lunch cooks and dinner chefs. Today, steam table champions like Kahlil Arnold of Arnold’s Country Kitchen source ingredients from the same farmers and cattlemen as ambitious chefs like Tandy Wilson of City House and Tyler Brown of Capitol Grille. And hot-chicken riffs are de rigueur at high-end restaurants like The Catbird Seat, where the multicourse tasting menu has included sorghum-lacquered hot-chicken skins.

Outsiders tend to think that Nashville’s latest upswing began when contrarian rock and roller Jack White moved to town. Or when The Black Keys’ front man, Dan Auerbach, began claiming Barista Parlor, the East Nashville bunkhouse of high design and caffeine, as a sort of office salon for the creative class. It would be a mistake, however, to think musicians powered Nashville’s latest boom, says architect Nick Dryden.

During dinner at Prima, a big-night-out, soaring glass-and-chrome restaurant that Dryden designed for chef Salvador Avila, he argues that Nashville’s enduring mythology is the true magnet for new arrivals. “No matter how cool Jack White and Dan Auerbach seem—and they are cool—they’re part of this town’s historical arc,” Dryden tells me over a stack of fig-jam-topped sweet potatoes. “The history of this place and its music drew them here. That’s the vibe we all tap.”

Wandering the city, I never see Auerbach at his Barista Parlor hangout in East Nashville. Or at the new Gulch location, designed by Dryden. But I do spy the scruffy rocker at the place everyone in Nashville eventually ends up: City House, where he’s hunkered down with a bowl of pasta.

If there’s a foundational restaurant in this Nashville moment, it’s eight-year-old City House, Tandy Wilson’s neo-Italian clubhouse, famous for corn bread gnocchi and pork belly pizza. The Nashville food scene grew up at his communal tables. He taught the city to love places that weren’t crusty steakhouses or Continental food time capsules. Instead, at City House, a young and inclusive crowd orders clams tossed with white beans and trout stuffed with peanuts and raisins.

When Wilson, a Nashville native, opened City House in 2007, he led the charge to Germantown. Five years later, Philip Krajeck launched Rolf and Daughters a few blocks away. People come for the raucous table-hopping scene as well as for the bread course of sourdough and seaweed butter, a cult favorite, and pastas like a decidedly Southern sweet potato agnolotti with mustard greens. Krajeck’s showstopper ricotta cavatelli with nut ragout straddles Mediterranean and middle Tennessee sensibilities. If the Nashville restaurant scene went to college at City House, it went to grad school at Rolf and Daughters.

Toward the end of my stay, I meet Miranda Whitcomb Pontes for a drink at Josephine. The elegant new neighborhood restaurant has high-back banquettes, high-concept cocktails and a flair for dishes like rabbit with mustard dumplings. But the reason I’m talking to Pontes is that she’s just taken possession of Dino’s, a beloved dive bar that’s famous for canned beers, flat-top–fried eggs and lovably surly service.

The new Dino’s menu includes slices of pie from Lisa Donovan—whose exceptional desserts earned her national attention when she baked at Husk Nashville—but also a good basic burger and fries for $6. Pontes wants her version of Dino’s to be so true to the original that you’re not exactly sure what’s different. “It’s like when you get a really good haircut,” says the restaurateur, who arrived here from Boulder, Colorado, in 2002. “It’s such a good haircut that people tell you that you look great—but they don’t realize that what’s different is you got a haircut.”

“That’s a lot to promise,” she tells me, as I flash back to my last night at Dino’s, an urban roadhouse with a Bukowski-on-a-bender vibe. “But I have to. Right now, in Nashville, the contest goes to the survival of the soulfulest.”

John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, is writing a new book, The Potlikker Papers, a history of Southern food.