Experience Nashville Like a Local
article by Michael De Vault
It’s a dilemma faced by third-day tourists in exotic locales everywhere: you’ve arrived, been dazzled, seen the big draw, but now you want something… more. Experience Nashville like a local with this quirky day of food, fun and, of course, music.
gurm n. – term originating in Nashville, TN to describe an overzealous, intrusive, or demanding fan who insists on inserting themselves into situations with celebrities they encounter; often seen at music venues, parties or restaurants cornering an obviously put-out singer, songwriter or actor who is forced to deliver an Emmy-worthy performance for a selfie; not a term of endearment.
Usage: Oh, honey. Would you look at that! Nicole and Keith are cornered by that gurm over there, and all they wanted to do was enjoy their lattes in peace. Poor Nicole and Keith.
Crystal Gayle was great last night at the Opry, and the rotunda at the Hall of Fame still moves you to tears as you think about the song you danced to at your wedding and the bronze plaque honoring the singer who created it. But that was yesterday. There are no plans for today, and when you get home tomorrow, you’ll want to say you experienced Nashville. That’s where we come in.
BayouLife has curated a day in the life of Nashville, carefully selecting for you the meals, the shopping and the entertainment locals turn to when they want to slip away from the crush of tourists. Sure, Nashville enjoys a good romp down Broadway as much as those visitors clicking away with their cameras, but that’s as much a special-treat kind of thing for a Nashvillian as it is for the tourists who crowd the sidewalks.
This is how Nashvillians do Nashville.
Breakfast and a Morning at the Market
They say that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and by “they,” we might as well mean the good people down at Puckett’s Grocery on Church Street. Situated just a block from the Nashville Library, the bustling commercial center and the capitol, Puckett’s Grocery isn’t exactly in the heart of tourist country.
Like the Nashvillians who crowd into this intimate, rustic eatery for three meals a day, Puckett’s Grocery is a transplant to the city, and the restaurant traces its roots back to Leiper’s Fork, TN, a tiny postage stamp community about thirty miles from the city. Andy Marshall transformed the original Puckett’s in Leiper’s Fork into the “it” place for music and before long, opened up the Church Street location.
While you’re there, chances are you’ll be rubbing elbows with music executives, bankers, state legislators and a perfect cross section of the vibrant community of artists, business analysts and young professionals who call downtown their homes. Every once in a while, you may catch a glimpse of a face you know. But don’t be a gurm and gawkingly ask for a selfie. They’re there for the same reason you are: the food and the hospitality. So remember this important rule of thumb: your food is at your table, their food is at theirs. Stay with your food.
And when it comes to the food, what should you try? Puckett’s Grocery prides itself on delivering a slew of hearty southern delicacies. But you can’t have everything, so be sure to get the Southern Stack. Two sweet potato pancakes are paired with fried apples and a heap of pulled pork that’s been slow-smoked to perfection. Topped with a fried egg, the Southern Stack is served with a side of Tennessee-style home fries.
Don’t even concern yourself with the calorie count, because you’re about to walk them off after breakfast at the Nashville Farmer’s Market, just a few blocks away.
The Nashville Farmer’s Market is a world-renowned stop for produce and plants, and it’s also home to dozens of off-beat crafters, selling everything from cut metal signs to hand-carved iPhone cases. An open-air facility with dozens of permanent, semi-permanent and day tenants, the farmer’s market covers more than two acres under roof, with more space in the open-air markets on either side.
While you’re there, grab a refreshing fruit juice at the Fountain of Juice, or pull a pint at the Picnic Tap, one of Nashville’s finest brewpubs. After you’ve browsed the shops and stalls and carts and restaurants, slip outside and around the corner to Bicentenial Capital Park. Believe it or not, you’re actually in a state park!
Stroll along the wide paths, prance in the fountain and enjoy a vista view of Capitol Hill. And unlike that other Capitol Hill up in Washington, Nashville’s hill is high – think “90 feet up” high. After your stroll, be sure to pay your respects to President James K. Polk, who is interred at the Tennessee State Capitol. There’s also a beautiful statue of President Andrew Jackson you won’t want to miss. But don’t linger too long, because you’ll have to catch a cross-town ride to South 8th Street for lunch.
Lunch and Pickin’
As you’re stepping out of the car at Arnold’s on South 8th Street, chances are you’re having a Dorothy Parker moment and wondering what fresh hell you’ve just fallen into. The cinderblock restaurant, if you can call it that, sits too close to the road and doesn’t look big enough to support its reputation. In fact, some have called it a dive. But don’t let that deter you. Instead, notice the line stretching out the door and down the sidewalk and then realize: those aren’t tourists lining up for Hattie B’s.
Founded in 1982, Arnold’s Country Kitchen is a Nashville original. And it’s quite possible that this “Meat and Three” is serving up the most critically acclaimed food anywhere in Music City. The tiny lunch cafeteria – and by tiny, it’s less than 3,000 sq. feet, which is double its original size after a massive expansion that opened in 2016 – has been featured on Diners, Dives and Drive-Ins, which kind of makes sense you may think by appearances. But appearances are deceiving.
Arnold’s signature meat-and-three plates have drawn high praise in Garden and Gun, Southern Living, and Gourmet. Bon Apetit gave this cafeteria an unqualified endorsement in its glowing review, and the food even won a coveted James Beard American Classics medal in 2009. (And…shhhh…. Rumor has it that this hole in the wall was once scrutinized and almost received a coveted Michelin Star. But don’t tell anyone. We don’t want the tourists finding out!).
The menu changes daily, so depending on what day you show up, you’ll have to decide for yourself what you’re going to eat for your main – that’s Arnold’s slang for the meat. Be sure to do the greens and the fried green tomatoes for two of your three sides. And whatever you do, don’t miss the Hot Pepper Chocolate Pie. Yes, you read that right. Just trust us.
And again, the calories are going away shortly, because you’re not getting into a car for a few hours. South 8th is picker’s paradise, and after lunch we’re going shopping in some of the greatest antique shops in the South.
The picking begins directly across the street from Arnold’s, at the Downtown Antique Mall. Spread over two floors of a sprawling warehouse complex, the mall comprises more than 80 booths – don’t let “booth” fool you; some are the size of a comfortable apartment – that cover the entire spectrum of the American experience. It’ll take you an hour just to rush through, longer once you start finding all the perfect “thises or thats” you’re trying to figure out how to ship home.
Leaving the antique mall, turn left and head up the hill. Take a break at one of the eight tap rooms along the way and – about halfway up the hill – take a look across the street, where you’ll find Nashville’s storied Cannery Ballroom and Mercy Lounge. Did you hear Steven Tyler did an impromptu acoustic set there just last year? I heard Mick Jagger dropped by before the LP Field show!
After a refreshment at the brew pub of choice, continue along 8th Street and bounce in and out of the antique shops along the way – there are more than a dozen within a three mile stretch, and each is definitely worth the time. But don’t linger too long, because you’ll want to make sure you hit Pre To Post Modern, which is a little over a mile from Arnold’s.
Hey, we told you not to worry about the calories.
Pre To Post Modern is a kitsch-lover’s paradise. The store is the creation of Karen Hollywood, a lover of all things midcentury. Stepping into her store, you’ll find Dutch modern, a healthy serving of Hollywood Regency, and a carefully curated wardrobe of his-and-hers vintage clothing. Pick out a new old outfit for tonight, because you’re going to want to look your hipster best.
While you’re waiting on your Lyft – Uber is so 2015 – pop into Eighth and Roast next door for a cup of home-roast coffee. And remember our rule about celeb sightings. When you realize you’re in line behind Karen Fairchild, don’t be a gurm. Smile and say hello, and remember, she’s on her way somewhere, too, and you’ve got to get back to the hotel to shower and clean up. There’s a big night ahead.
Dinner and Music
You’ve had breakfast and lunch, grabbed a pint or two, and found that cute little bird statue that’s going to go so well on your desk at work. And if you’ve done it right, chances are you’ve not spent very much, had a great time – and a nice, hard nap. You’ve worked hard to be a Nashvillian, and you’ve earned your Nashvillian supper – around 7:30 p.m. in true Nashville style.
Welcome to Valentino’s, the West End restaurant that brings a touch of the Old World to one of the hippest neighborhoods in Nashville. Vanderbilt is nearby, and Valentino’s is a regular stop for the denizens of Music Row. Founded in 1991, this Italian restaurant is a staple of the Nashville fine-dining scene, and as one local restaurateur put it, “Valentino’s definitely rocks it old school.”
The experience begins at the curb, with the valet. They’ll ask for your name – and then remember it later as you’re leaving. In the tradition of fine Italian establishments, patrons enter to the side after passing down a narrow walkway. The hostess stand is situated in a homey, intimate foyer that immediately evokes feelings of “Welcome to our home.” In fact, were it not for the aroma of oregano and searing beef, you’d be forgiven if you thought you’d made a wrong turn and wandered into a dinner party.
When you’re making your reservations – and yes, though not required, reservations are highly recommended – you’ll have a choice between the main dining room and the cellar. The main dining room is a stunningly elegant study in ivory and egg shell, where smart waiters cut deftly between the tables in a captain-and-crew model. Downstairs, the wine cellar offers a more rustic and intimate experience – there are just five or six tables. But don’t be fooled. Just because you’re in the basement doesn’t mean you’ll get anything less than Valentino’s top-shelf service, their amazing list of old-world wines and the single best meal you’ve had in the last decade.
Valentino’s Ristorante serves up what they term rustic Italian. There are the typical American Italian choices like spaghetti and lasagna, both outstanding examples of these honored dishes, and locally inspired seasonal specials. But the best bang for your buck is their New York Strip, which may well be in the running for best steak on the planet.
Save room for dessert. Trust us. The Tiramisu is worth it.
After dinner, plan you’ll get a few minutes respite in the car, and you’ll get to take in the stunning Nashville skyline at night as you whisk around I-40 to I-65 and head into East Nashville for a night of great music at The 5 Spot.
For Nashvillians, the 5 Spot is what the Bluebird Café was before Connie Britton made it famous on ABC. The home of one of the best songwriters’ open mic nights, this tiny neighborhood watering hole will remind you of Enoch’s or Maybe’s. The beer is cold, the lighting almost non-existent and the music out of this world.
Maybe you’ll hear a few songs from eight different musicians, each with dreams of becoming the next big thing. Chances are a few of them are already established songwriters with a string of hits. Sometimes, you’ll catch that up-and-coming voice you recognize from the song you heard. And there, in the corner, is that Dierks? It’s hard to tell in the darkness.
The 5 Spot is the perfect place to end the day, an authentic, Nashville-style bar where, chances are, you’re elbow to elbow at the bar beside the next Johnny Cash. Like so many of the places you’ve been today, the 5 Spot occupies a quiet, powerful corner of Nashville’s music scene. And – wait, is that Lady Gaga?
Okay, you can gurm, but only a little.
A north Louisiana boy through and through, BayouLife’s Michael DeVault has lived in Nashville since 2015, where he works in marketing and entertainment – and longs daily for a good mess of crawfish to go with the beer.