Please pass the biscuits — and other Nashville eats
By Amy Neff, MD
Welcome CleanMed attendees, to my adopted hometown, Nashville. I’m a local primary care physician and integrative medicine specialist who has called Nashville home since 2015 but with roots in Tennessee since birth (ask me my Elvis story). Before returning to medical practice, I kept a small flock of Katahdin sheep at my brother’s local biodynamic farm, Bells Bend Farm. Along with starting a high-animal welfare butcher shop and restaurant in Norfolk, Va., I’ve learned a lot about the work and passion involved in getting great food from farmers onto customers’ plates.
Leaders in health care sustainability will gather here May 7–9 to inspire change and discuss strategies for solving the important health and sustainability issues of our time. Whether your food is served at the kitchen table, in a hip restaurant, or within hospital walls, local, sustainably produced meals support the creation of a food system that nourishes both people and the planet.
I want to extend a hearty springtime hug to all y’all visiting Music City. Nashville has an amazing food scene, and I am not just saying that because some sell my friend’s and family’s farm products.
So join me on a tour of Nashville eateries.
While you’re making some important decisions about where to dine, take a peek at Slow Food of Middle Tennessee’s Snail of Approval page, featuring places that are working their tails off to source locally and value concepts like waste reduction, a living wage, volunteerism, and community support.
An eater’s guide to backing local food-driven menus
- Ask what’s available on the menu from local farms. Make the desire to eat local food known.
- Be willing to pay a little more because of what you are getting: The ripple effect of a local economic loop, the spiritual energy of being sustained by a local product, and the willingness to enable the chef to create according to the palate of the local terroir are just a few of the myriad benefits of this small action.
- Compliment the restaurant about the locally sourced options, and if you feel inspired, mention this aspect specifically in your reviews on social media.
- Take a moment to mindfully appreciate what you are doing. It may feel small, but it doesn’t happen unless you participate.
- Look for events where you live that will have you thinking more about how this all works. In Nashville, Rambler is making a big effort to cook local food and talk about it in a friendly and interesting way.
- Join movements like Slow Food International, A Greener World, Southern Foodways Alliance, and local nonprofits that support farms and farming. The Nashville Food Project’s Growing Together program supports refugees from Burma and Bhutan in growing market produce.
- Shop your local farms and farmers markets.
With all of the good health and climate news on the plant-based dining front, I want to give a shout out to the places serving up change.
The Southern V is, if not the first, then the top Southern-style 100 percent plant-based vegan restaurant in the United States. Nashville has a dish that has gotten a lot of press, “Nashville Hot Chicken,” but their version, made with seitan, will be sure to please. On the west side of downtown, AVO is another 100 percent plant-based and often a gluten-free option. Two Ten Jack, in addition to its Japanese-inspired seafood menu, has one of the area’s favorite vegan ramen. And Vui’s Kitchen is a Vietnamese-style fast casual with lots of flexible and fast options for fresh soups and gluten-free noodle and rice dishes.
Where else but Nashville are you going to get vegan chili cheese fries? Mop/Broom Messhouse makes those, complete with cashew cheese, (no reservations, also open for lunch starting at 11 a.m.) and its sister restaurant City House are tremendous, James Beard Foundation award-winning options for groups with diverse dining interests.
“I like my Wrangler jeans, cowboy boots, cornbread and beans, and country roots.”
— Alan Jackson
From pedal taverns to honky tonks, there is something for y’all downtown, where the CleanMed conference hotel is conveniently located.
Just down the road from the Omni Nashville Hotel facing the Cumberland River, the Green Pheasant (sister restaurant to Two Ten Jack) is a stunningly beautiful Japanese-inspired place with a funky soul. In addition to food that will greet almost any diet, these chef-spouses are on a mission to invest in local food culture, nonprofits, and broaden Nashville’s horizons on more than one level (check out the bathroom…) Recently, I went to a fermenting workshop in their upstairs private space, where Tennessee’s fermenting guru Sandor Katz and I got to talk about red yeast rice and its potential to prescribe as a medical food to lower cholesterol.
Where else but Nashville can you have a high-end cocktail on a river bluff while bowling? Pinewood Social, also home to a Crema coffee outpost and great dining options, takes reservations for everything, but especially bowling.
The short list of other great local downtownish/Germantown/Wedgewood Houston places includes:
Henley Located more in the Vandy-Music Row area, Henley is a solid Southern upscale and very lovely restaurant located at the Kimpton Aertson Hotel named after the family that would become the Vanderbilts (yes, those Vanderbilts).
Adele’s This place is in the Gulch, a dynamic mixed-use LEED certified community in the heart of Nashville. Adele’s specializes in whiskey, with comfort foods to go along. I love their grains from Anson Mills.
Marsh House Also in the Gulch, Marsh House is a Southern seafood place. Back in the day, Gulf oysters were the poor man’s caviar. I grew up half-thinking that the oyster shells in my grandparents’ backyard belonged to a long lost inland sea. But when I got a taste of an oyster, with a slurry ketchup and horseradish handed to me by my reluctant Maw, I knew exactly why — I always knew when they told me I wouldn’t like it, it was bound to be good.
Makeready / Noelle Hotel This is along the Printer’s Alley, a very short, dark alleyway once of ill-repute but now perfectly proper, perhaps more than proper. An easy on the palate place, it’s across lower Broadway from the Omni, a brisk walk past the Ryman and also home to the very worthy Drug Store Coffee.
Capitol Grille The Capitol Grille is what all high-end restaurants in high-end hotels should be: pushing the boundaries of service, commitment to local causes like the Land Trust of Tennessee, and buying and serving the best of local food.
Husk Husk is simply one of Nashville’s best, not an everyday place but a jewel in the Southern food world, and is well worth a visit.
The Farm House With reservations available on their website, the Farm House is very close to the Omni and is a very friendly Southern-style place with a side of the Amalfi Coast.
Your first move should probably happen at Bongo Java, locally owned and located in the Omni. Or try Crema on Hermitage Avenue. It’s worth a walk to start your day and is a zero-waste coffee mecca. There are good reasons why Crema perennially sits at the top of the local coffee lists.
Other great coffee options downtown are the Drug Store Coffee in the Noelle Hotel and Frothy Monkey close by. Bongo, Crema, and Frothy Monkey offer more than just a pastry if you need a snack to go with, but Crema also offers pastries from Dozen, a fabulous farm-product using mind-blowingly-good bakery practices.
A little outta downtown
“Filled with love that’s grown in Southern ground and a little bit of chicken fried”
— Zac Brown Band
Bastion In the Wedgewood/Houston area, Bastion is a place where 24 lucky people at a time get to eat. Open for dinner Wednesday thru Saturday and seating parties no larger than 6, reservations are available through the website only. The menu changes daily based on what’s available. A friend of mine took a job hostessing there just to be near the creativity coming out of the kitchen. Yes, its that good.
Hemingway’s Also in Wedgewood/Houston, Hemingway’s Bar and Hideaway is quietly owned by a friend who gives good books about philosophy as gifts. Aside from winning almost all the possible awards of 2017, this is the place where you can be comforted by short ribs or cauliflower — you choose. Award-winning cocktails, too.
Rolf and Daughters For those of you who grew up thinking that spaghetti night was a reliable segue toward a few hours of MTV or watching The Breakfast Club (again!), think again. Rolf and Daughters is just about as close to that as Rome, Italy, is to Rome, Georgia. Among the lineup of higher end, Rolf is that — a wonderful treat of a dining experience. You won’t be disappointed… unless you hate your tastebuds. They take reservations, but sometimes you can walk in and get lucky among the communal table situation. Rolf is also related to Folk, in East Nashville.
Henrietta Red Chef Julia Sullivan is Nashville native and focuses on simple, fresh ingredients. A wood-burning oven, a wide variety of oysters and shellfish, as well as crudos and many vegetable-forward dishes, drive the menu. In 2018, Henrietta Red was nominated as a semifinalist for Best New Restaurant by the James Beard Foundation.
Drinks more than food
Black Rabbit Cousin to the Farm House, this is a place “to share a small plate and a strong drink” along the Printer’s Alley. Recently some of their people cooked a couple of sheep outdoors for me for an event. Patrick McCandless of Rambler took on the yoke of making sure all the animal was used and happily reported that Black Rabbit is doing the right thing.
East Nashville…aka ‘East Nasty’
“Burgers and fries and cherry pies. It was simple and good back then.”
- Charley Pride
East Nashville is about as ‘East Nasty’ as Versace is Salvation Army at this point. With a write-up in Vogue, it’s not what it used to be: a lower rent place where energies of all stripes manifest into music.
From the good ol’ boys Charlie and Ira Louvin or Roy Acuff and even for a short time home to Sam Phillips of Sun Studio in Memphis, East Nashville continues to touch the lives of big voices. What you will find now are some amazing places to eat in and around the hub called 5 Points that are a stone’s throw across the Cumberland River. East Nashville is an accessible stroll, bike, scooter, or rideshare trip away from CleanMed.
Margot Cafe and Bar One of the first in Nashville to launch the local farm-to-table dining movement, Margot McCormack and her team at Margot Cafe serve continental style food in a really cozy place.
Treehouse Spanning the culinary continents, Treehouse is a laid back, tasty place to eat and drink and listen to music.
Lockeland Table My friend Karen Overton, pictured above with Perty the Pig, has won some impressive accolades as a meat farmer. In addition to chicken and other poultry, which are often featured here at Lockeland Table, she’s kinda famous for ham.
Urban Cowboy Both a bed and breakfast and a no-reservations-style bar with food, this is a place where for just a moment, you could imagine being Steven Tyler.
Peninsula The latest (and possibly greatest? definitely a fan favorite for 2018) addition to East Nashville dining, Peninsula is a tapas style place that favors gin and isn’t afraid of all things pork. Pregnant? They have ice cream with caviar and potato chips.
Burger Up A local group with a location in 12 South and East Nashville, Burger Up does not take reservations. The truffle fries are not to be missed.
Lyra Dinner-only modern Middle Eastern, this new place has gotten rave reviews and came out of the gates purchasing locally.
Folk Sibling to Rolf and Daughters, Folk is a wood-fired pizza place with vegetable plates that will change forever how you feel about things as simple as beets or Hakurai turnips. Simply stunning and a beautiful place to take it all in.
Nicky’s Coal Fired is a big-time local farm supporter doing Italian style in a fantastic setting. According to Eater Nashville “The Nations has chef Tony Galzin, his wife Caroline, and their coal-fired oven “Enrico” to thank for upping the dining scene ante on the west side of town. Yes, the coal-fired pizzas might draw the crowds, but the phenomenal house-made pasts, focaccia, in-house charcuterie, gelatos, and other deserts might just be the stars of the show.”
Miel My friend Seema Prasad is a fearless activist, realtor, and consummate host at her restaurant. I want to say she exists on another dimension where she has more time than the rest of us, but the truth is she’s just always doing some time to move the pile along. Her latest project, a biodigester, would be able to start taking the upwards of 25 percent organic waste currently going into landfills and make that into soil, liquid fertilizer, and compressed natural gas. That is full-circle sustainable!
Sourcing local food
Sourcing locally takes work, a willingness to be flexible, and a commitment to purchasing long term for the program to be sustainable. For vegetable farmers, committing to crops requested by a restaurant takes a lot of advance planning, especially for plants that might not have been tried before. Hitting the target of yield that a chef wants takes experience and luck; not hitting it means a lot of lost time and money. Staying focused and committed to finishing a season is also vital for the farmer. If the chef didn’t end up liking the 40 pounds of weekly salsify they originally asked for, that’s a lot of a unique item to sell for the rest of its growing season.
In meat offerings, restaurants typically like to feature a certain cut on their menus, such as flank steak or pork tenderloin. Working with a small-scale farmer, the chef can’t just order up a box of 150 pounds of pork tenderloin. With only 6–8 pounds of tenderloin per animal, that’s up to 25 animals worth of tenderloin! Not only would the farmer have to process a lot of animals for this order, but they would have to sell the rest of the animal. The best restaurant-farmer relationships in the meat lane are ones based on whole animal commitments. That takes more time and skill for the chef, and the chef has to push the eater a little toward cuts or preparations perhaps less familiar, but the rewards are many.
For all local growers, not only do they pay more for the local ingredients, but there’s usually no truck to bring it to them. It may be pleasant for Philip Krajeck or Tony Galzin to make a weekly trip to the Richland Park farmers market, but it takes time, something chefs are often short on.
Sometimes the smiling (and somehow never too busy to talk mushrooms) face of Alan Powell brings a delivery from Nashville Grown. A powerful force behind local food, Nashville Grown is a fantastic nonprofit serving the local food economy as a local food hub. Aggregating and distributing farm products for sale to restaurants, chefs, and caterers, the products come from approximately 65 farms, all within 100 miles of Davidson County.
Your interest, as a customer, in the chef’s willingness to take extra time and money to provide these products on the menu is important feedback to help energize these efforts.
I’m looking forward to seeing y’all in Nashville soon!