In a year of ups and downs, Nashville restaurants are reinventing and creating
There is a cartoon that I had seen circulating on the net earlier this year: two buildings engulfed in flames, the one on the left is labeled 2020 and the one on the right, 2021. Between them are firefighters holding a net of fire. rescue. The 2020 jumping person touched the net of life and rebounded in 2021.
And I thought, yeah, that’s pretty much true.
Without a doubt, Nashville has seen more than its fair share of disasters in 2020: starting with tornadoes, ending with a Christmas Day bombing and a pandemic raging in between.
And, while 2021 hasn’t been so horrific, we’ve had our collective share of woes: a non-peaceful transfer of power, an aggressive COVID variant called Delta, misinformation and hesitation about vaccines across the globe. State, summer flooding, rampant inflation, supply chain bumps, labor shortages, a new variant named Omicron.
But, look around you. Cranes still abound. Nashville remains a city on the move. When I consider the food scene that defined 2021, there have been some notable ups and downs. New restaurants continued to open. Others took the opportunity to reinvent themselves. Some could not bear the losses due to the pandemic and some simply lost their lease. In June, we celebrated the 20th anniversary of Margot’s Café and Bar in east Nashville and lamented the end of Hermitage Café, the little restaurant forced to close in October after nearly 32 years of running.
We also said goodbye to the family business Rotier’s, a mainstay of Elliston Place since 1945. Across the Rock Block, the Elliston Place Soda Shop has come back to life, moving into bigger digs – remarkably, just next to its original location. Its owners, Tony and Lisa Giarrantana, have been loyal to preserving its iconic character, renovating pieces they could, replicating others. True Nostalgia: They captured the look, vibe, hospitality, and taste (including the pies from longtime employee Linda Melton) that made the soda shop much loved. (And today’s food is superior.)
Many Nashvillians fear that we are losing our way as a city. Losing our soul. Aside from restaurant closures and razed buildings, we’ve seen plenty of other evidence to support this sentiment. Like walking down Broadway in the middle of what had been the ever-growing, chaotic and unregulated carnival of “transport” vehicles. (It’s also worrying how Second Avenue will recover and rebuild itself from last year’s bombing.)
At the same time, the Assembly Food Hall and the 5th and Broadway development provide an alternative view of the downtown area. Visitors unable to access some Nashville originals in other parts of the city can experience the flavors of Prince’s, Thai Esane, Steamboys, The Pharmacy, and Hattie Jane’s Creamery here. They also enjoy an extraordinary view of the Ryman. On the main level, Slim + Husky’s pizza place made history, becoming the first black-owned restaurant to open on Broadway. The lines in Hattie B remain eternal.
More about Assembly Food Hall: The south side of the Assembly Food Hall offers something for everyone
I’m encouraged that Kahlil Arnold has kept things to cook in the venerable meat-and-three family, and has gone a few more steps by adding a bar, open weekends and nights, effectively creating Arnold’s After. Dark. Do not miss its cherry wood smoked meats. I’m also delighted to see brother-sister duo Arnold and Anna Myint launch IM2 – International Market and Café 2.0, right across from where their parents’ original business opened in 1975. IM2 combines the old and the new. It’s a tribute to Win and Patti and serves many OG market dishes. Plus, it features authentic Thai dishes that Chef Arnold studied and has become so adept at preparing. A side note – many expressed dismay when the Myints shut down the PM after 18 years of success. However, there is a silver lining: they were able to offer the space to the family restaurant in Athens, forced to leave their home on the 8th. This is a real testament to our culinary community. These examples give me hope for the soul of Nashville.
Hotel restaurants run by renowned chefs have really established themselves in 2021 and have a profound influence on the culinary culture of our city. I noted it last year, with Yolan in The Joseph, supervised by Tony and Cathy Mantuano. Inside the Grand Hyatt, the Continental by Sean Brock began full service in May. This fall, award-winning chef Andrew Carmellini presented premium Dutch and Italian chophouse Carne Mare at W in the Gulch. Ryan Poli, formerly of The Catbird Seat, returned to Nashville to direct and revitalize the kitchens at the Bobby Hotel. Internationally renowned chef and restaurateur Jean-Georges Vongerichten has teamed up with the Hermitage Hotel to reinvent the Capitol Grille and Oak Bar into something fresh and new. Drusie & Darr is a stunning transformation that honors the iconic nature of the historic hotel while infusing it with modernity.
Like every year, 2021 has been rich in delicious meals. Here are 10 of my memorable bites:
Steamed pork meatballs with chili oil at Locust.
Grilled octopus over mashed potatoes with Spanish olive oil and chili peppers at Rosie Food + Wine.
Allie’s Rolls at Tailor.
Husk Oatmeal Stuffed Squash Blossom.
The egg at the Continental.
Roman-Jewish style fried artichokes with Saint-Vito focacciaria.
Crispy Breast Tacos at Arnold’s After Dark.
Butter Crab Sushi at The River House.
Pepper Steak Sandwich at Roze Pony.
Lamb chops grilled on labneh with chimichurri, pistachios and crispy eggplant at Primrose Table.
By 2022, I plan to visit Audrey, Chef Brock’s flagship restaurant and ode to Appalachian cuisine from his heritage. I will report on the sophisticated dishes that chefs Vongerichten and Carmellini serve at Drusie and Darr and Carne Mare respectively. Can’t wait to try the tasty breakfast, brunch and lunch options at Buttermilk Ranch in 12 South and Egghill in Edgehill Village. And, I will continue to highlight the stories of chefs and restaurateurs in the Behind the Plate column.
I want to be cautiously optimistic about the future of dining in Nashville, knowing that the restaurant business has always been tough and change is inevitable. And, knowing how, after 21 months of living in a pandemic world, we’ve all become weary and anxious and disengaged in ways we’re not even quite aware of. This last part is the most important. Are we learning to live with the specter of COVID? Will 2022 look like another building on fire? Part of this relies on us, in our remembering ourselves better and kinder and the true sense of hospitality and community: remember how those who are dedicated to serving us want us to feel nourished and connected.