Earlier this year I rode around Nashville with a local architect named Nick Dryden. Nick drove me through up-and-coming neighborhoods, and he kept saying a phrase unfamiliar to me: "place making." Design that aims to serve both a community's needs and its aspirations. Nick's brand of place making dovetails a love of urban anthropology and cultural salvaging—a blend that hits this city's signature chord: reinvention driven by heritage. Evidence of the trend rises up all over town. Like at Imogene + Willie, where blue jean designers work out of the old Granny White Service Station. Where did this veneration for the past start? What's its taproot? Possibly cliché, I think it is country music. Where else is lineage more revered? Who holds the respect-your-elder code higher? Think of Nashville's "Mother Church," Ryman Auditorium, bricked to life in 1892 by Thomas Ryman, a born-again riverboat captain, as the Union Gospel Tabernacle. He intended it as a sanctuary for wayward journeymen of the Cumberland. Surely he never imagined the thousands of Opry nights or Mumford and Sons sellouts. But the place is still in the business of awe and wonder. Which keeps in step with the "new" Nashville, a city full of folks like Nick, rediscovering and reinventing Tennessee's capital every single day.
Eat & Drink
As chef Tandy Wilson says, Nashville is a comfort food town. True, the finer fare blesses your stomach at the farm-fresh Capitol Grille and the 32-seat avant-garde chef's counter The Catbird Seat Restaurant; the same goes for Tandy's City House (that belly-ham pizza!). But new favorites channel the city's home-cookin' roots.
12 South: For a town surprisingly unsteeped in the art of low-and-slow, Edley's Bar-B-Que doesn't just blow smoke. Co-owner Will Newman drizzles charred brisket and chopped pork with a lime soda-spiked sauce. Legit. 12 South Taproom and Grill is quietly becoming a city institution for beer. No gimmicks, no fancy digs. The fellas simply stock Nashville's widest selection of small-batch brews.
East Nashville: If Brooklyn moved to Tennessee, it would live on the East Nashville side of the Cumberland River. When Teresa Mason moved home after eight years in New York, she went hunting for a food truck. She saw a 1974 Winnebago in the yard of an alt-rock band, and Mas Tacos Por Favor came to life. Today, home base is a cheery garden-patio taqueria on McFerrin Avenue. The simple but imaginative tacos (fried avocado, cast-iron chicken, quinoa-sweet potato) pair perfectly with a hibiscus agua fresca—the best 10-buck lunch in town.
Fifteen paces away, The Pharmacy Burger Parlor & Beer Garden is the newest kid in an underrated burger town. The Farm Burger, juicy and imposing, comes topped with ham, thick bacon, and a free-range egg, all sourced in Tennessee. Enjoy it in the grassy biergarten out back.
To whet the palate, drink scholars everywhere whistle about The Patterson House, a low-lit den of cocktails on Division Street. At the similarly fashionable Holland House, the room feels a notch friendlier and the suspendered barmen prove just as skilled. Try the Base Burner: Four Roses bourbon poured over ginger ice cubes.
Nashville's creative side was built on music, but fashion is keeping things cool these days. Ever since the city's house of blue jeans, Imogene + Willie, opened in 2009, the style scene has been anything but threadbare.
Marathon Village: Otis James Nashville is the go-to spot for men of the bow-tie persuasion. Hand-cut and sewn in a former car factory, the silk, wool, and linen ties bear artisan markings, from the hand-stitched buttonholes and slip stitches to the hand-painted labels.
Sharing the brick-and-beam studio with Otis, Emil Erwin can't be praised highly enough for his craftsmanship. You'll say "Come again?" at the price of the cowhide bags, but his bridle-leather belts ($100) and tri-fold wallets ($125) are affordable purchases that last for life.
Green Hills: For the ladies, H. Audrey is the talk of the town, and not just because Hank Williams' granddaughter Holly runs the place. She's stocking labels usually reserved for New York and L.A. (Helmut Lang, Rag & Bone) in the ever-growing Hill Center shopping stretch. Imagine a one-room Neiman Marcus owned by country royalty.
Eighth Avenue South: Antiquers and designers alike sift through Preservation Station's cache of architectural wares. Newel posts, salvaged doors and mantels, bushels of brass doorknobs, and rewired fixtures—the stockpile feels a bit like a history lesson.
See & Do
The common word in Music City goes something like this: It's not just about country anymore. Taylor Swift is all over pop radio. Last year, Rolling Stone tagged the town as the best live-music scene in America. Rockers such as Jack White and the Black Keys have lent rocker cred to such haunts as Ryman Auditorium. And you never know who might take stage at Robert's Western World, Broadway's favorite honky tonk.
The Gulch: The heart of Nashville is the Station Inn, bluegrass shire in The Gulch. As condos rise around this banjo haven, it stays pure: Bud Light, baskets of popcorn, and Ralph Stanley acolytes, every night of the year.
Green Hills: Tucked between a hair salon and a dry cleaner, the single-room Bluebird Cafe has hosted song-writing unknowns since 1982. Seven times a week it promises "oh, that's who wrote that" moments.
Eighth Avenue South: Upstairs at Grimey's New and Preloved Music, owner Mike Grimey and co. run Music City's most beloved vinyl trove. Downstairs, they stoke up-and-coming song-writers and bands in The Basement, a cavelike, untouristy live-music space.
Nashville can certainly be a late-night kind of town, which makes sleeping in—in style—that much more vital.
Midtown: The high-rise Hutton Hotel opened in 2009 and has cosmopolitan sophistication. Contemporary paintings and sculptures fill the airy lobby; guest rooms combine pillow-top comfort and such enviro-savvy touches as light-switch sensors and bamboo furniture.
Downtown: The Hermitage Hotel, 102 years old this month, is the kind of classic politico hive every capital city craves. It's high-society without attitude, from the classy Oak Bar and farm-to-table Capitol Grille to soaring marble columns in the two-story lobby and updated rooms averaging 500 square feet. Perhaps nowhere better embodies Nashville's modern heritage quite like this cool grande dame.