NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Men usually don’t like to talk about their significant others’ ex-boyfriends, and I’m no different. But my wife Danny and I both share a fondness for one in particular:
“This city is like an ex-boyfriend to me,” Danny said of the place she spent her childhood and most of her adult life before moving away in 2006. “We were good together for so long, but broke up amicably when we’d taken our relationship as far as it could go. Now he’s all grown up and looks so much better with age. When I visit, I don’t even recognize him anymore.”
If you haven’t heard, Nashville is the hottest city in the U.S. The national acclaim has made our exit eight years ago feel a bit like if Scarlett Johansson dropped Ryan Reynolds before he was named sexiest man alive. But we’re better for it, and love where we live now. Plus, since our families are still here, we get the Friends With Benefits action when we make our annual journey back home.
That was the case in mid-May, when we spent nine days driving around the city—our city—to revisit old haunts and experience new ones. With the varied perspective of local knowledge and a visitor’s curiosity, here are my recommendations for what to eat, drink, shop and do in my hometown:
EAT: Husk, Downtown
I knew it was going to be a special night when I held the door open for the woman trailing behind my wife and I; she strode confidently to the hostess stand and said, “I’m Ashley, and I’m here for the special event.” We did not join Ms. Judd in the private dining space detached from the main dining room, but we still felt famous while devouring Husk’s sensational Southern cooking. We’ve long been fans of Chef Sean Brock—dining at Nashville’s Capitol Grille in the early-2000s and McCready’s in Charleston, S.C., a few years later—and his latest venture doesn’t disappoint. There wasn’t a grain of ground corn on my plate after the shrimp and grits appetizer and I helped myself to Danny’s vegetable plate full of heirloom tomatoes, poke fritters and charred asparagus with leeks. Drinks (Chestnut Filly) and dessert (a surprisingly light smoked nib chocolate fudge cake) put the meal in the pantheon. It’s easy—and excusable—to overdo it at Husk, so plan to make a post-meal, four-block stroll down to Lower Broadway and back to work off a couple calories.
- After a great group dinner with friends at East Nashville’s new Japanese-inspired pub Two Ten Jack, we lingered in the parking lot saying our goodbyes. Once they were gone and we realized the nearby location of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream stayed open until 11 p.m., we made a beeline for the scoop shop. We’d read the headlines, and it had no trouble living up to the hype. So much so, in fact, we hit the other Nashville location in 12 South with my parents the next night. A combo cup of Black Coffee and Dark Chocolate is well worth waiting in the omnipresent lines.
DRINK: Rolf & Daughters, Germantown
Like to dress up to drink? Rolf & Daughters is the spot, tucked into a refabricated century-old factory in Nashville’s historic Germantown neighborhood. It’s home to the single-best Scotch drink I’ve ever tasted: The Claymore. Purists will frown on putting anything but ice with Laphroaig, but the addition of 1776 Rye, Carpano Antica, Angostura and Regan’s Orange Bitter elevates the signature smoky flavor to another level. The bar sits at the center of the exposed brick dining room and is roomy enough to have a full meal without leaving your barstool. Don’t miss the housemade pastas.
- No trip to Music City is complete without a night on Lower Broadway. It’s a tourist trap to be sure, but you can get a sliver of authenticity by skipping Tootsie’s for Robert’s Western World. The shotgun-style bar has a stage by the front door, a postage-stamp dance floor and a wall of (for-sale) cowboy boots running the length of the joint. On Friday and Saturday night, local legends Brazilbilly play Honky Tonk covers of Elvis, George Jones and Marty Robbins into the early morning. Duck in for a $2 can of PBR and the best people watching in the city.
SHOP: Volunteer Traditions, 8th Ave. South
Walking to my car after stopping by Flip, a cool used menswear boutique, I noticed the above signage in the neighboring complex and had to go in. A frequent visitor to southern men’s fashion and lifestyle blogs, I was familiar with Vol Trad but had never seen their products in the flesh. Fifteen minutes later, I’d touched just about everything in the store, chatted up the friendly sales clerk and left with a buttery soft Heritage Line T-shirt and a Tennessee tri-star decal. The simple storefront is inviting and the bustling storeroom behind it gives you the feeling that you’re supporting a young, hungry, local business—which is exactly what Vol Trad is.
- Yes, Green Hills is a traffic shitshow but it’s also home to the best shopping in Nashville. So honk your way over to Hill Center to check out the star of its modern main street, Billy Reid. Manager Brent runs a relaxed store that’s more lounge than high-end boutique. The price tags are lofty but the inspiration is free; you’ll leave wanting to improve your wardrobe, the true mark of a quality shop.
DO: McCabe Golf Course, Sylvan Park
When it comes to golf, my general rule is the more expensive the course, the less fun you’re likely to have. Public courses have a much higher return on investment when it comes to enjoyment, which is why I love playing at McCabe ($24 to walk on weekdays). Built in 1942 and overhauled in 2007, McCabe is old-school Nashville and offers 27 uncomplicated holes with adequately maintained Bermuda fairways and true-rolling Bent greens. The tee boxes are a bit bare, but it’s a muni; there’s gonna be mud. Rumor has it PGA pro Brandt Snedeker, who grew up in Nashville, owns McCabe’s course record. Pro tip: Pop by neighboring McCabe Pub after your round for some homemade potato chips.
- Suburbs get a bad rap in all cities, and Nashville is no different. But venturing outside city limits and into the surrounding communities varies your perspective, which is never a bad thing. My wife and I were looking for a relatively flat place to run near my parents’ hilly subdivision in Brentwood, so my dad pointed us in the direction of Annandale, a community of million-dollar homes off Old Smyrna Road. We had fun gawking at monstrous traditional brick homes with four-car garages, then dodging piles of horse manure left by the residents of nearby farms.