Nashville was once synonymous with ten-gallon hats, honky tonk, and the Grand Ole Opry. While it’s musical reputation still precedes it, the Tennessee capital has shed its outdated description in favour something far more eclectic.
With an emerging art scene, a new crop of restaurants serving up formidable food, and a solid offering of design-minded hotels, Nashville has become the most electric spot in the South.
Here, Founder of Nashville-based communications company, The Callaway – a branding and PR team that specialises in product curation, content creation, and helping brands connect with their communities –, Libby Callaway shows us how to do Music City right.
Essential items to pack?
Your favourite blue jeans. No big surprise, denim is part of the unofficial local uniform. Bonus points if you’re wearing Nashville’s true-blue fashion heroes, imogene + willie. I had been a die-hard dress girl for years until they opened in 2009 and immediately sold me on their vintage-meet-modern fits. Their high-waisted Elizabeth style is the best.
The best time to visit Nashville is…
Late spring or early autumn get my vote. May and October are two of the busiest social months here. Come during the former and you’ll enjoy the start of the summer outdoor concert season (plus, the greenest lawns you’ve ever seen in Belle Meade); choose the latter and bring your heels: there’s a festive event, dinner, or party happening every night. Oh, and the leaves look amazing, too.
Our first pitstop should be…
If you’re coming for the full-on ‘yeehaw’ Nashville experience, head straight to Robert’s Western World, which is the most, um, rock and roll of all the honky-tonks downtown on Lower Broadway. The live music is great, the people watching is even better (think: two-stepping), and the Pabst Blue Ribbon is served cold in cans. (Tip the band, please.) It’s a favourite hang of East Nashville cool kids and local musicians (frankly, those two are one in the same), as well as throngs of tourists.
Your favourite hotel to check-in at is…
Noelle, downtown on 4th Avenue North. I was a creative consultant on the project before it opened four years ago and came to really love the space. It has a rad rooftop bar, called Rare Bird (the heron is a reoccurring theme at Noelle), but I’m especially fond of the Trade Room, which is essentially the lobby on the first floor. It has two-story walls made from Tennessee marble walls, terrazzo floors, smart modern furniture, and local art by my buddy Bryce McCloud. Noelle’s store, Keep Shop, is a gem, too, with a mix of national and local makers, as well as sundries and indie media.
For an early morning workout, head to…
I’ve been loving my membership to East Nashville’s new Pilates studio, Meliora Movement. They have classes from early morning until 8PM, so I am always covered. And Mysti, the owner, will kick your ass. If you want to be outside, take a walk around the lake at Centennial Park, home to a to-scale replica of the Parthenon (Nashville claims to be the “Athens of the South”).
Where should we go for breakfast?
Margot, hands down. The namesake chef has operated her farm-to-table concept in East Nashville for 19 years. Love what that woman does with a seasonal fruit tartine (if it’s peak summertime, you’ll be offered one with The Peach Truck’s peaches sliced over honey-drizzled whipped ricotta). And eggs. The omelettes are always marvellous.
How about for a long, lazy lunch?
I have two – but they’re sisters, both owned and operated by chef Julia Jaksic, formerly of Jack’s Wife Frida in NYC and one my company’s clients. If I’m in East Nashville, I linger over my pain bagnat or composed egg bowl at her Café Roze, the eastside’s first all-day café. The pink cast to the light (thanks to the walls and the neon sign) makes everyone look hot. Roze’s “sibling,” called Roze Pony, lives across town, in tony Belle Meade. I like to say that Pony is the original location’s cool older sister who just got back from a semester in Paris. It’s just a bit more sophisticated, with a more elevated menu, a bigger variety of seating options, and a takeaway bar with homemade desserts, all of which make it worth sticking around even after you devour your chicken paillard.
And for dinner with friends?
Henrietta Red, a gorgeous restaurant in Germantown, helmed by chef Julia Sullivan, is my girl-date default. On summer Saturdays, my friend Lisa and I love meeting here right when they open and stuffing ourselves with oysters. HR has the city’s most beautiful oyster bar, hands down, and that’s where we sit, ordering them by the dozen. Another favourite time to visit is for a girls’ brunch, when bright light floods the restaurant and Julia adds sweet treats and egg dishes to the mix. I always lean heavily on mollusks here, often choosing shrimp salad plus a bowl of Poppy’s Caviar, which is like a caviar, herb and sour cream dip. And oysters, of course.
A must-try spot for date night?
One night last summer, I went with a date to Lou, a terrific all-day café that belongs to chef Mailea Weger. Since COVID, the restaurant has only been serving on its patio, so we were outside. We were about to order dessert when a screen came down and Jaws started. Dinner and a movie! The perfect date! And even though that magic doesn’t go down every night, Lou, with its mirrored wall behind the bar and House of Hackney wallpaper in the bathroom, is still a super-dreamy place to take the one you love. Share a dessert: they’re homemade.
Your favourite restaurant in town?
Budget: Mas Tacos Por Favor
This cosy cinderblock restaurant is heaven. You queue up to order – for me, always one pork taco ($3) and chicken tortilla soup ($5)— and then wait to hear your name called over the loudspeaker to grab your food and head to one of the mismatched tables.
Blow Out: Bastion
The set up here is the opposite of what you see in most restaurants: the bar area is much larger (and louder) than the restaurant, a jewel box of 22 seats and a chef’s bar that is the domain of chef Josh Habiger. His menus are new every day, using fresh, usually local ingredients in truly fascinating ways, with beautiful execution. Always splurge for the seven-course tasting menu. WORTH IT.
Where should we head post-dinner?
My dear friend Laura says that when it comes to music in Nashville, “Country is the PR; rock is the reality.” That’s the case for sure at Basement East, where – during non-COVID times – you can catch hip touring singer-songwriters and beloved local bands, often on the same ticket. A few blocks away, you can grab a drink at Attaboy, the sister bar of the NYC bar of the same name. It’s a low, sexily crowded space (again, pre-COVID) with a long bar where it’s fun to sit and watch the master bartenders work. These guys are excellent at what they do.
The drink to order at the bar…
So, I don’t drink alcohol. But I do love the ceremony of having a cocktail. So, I’ll give the bartender my favourite flavours and have them surprise me. Never feel awkward about this: I had one tender tell me that the flavour-led route is actually his preferred way of working. In short: let them be creative.
The best place for people watching…
People watching downtown on Lower Broadway – aka tourist central – can be a nightmare of deep proportions for people like me, who hate being jostled by crowds and aurally assaulted by layers of loud music blasting from every bar’s open windows. But there is no denying that watching non-cowboy-inclined visitors, clad in tight new cowboy boots, weave in and out of the honkytonks can be highly amusing. Try to get a seat on one of the rooftop bars so you don’t have to put up with elbows in your ribs.
The culture spot to rave about…
Even if you don’t think you like country music, don’t miss this place. The Country Music Hall of Fame doesn’t just tell the history of traditional roots music and the performers who gave it life (the museum does an excellent job of this, illustrating with archive videos, photography, and arcana, including a pretty deep collection of Nudie suits and other stagewear), it tells the history of America. The story of country music is our country’s story, as well. I just can’t say enough good things about it. Don’t miss: Gram Parsons’ white Nudie Suit, embroidered with naked ladies, pills, and pot leaves.
The best place to treat yourself is…
My friend Melody recently opened what is easily the coolest new wellness concept in town. Called Holiday Salon & Bathhouse, it’s a spa/salon hybrid, with a beautiful private soaking pool (that can be booked my small groups), a hair salon, and service rooms that offer massage and facials. The store up front is full of great-smelling products, local and national. It’s a winner.
Nashville is deeply in touch with their inner…
Dreamers. Like LA and NYC, this is a city of dreamers, a place where you literally see musicians stepping off busses at the Greyhound station with guitars strapped to their backs and stars in their eyes. In my own friends I see it too: the majority of us are creative entrepreneurs, working hard to make a dream or two come to life.
Really, any one of our local independent designers. I am fond of the aforementioned imogene + willie, located on 12th Avenue South, which in addition to blue jeans produces great-looking knit basics, outerwear, and accessories, most of which is produced in LA. It’s also a gorgeous shop, located in a former 1930s gas station.
I lived on the west side of town for two years when I first moved to town and never really found my people. That changed when I started hanging out in East Nashville, which I describe to people as the ‘Silverlake of Nashville’. ‘The East Village of Nashville’ works too. Lots of creatives, especially musicians. It’s also home to many of the city’s best restaurants.
The one place only locals know about…
Wonders on Woodland. WoW is an antique store in East Nashville owned by my friends Deb and Wayne Goodwyn, both retirees who dreamed of having their own antique store for years before making it an actuality in the late aughts. I have antiqued all over the world and I still love this place the most. Their eye is sublime – and the prices are incredibly fair.
For the best views head to…
Love Circle. When I first moved to town, one night, a guy I was dating told me he was taking me to see something special. “Where?” I asked. “Love Circle,” he said. “No way,” I replied. But yes, way: that’s the name of the street that winds around the highest hill in midtown, where the views of the city are unbeatable and the little-trafficked streets provide ideal parking scenarios for those in search of, well, love. Make-out city, baby.
For a change of pace try…
A hike at Radnor Lake or Edwin Warner State Park. Hiking is a favourite pastime for my crew. They purportedly do it for exercise, but, truly, I suspect it’s just for open-air gossiping. Seriously, go before 9AM and you’re likely to see a half-dozen people you know sweating up those hills.
Great day trips include…
Two hours south is The Shoals, a quad-city area bisected by the Tennessee River, it’s full of Southern Gothic charm and a ton of creativity. Famous as the home of two music studios that recorded legendary albums by the likes of Aretha Franklin and The Stones, to name but two, it’s also the home of fashion companies Alabama Chanin and, my old boss, Billy Reid. Come in August when Billy holds his annual Shindig, a big public party that celebrates food, music, fashion, and art – most of it Southern. Other good options for a quick jaunt: Chattanooga, in glorious East Tennessee (my homeland), is two hours away, and a must-stop if you’re into Civil War history (and vintage shopping: the antique stores, like Anthology, and multi-dealer malls here are out of sight). Three hours west of Nashville, and on the entirely other end of the state than Chattanooga, is Memphis. Go for BBQ, the Lorraine Hotel museum, Graceland (duh), and bar-b-que.
A book to read before we go (or while we’re there)?
My buddy Taylor Bruce owns a very cool travel-guide company called Wildsam. The first book in their now 19-volume city collection is devoted to Nashville, but with a very insider twist: Taylor and his team work closely with locals to generate true-blue insider tips, the real back-stories of the people, places, and ideas that make this city unique. It’s the coolest Nashville guidebook I’ve seen (disclosure: I wrote an essay for the guide). Buy it locally at Parnassus, the Pulitzer-winning novelist Ann Patchett’s bookstore, located in Green Hills. It’s the best in town. While you’re there, make a point to grab a copy of Nashville: Scenes from the New American South, the book that Patchett published with my super-talented photographer friend Heidi Ross. It’s full of portraits of colourful Nashville personalities and locations and makes a great souvenir.
How should we spend the final day of our trip?
Have at least one meal at Arnold’s, the city’s most famous meat-and-three, a cafeteria-style setup where the diner choose one meat (from a selection that usually includes fried chicken, meatloaf, and catfish) and three “vegetables” (collard greens, mac & cheese, squash casserole – the word is used lightly here), as well as an array of insane desserts (I get the banana pudding every time). And then how about some art? If you come in spring 2021, the Frist Art Museum is hosting a gorgeous Picasso show. If you want something more chill, there are a growing number of cool galleries in the emerging Wedgewood-Houston neighbourhood, including my friend Julia Martin’s namesake space, as well as Zeitgeist and David Lusk. Nashville is the kind of city where, if you fall in love with the work of a local artist and have a bit of time, there’s a good chance they’ll welcome you to visit their studio. Nashville’s just like that.
What’s your Nashville secret?
I always have Prilosec in the car in case I get the urge to eat hot chicken. That’s the only way to do it without tearing up your insides: take the heartburn medication before you eat this Nashville delicacy (I recommend ordering the medium spice at Pepperfire) with at least two big glasses of water.
In a word, Nashville is…
Cool. It really, really is.