As Nashville changes from town to city, growing pains ensue. Commutes double, rent goes up, things become more expensive and institutions that were once essential parts of Music City fall victim to the wrecking ball and disappear. The change seems inevitable, but growing up here made me soft to big city ways. I still say hello to strangers and hold the door. I remember when 12 South had discarded needles and when no one lived downtown. Things that people who moved here after the Great Recession will never fully understand.
As a native, I’m protective of this town – hoping that the availability of espresso will outweigh the added minutes to my drive home. But my jealousy toward sharing the crown jewel of the Mid-South is tempered because older generations of my family were once new here too. Friends can’t afford places to live, and anger about the pace of change is bubbling to the surface. But perspectives that once wrote Nashville off as all redneck and rhinestones have finally come around.
Do we embrace this or wholly reject it? Depends on whom you ask, but my goal was to find common ground between Old and New Nashville. Places where discussion could grow – not escalate – and food came to mind. Why? Because it is at once highly personal, satiating a near carnal desire to feed, and highly social, gathering people of all kinds together to enjoy the simple pleasure of a hot meal.
What better place to make amends?
And with more of the places that anchored Nashvillains diet outside of their own kitchens – R.I.P. Noshville, Charlie Bob’s, Sub Stop – I wanted to highlight a few local haunts that bring people together. These are places you’ve driven by a hundred times or forgotten as you chase the newest openings, but continue to create quality cuisine the same way they have for decades and are constantly threatened by the newest trends. Much like Nashville itself.
4671 Trousdale Drive
Between two gas stations just south of 100 Oaks, this kitchen of the Italian-grandmother-you-never-had is truly a hidden gem. A notch higher than fast casual, this unassuming local restaurant packs a heavy punch. Homemade dressings, garlic bread and pasta dishes are served hot alongside Italian classics. The baked ravioli was fresh and full of flavor, while the penne in vodka sauce with asparagus and bacon was smoky and unique. Candlelit tables, opera and BYOB with a $5 corkage fee set the mood for this little hole in the wall to be your next favorite date spot.
411 Gallatin Ave.
At 1 a.m., most anything tastes good, but Dino’s cheeseburger and fries might have special powers. One of Nashville’s oldest dive bars, this East Nashville hangout has been a late night stop off for the hungry and not so sober for years. A local artist’s take on Dolly Parton hangs next to spinning bar signs, and the Cards Against Humanity game raging at the table next to me only added to the charm. Christmas lights and a boisterous griddle remind you that quality does not have to be fancy, and the welcome embrace of the burger’s patty, cheese, tomato and pickle is unparalleled.
2413 Ellison Place
A staple of every Vanderbilt student’s diet, Rotier’s has been slinging classic American fare since after World War II. A single neon sign identifies the place as you come off West End into Elliston Place, and old booths sink low as people pack in amidst the hum of televisions and milkshake machines. Highlighted by the cheeseburger on french bread, a bun originally sourced from the now defunct Colonial Bakery and exclusive to Rotier’s, cold beer is the best pairing to help you through the meal. Also, be sure not to miss the best onion rings in Nashville.
264 Fourth Ave. N.
Famed as the oldest restaurant in Tennessee, this old fashioned meat and three is a step back in time. No music plays from loudspeakers and patrons are of the working cut – content to fill themselves quietly with a nuanced and hearty chili that has been perfected since 1907. Styrofoam is the dominant vessel for the jubilee of meat, beans and love – only interrupted by the salty goodness of crackers provided in large numbers to guests at the register. Clippings highlighting Varallo’s from before automobiles and Yelp reviews line the walls, and large windows at the front are the perfect place to spend a few minutes watching the world go by. Relatively foreign to tourists by its location and underappreciated specialty, this place is worth finding for a cheap, quick and delicious meal next time you are downtown.
936 Locklayer St.
“Love of a family is life’s greatest blessing” is not just a mantra at Silver Sands – it’s plastered on the wall. After opening in 1957, this local kitchen has been serving high quality soul food and home cooking just off of Jefferson Street for decades. Workers and caretakers carry off large cardboard boxes filled with hot plates, and my order of oxtails, turnip greens, mashed potatoes and mac-and-cheese was a brief look into what has kept this place bumping for years. Hot water cornbread and a full breakfast menu starting at 6:30 a.m. make this place a must visit. Just don’t get mad if they call you baby.