First We Eat: The Nashville Edition
“First we eat, then we do everything else.” ― M.F.K. Fisher
It’s a big day! Today we launch First We Eat!
Welcome, welcome, welcome.
I travel by way of food, always and foremost. The rest shakes out as the world permits. This will be my monthly guide for where to sit down to a very good meal, a highlight of restaurants that I adore and a naming of names of the cooks that are digging deep. Cooking is the most meaningful way of giving of oneself in the world - it requires a dedication and a bravery to serve something to another human that is so undoubtedly of yourself as an act of love and/or commerce. Basically, this is simply my chance to spotlight the kind of work I admire and seek out in the hospitality industry.
I’m glad to have the chance to share some of the special places I have found in my lifetime and will continue to do so with great enthusiasm as I find and experience what I hope to be a good and plenty more.
I wanted to take some real time here for my hometown. I’ve lived in Nashville for twenty years and have my own loyalties, to be sure. I want to avoid, on some level, doing the strange thing that so many online restaurant guides do: rest on their loyalty laurels. But, to be honest, I’m more discerning that I even like to be sometimes - it is very seldom one of my most popular traits, but it will serve this purpose very well.
So. I’ll highlight four every time and then list as many other as I see fit.
My criteria for this list - and for all lists moving forward - are such:
Informed and thoughtful, not over the top, service. It’s a dying art.
Flavor, flavor, flavor.
Good ambience. This can mean a cozy bar stool in a trailer with a great bartender and a good mezcal selection or it can mean a hallowed, beautifully decked out hall of beautifully curated paintings and dried flowers hanging from the ceiling.
The urge to return and tell everyone about it as fast as you can.
So, that’s it! I have a lot of opinions about things in this industry, as you’ll learn. But I am tired of a culture that can’t find the beauty in the fray and can’t buoy the good stuff even when the bad stuff is so loud. I hope to dedicate this space as a way to channel their efforts into a great championing of the things I hold in highest regard. Let’s begin.
“The beginning of the Maiz revolution in Nashville. Sin Maiz no hay Pais.”
Julio Hernandez came into all of our lives just when we needed him most. A pandemic and subsequent job shift created an opportunity for him to build a business out of a pop up concept he had been inserting into his weekends as often as he was allowed as a full time chef about town. What came was one of Nashville fist premier nixtamalized corn programs. I have eaten so much corn in my life, both in bad ways as a corn-fed American and in good ways as the daughter of a woman from Mexican/Indigenous upbringing. I wrote about this journey with Masa for Southern Foodways Alliance in 2016 and this love and connection to corn continued to inform my work and my habits since. We eat most things on tortillas if we can. This was meaningful for me.
I like to fancy myself as one of his earliest fans, buying his tortillas and masa with as much frequency as I could. He would deliver to quarantined doorsteps and it truly brought magic to so many of my days. As a daughter raised on tortillas, both flour and corn, this became a truly nourishing part of my pandemic habits that I remain grateful and hungry for. Now, Julio and his team (a good, good team), man a somewhat stationary truck housed adjacent to Chopper Tiki in off of Main Street in East Nashville. You can order at the truck and sit at Chopper and be served by both places at the same time - it’s a damned genius way to do a taco truck. He is also sharing a stationary kitchen space with the legendary Levon Wallace (bonus recommendation!) who started FatBelly Pretzel and (now) Deli in the same fashion as Julio started Maiz. So much good out of such a hard time. Ain’t we lucky.
Get the quesabirria tacos with consomé or the potato flautas (my favorite) or, really, anything that calls your name. It will be beautifully prepared on a nearly spiritually redefining corn tortilla.
All hail the simple tortilla. All hail, Julio.
Where: Chopper Tiki, 1600 Stratton Avenue / (615) 423-0075 (you can call your order in) / https://www.maizdelavida.com/
Details: Tuesday - Sunday. Check their instagram page for times.
You might be noticing a theme. I go beyond Mexican and latinx cuisine, I promise. But, it just so happens, two of my favorite spots in Nashville are these warm, family owned, traditional Mexican spaces.
Tucked in the back of a delightful ice cream and snack shop called Bee’s, Frida’s is mostly like walking into someone’s home and having them cook for you. Spaces like these are common when you travel overseas, but they are not so common in the U.S. unless you look up and out from all the other frick and frack being shoved down your throat by all the newest places’, investment company, developer driven PR companies at any given time. And boy do we have a lot of that noise in Nashville.
Nolensville, where Frida’s lives, is the most interesting road in Nashville, by my estimation. It should be on everyone’s food radar. Jennifer Justus, one of Nashville’s (and the South’s) best food writers highlights some local favorites here (it’s from 2017 but, from what I can tell, all of these places of business survived the dark days of Covid-19). Nolensville Road is full of the most remarkable surprises - from markets to bakeries to parking lot meat smokers, you won’t go hungry. There is so much good, good honest food and you eventually find your favorites.
Frida’s, in particular, immediately became a place I wanted to go to every single week.
When you go, you will be warmly welcomed by, well, everyone. Then you tuck into a small booth or a table and you’ll be presented with a menu that is so thoroughly written that you’d be wise to come with several friends so you can order a whole table of food to share, or make a pact with yourself to come back frequently and try a new dish each time.
The memelitas, in the picture above, are something I have a hard time not ordering each and every time. I am the fortunate friend of fellow hearty eaters and a staunch believer in leftovers, so we over order every time making sure to get the mememitas (go ahead and get the trio) and the Vegetarian Tlyuda (a traditional Oaxacan quesadilla style crispy flatbread kind of sandwich - yes, I’m calling it a sandwich - filled with the most perfectly cooked beans and grilled vegetables and a cold cabbage) and then mixing it up with new dishes. On my last visit, I had a hankering for nachos and - listen - they were perfect.
It’s simply outstanding food served by outstanding people and you can’t go wrong even if you close your eyes and order by pointing at the menu blindly.
Where: 2424 Nolensville Pike, Nashville, TN 37211
Details: Open Daily from 9am - 9pm (they have breakfast!); Closes at 845p on Tuesdays.
The only thing I love more than a restaurant with a BANG-POW-FIZZ-holy-cow kind of wine list, is a restaurant with a killer wine list AND unpretentious, quality food. Add friendly, accommodating and not blowhard, '“let’s talk about our ethos” service to that mix and I’m a young girl in love.
Folk has all of that, plus it is a mere two blocks from my house which means it is my neighborhood joint. I have always wanted a neighborhood joint. I knew it would happen one day but, outside of my fantasies of living in Paris or NYC in my old age, the fantasy never included something so good and so perfectly matched for my person.
Phil Krajeck is the quiet and unassuming chef behind Folk (and his flagship Nashville Rolf&Daughters, which to be frank, was never really my cup of meat - it’s a bit “cool” for my tastes. The food, though, is very good, my insecurities not withstanding). He hit a mark with Folk - one that delivers each and every time. It doesn’t matter if I belly up to the bar and have a solo glass of wine and some snacks or if I am at a six top birthday dinner - I have always been treated and fed extremely well each and every time I have walked into Folk.
By my estimation, once you get past the wine, the vegetable dishes are the absolute stars of the show. A kitchen that knows what to do with vegetables is a strong kitchen. Most folks will tell you to get the pizzas - beautiful little gems that come out of a magnificent wood fired oven - and you totally should. I don’t eat pizza for reasons I don’t care to get into ever but most certainly not for this article, but I think it’d be fair for me to say: don’t box yourself in! My recommendation? Get a pizza to share with your table or dinner mate along with several vegetables/salads and then main course it up together as well. Most of the main meat dishes are meant to be shared. Family style is truly the best way to go here, even if you’re only a two top.
Do NOT miss desserts. There is finally (!) a growing cadre of truly inspired pastry chefs in this city and Folk is home to one of my favorite young pastry chefs Claire Jordon. The desserts are simple, inspired and absolutely delicious. There are not many places I would recommend to go just for dessert, but Folk is the perfect place for a glass of sherry at the bar banquette and a chilled silver julep cup of gelato.
If there are signs in Nashville that we might be moving in the right direction of noble attempts and quality and community, Folk was one of my first indications that everything might be ok in this crazy time of growth in our city.
Location: 823 Meridian St, Nashville, TN 37207
Details: Open Thursday - Monday 5p - 10p; Closed Tuesdays&Wednesdays; Reservations Recommended but also I have luck wandering in and suspect they are thoughtful about keeping a few tables open for walk-ins (bar seating is also available and the wait is never very long..)
What is there to say about Sean Brock that hasn’t already been said? Apparently plenty and he does not appear to be giving us a reason to stop our talking. He is a fully throated and gustatory prophet of his cuisine and I will never, not even for a second, flinch at or bore of it. I have never met someone so fixed and dedicated and goddamn it is refreshing.
It is sure easy, for me anyway, to be a real skeptic about the restaurant world at large. I can simultaneously be madly in love with it and fed the fuck up of it all at once, I’m complex like that (and so are you). So, when I first saw the mecca size building going up a block from my house in a tiny and quiet neighborhood, look, I might have had my reservations. As noted in my above choices, I am a big fan of the unassuming. But, I am also someone who knows, firsthand, what Sean is capable of, so my skepticism was never really aimed at anything other than what the neighbors might think.
I can definitively say that my three-ish years working with Sean as his pastry chef were the most educational and inspired time of my career. Not for nothing, it also was the breaking point for a lot of us, him and myself included, and I’m happy to say that he and I both have found our way toward better, happier and more fruitful lives. His kitchen and management team if rife with men who were very young cooks in the kitchen I shared with him. They are now partners, lab technicians, Chef de Cuisines. It is very emotional for me to see them all building something so full of integrity together. I’m proud of them, of us. And, I’m very, very proud of him. He has worked so hard for this vision and it is every bit as good as any of us imagined it could be.
Personal note: For a decade now, Sean has been a true champion for me and my writing and my career in general. We’ve certainly had our ups and downs, to be sure and it didn’t take me very long to learn that, while I’m a pretty decent baker and cook, I am not (nor do I aspire to be) the caliber of Chef he is. But, still, at the core, there has been a long and true mutual respect and admiration, and more simply, love. I feel like these last few years have revealed so much to so many of us in stark and undeniable truths. For me, I have learned - in nearly one fell swoop of a book publication combined with a global pandemic - who the truly decent and brave and genuinely progressive people around me are. Sean is one of those people. He believes with his whole heart in other people’s potential, never mocks it and is never threatened by it, and seems to bask in other people’s goodness so that they can bask in it, too. It really is something to behold.
BUT, that isn’t why Audrey is on this list. At least not entirely. I do have the ability to be discerning about food and restaurant recommendations beyond heart loyalties. But, I’ll reiterate that I am wholly inspired by the level of dedication he has to what feels like a mission statement, both in life and in his restaurants, to do your utmost best for yourself and for everyone around you. It just should not go unsaid. So there.
There is much to be noted about the intense level of quality and production he is orchestrating at Audrey. The lab, inspired by and somewhat replicating the exquisite one at Noma in Copenhagen, is helmed by Elliot Silber who was once a line cook turned sous chef when we opened Husk all those years ago. He’s distilling flavors with equipment that makes you feel like you are a hundred years in the future. This space is insufficient for the kind of conversation this work deserves. I hope to learn more and share here, or somewhere. Just know, it’s down right thrilling - and that is coming from a girl who rolls her eyes at even the faintest whiff of molecular gastronomy.
None of this would mean anything, though, if the food wasn’t drop dead delicious. Just unreasonably delicious in a way that makes you have very quiet and private moments with yourself even when you’re seated at a table with two or three other people. My mind moved around the food as much as my mouth did. I had to be quiet and close my eyes because I didn’t want to miss what was obviously a brilliant tweak or a flick of a wrist by a thoughtful prep or pastry cook. It takes your breath away. But, and this is very important: don’t you dare think for a second that any of it is hard work. It is effortless. It is generous. It is beguiling as a beautiful woman walking into a room. You are overwhelmed in all the right ways. You can almost feel your heart agreeing to take it slow and to not ruin it by overexcitement. All of that is because there is an other agreement that happens when you walk into the space Sean has built. You are agreeing to believe in something more, something beyond yourself. You are agreeing that you, too, think generosity is key and that you are willing to give yourself to the magic he has made, from beautifully trimmed walls to a well paced and warm center kitchen. You become a very significant part of the process and how goddamn GOOD a feeling is that? Pretty great. You inform something the second you walk in the door - which should be true of all great restaurants, but it simply is not. What you bring is your own ability to see what is possible and then to say yes to it.
Location: 809 Meridian St, Nashville, TN 37207
Details: Daily 5p - close; Downstairs is a prix fixe menu and reservations are highly recommended (though I have it on good authority that you should call for last minute cancellations as there are a few nearly nightly); The beautiful bar upstairs has its own snack and cocktail menu (there is a beautiful fresh juice program up there that you don’t want to miss) and walk-ins are welcomed.
ATTN: Stay tuned for June, Sean’s 32 seat tasting menu restaurant occupying the second floor of Audrey, opening this year. Check out Audrey’s IG page for current visiting chefs to soft open with the team.
Other incredible Nashville locations you should visit immediately!
Locust / Trevor Moran and team are building a deeply inspired and inspiring restaurant that feels so much like a place that gets it right, from business building to customer interactions to building as you grow. So much respect for this whole situation. 2305 12th Ave S, Nashville, TN 37204 / Friday-Sunday 12p-2p and then for dinner 5p-830. Reservations are a MUST.
Edessa / Simple, honest and damned delicious Turkish and Kurdish food. Don’t miss dessert. 3802 Nolensville Pike, Nashville, TN 37211; Open daily from 11am - 830p
Dozen Bakery / Claire Meneely and her dedicated and talented bakers cranking out Nashville’s most exquisite pastries and bread over in Wedgewood Houston - don’t miss it! 516 Hagan St #103, Nashville, TN 37203 / M-Sa 7a-4p; Sundays 830a-3p
Peninsula / Incredible food, thirst quenching gin&tonic menu, lovely ambiance, great crew. Do NOT miss Peninsula! 1035 W Eastland Ave, Nashville, TN 37206 / Wednesday - Saturday, 5p -10
Red Headed Stranger / Sweetest human on the planet might be Brian Weaver and his Texas style tacos (also one of my neighborhood joints!) taste like good lovin’ straight from his good heart. Patio during the summer with a frozen concoction from the bar and a few hot tacos is prime time. A real treat. 305 Arrington St, Nashville, TN 37207 / M-Th, 10a-9p; F-Su, 830a-9p
Mas Tacos / It’s never not a good time for a bowl of soup and sweet plantains from Teresa Mason’s brilliant Mas Tacos. Hands down one of the most consistently good restaurants from the “olden days” of Nashville - Teresa inspires with how she manages to keep it fresh while also keeping it reliable and somehow newly delicious every single damn time. 732 Mcferrin Ave, Nashville, TN 37206 / Tuesday - Saturday, 10a-9p
This list could go on and on… A few more important ones and then I’m out!
Cheap Charlie’s Tacos / quick and easy bite, delicious every single time.
Riddem & Spice / the move here is to order a lot of food and feast on it all week. Kamal is a local legend and a cook that never gets talked about enough. More on him and his family very soon.
Korea House / Go with friends. Order a lot. Everything is spot on.
Sperry’s / nothing like a good old steakhouse with a pristine martini and bananas flambé at the end of your meal. Best birthday tradition ever.
This will be the LAST free edition of FIRST WE EAT. I’m giving away my hometown issue both to let readers take a peek and to tell as many folks as I can about my hometown heroes. I will do more Nashville editions, likely, where I feature restaurants more deeply.
Upcoming cities in the FIRST WE EAT series will be:
New Orleans / Austin / Los Angeles / Atlanta / Savannah / New Mexico
And get ready: international travel guides will be upcoming and in real time as my year is stacked with travel and workshops from France to Mexico to Italy.
You won’t want to miss it!
Thanks for your support!
Until next time - Love, L
photos by Lisa Donovan except any logos and Nashville Skyline photo by Lisa Wooten.