Pro Travel Tips from 72 Hours in Nashville
ICE’s Dean of Restaurant & Hospitality Management shares his approach to long-weekend travel.
When I really need a vacation but don’t have much time, here’s how I choose a three-day weekend destination. First and foremost, the city has to have good food (and drink). Second, it has to be within a two hour or so flight from my home airport. Third, it should have some other redeeming qualities such as a great music or art scene, interesting history, museums, etc. I may not have the time, but I’ll have options.
My suggestion is to plan 30 days out; you’ll usually get a fair flight price and enough available restaurant reservations. Always secure a great dinner; you can “wing” the rest. Here’s my process for choosing restaurants:
- Reach out to local foodie friends: “In foodies we trust.”
- Trust friends of foodie friends – stick with the locals who have food credibility.
- Reach out to followers on Instagram and Facebook, but go with IFWT (see first bullet).
- Look at Eater lists and other sources that you trust. Personally, I don’t like anything populated mostly from tourists (like TripAdvisor) and I have no interest in sites for complaining (Yelp).
- It’s important to look for a consensus; everything I choose is typically recommended by three or more people or sites.
- Use every contact you have to get reservations.
For a recent trip, I chose Nashville for its proximity, hot chicken and popular restaurant scene. With my destination determined, my first order of business is choosing a hotel. After recommendations and research, I have three very diverse choices: the JW Marriott, Thompson Nashville and Urban Cowboy, which are luxe, cool and super cool, respectively. The JW Marriott will only be on its third week open when I arrive and has a pool, gym and spa. The Thompson is in Nashville’s thriving Gulch area, with a cool vibe for a big(ish) hotel, plus a great rooftop bar. Urban Cowboy is a super-hip, boutique B&B with a great bar and brunch. (There’s a related Urban Cowboy in Brooklyn’s notoriously trendy Williamsburg neighborhood).
I must be getting old (or listening to my wife more), because the pool wins out and I like new. I thought the JW would be too corporate-like, which I detest — to my pleasant surprise, it’s not. The hotel has an awesome gym (yes, I used it), convenient location right next to the Gulch area, pretty good bar, a great breakfast place and yes, the pool, where I end up spending a sum total of about two hours, is very nice despite very cold water.
Due to my obsessive pre-planning, we know exactly where we’re going: Hattie B’s for hot chicken. We figure we’ll walk to burn off a few calories before the hoedown begins and by the time we get there, we are hungry. Around 2 p.m., the line is literally down the block. (If you’re a first timer, you go to Hattie B’s or Prince’s. And yes, you will wait.) It takes about one hour to get to the front door, and everything proceeds pretty nicely from there. (I’ve heard it’s worth your while to go to one of the outer branches of both, but I prefer originals.)
Pro tip: Bring a bottle of water (it gets really hot in that line in the summer), though there is a water jug as you near the front porch.
The hot chicken has six levels of heat. Everyone will scare the heck out of you and advise that the Medium (level three) is hot enough or too hot. If you like spice as I do, get the “Hot!” I order the Medium and could easily handle more heat, though you may want to stay away from “Get the Cluck Out of Here.” The chicken is outstanding — incredibly crisp, non-greasy skin over perfectly moist meat. Even the white meat has nice juiciness. You get two sides included (I order four). Besides putting hot sauce on almost everything, the mac and cheese, baked beans and potato salad are really good, but not rocking my world. Order the peach cobbler — it’s off the hook: crispy and sweet on top with nice slices of delicious peaches beneath and a peach pie filling that is thick and almost pudding-like (which is what happens when the peaches and sugar get reduced together).
After a very slow walk back to the hotel and rest, we head to the hotel’s lobby bar, which has a very nice cocktail list. As a person who has likely tried almost every version of a Negroni known to man, it’s hard not to sample another when it’s on the menu. Here, the Negroni Flip features local Corsair barrel-aged gin, Campari, Lillet Rouge, egg white and lemon. The egg whites give it that frothy taste and mouthfeel. The drink is interesting enough, but I’ll stick with the more standard varieties.
Dinner at Henrietta Red is likely the best meal I have in Nashville. Chef and owner Julia Sullivan was a James Beard Award semi-finalist and Food & Wine’s Best New Chef in 2018. The menu is very Gulf seafood-focused, as are many at the nicer venues in Nashville. A common theme is big, open, white and minimalist spaces (they don’t pay NYC rents) with huge windows. Somehow, the look comes off as comfortable and even cozy. I love the ceramic plates here, which have nice earthy tones and are from a San Francisco company called Heath Ceramic.
It is interesting to observe the age demographic of the clientele, which I would say is late 20s to 60 or so. This is another common theme in Nashville. The staff is super friendly and quite knowledgeable. A particularly awesome quote from my server Katelyn: “Ask me lots of questions, I like to nerd out.”
I start with a cocktail called The Last Word (which originated in the Prohibition era), with St. George Terroir gin (which is very popular here), Green Chartreuse, lime and Maraschino cherry liqueur. In keeping with the Gulf theme, I order a dozen oysters, virtually all from Alabama and each one better than the next. Mon Louis are my favorite: they taste like the ocean floor and that’s a good thing. The fruitiness and acidity in the watermelon mignonette is a perfect complement to the briny flavor. Next, I highly recommend the following: beet salad (I want to add salt but the sweetness of the beets needs to stand out), crab dip (love the parsley and celery), red snapper (super fresh corn and pickled plum), Poppy's caviar (paddlefish, sour cream and lemon vinaigrette), and scallop crudo (cantaloupe, Serrano, tomatillo), which is sweet, salty, rich and has heat. For dessert, get the Chocolate & Balsamic, which tastes like an old-school Cadbury. The sweetness of the chocolate plays well with the balsamic’s acidity, and it’s served with bay leaf ice cream.
It’s our vacation, so we head out for a nightcap at Green Hour, an absinthe bar a few blocks away. The place seems like something you’d put together in your basement, with no real back bar. The vibe, music and main bartender make for a fun atmosphere — and the concept pairs absinthe with chocolate, which turns out to be an inspired combination. The absinthe gives you a really mellow, relaxing buzz, and it’s fun to watch the “drip”. It feels like you’re participating in a scientific or medical experiment, except you’re the patient.
Pro tip: Ubers are quick and cheap; there’s absolutely no need to get a car rental.
We head to Biscuit Love in the Gulch area for breakfast. Now savvy as to the way things go, we stop by Killebrew Coffee in the Thompson Hotel across the street, and get large iced lattes for the 45-minute wait. As you approach the door, the expectation is that you already have your order ready (menus are distributed to the line). Once in, everything moves efficiently and quickly. Somehow you feel comfortable going through the process considering it works like a machine (it’s like visiting the Department of Motor Vehicles, but with friendly, service-oriented people). You order, take a number, find a seat and get served. Modern counter-service concepts seem to be a theme in Nashville. Go for the Bonuts (fried biscuit dough with lemon mascarpone served with blueberry compote), Chronic Bacon (sweet and spicy, thick cut), and the Biscuit and Sausage Gravy. My Instagram caption from the meal: “Worth the weight.”
Pro tip: Travel is all about balance. We enjoyed the hotel pool and gym, Musicians Hall of Fame, Centennial Park and long walks in between all the eating.
If you are in Nashville, it’s hard not to go to Husk, so that’s what we do. I was curious how it differs from Chef Sean Brock's fine temple of fried chicken in Charleston, South Carolina. Well, the look and feel is completely different: it’s almost contemporary inside with this beautiful interior full of large paintings and beautiful photography. I’ve had enough chicken for the moment, so I go for the burger with local Bear Creek Farm beef, which brings immediate thoughts of binging on McDonald’s as a kid — except way better. (I think it’s the American cheese). I add the exceptional dill pickles to the sandwich for acidity. The potato wedges taste of Old Bay and are perfectly cooked. My wife, Jill, gets the shrimp and grits, same as she did in Charleston. It was interesting to observe the degree of latitude the chef de cuisine apparently has; even though this is a signature dish, the Nashville location’s version was quite a bit different.
For dinner, we go to Rolf & Daughters — it is on all my lists. My server from lunch (at Husk) recommended the roast chicken, pasta with uni, and root beer macarons for dessert. If you’re a Negroni drinker like me, try the You’re in Good Hands: a play on a Boulevardier, which is basically a whiskey Negroni. Here, they add chocolate mole to great effect. My second drink is my current favorite take on a Negroni, which really should always be a gin drink. I’m delighted to see that the restaurant has Cardamaro, Zacapa Rum and Punt e Mes, so I have the bar mix that up for me as well. Try it.
Pro tip: Occasionally eat at the bar. You get to engage the bartender, learn what’s up and chat with other patrons more easily than when sitting at your own table.
The theme of big windows, an industrial look, high ceilings, cool chairs and stools, filtered water (everywhere) and a distressed wood ceiling continues. I start with the cucumber, buttermilk, chili and bottarga (dried fish roe). Then we try heirloom shelling beans with eggplant and xo sauce (which gives it an Asian flavor), and the stracciatella (which is the soft and delicious inside of burrata and nicely balanced by plum and chamomile). The recommended chicken is incredible, simply prepared with preserved lemon and garlic confit. Get it along with the chittara, a type of pasta that is cut by strings resembling those on a guitar. All in all, this is a really great meal.
Pro tip: Small plates in Nashville are larger than the small plates we see in NYC. You can order less; I typically opt not to. While menu pricing is pretty similar to pricing in NYC (although you almost never see an entrée creep into the $40 range here), the drinks are less expensive.
We finish the night at Urban Cowboy (the B&B I was considering in East Nashville) for some fun, great music and a nicely crafted cocktail. The place feels like a very carefully curated garage sale. You can tell great pains were taken to find the just right, somewhat rusty, patio furniture. I love it for drinks and the formula works — people are having a really good time here, indoors and out. Sticking with the Negroni theme, get Fords gin, Luxardo bitters and Dolin Blanc vermouth with one big square cube (keeps the dilution to a minimum).
We have breakfast at the hotel; I’d suggest going continental, as there’s still a lot to eat around the city in the day ahead. The JW Marriott offers a great full buffet for about $20. It’s more than worth it but, as noted, you won’t regret going light.
When you head down South, there are two absolutes: hot chicken and barbecue. We choose Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint to get whole hog, the house specialty. It’s basically pulled-then-chopped pork that comes from various parts of the pig. The sides are quite good (I choose baked beans and mac and cheese) and the whole hog is really done well; the pork is moist and smoky but, again, I’m craving heat. You may as well skip the myriad sauce choices and opt for Devil’s Nectar, which the bartender strongly cautions me against. The low-boy door where the sauce is located is marked “666” and the sauce is, in fact, quite hot, but not just for the sake of heat. There’s some really good flavor in there — I buy a bottle.
We make our way to Germantown for Sunday Supper at City House, which has plaster walls, an industrial feel, high ceilings and brick seat backs along a wall where typically the back of your banquette would be. There’s nothing on the walls — not one picture or display on a huge wall behind us. It kind of feels like the back of an industrial bakery. There are Silver Emco chairs; it’s old brick, very monochromatic, with gray, white and silver colors, and white china plates. The décor is quite unusual and with all of the above you would surely think “cold and uncomfortable,” but you’d be wrong. Somehow, it all comes together and works.
I’ve noticed that bars at the better places are more for dining than just drinking. Tonight, we opt for a table and start with wine from one of my favorite California producers: Matthiason Aglianico from Napa Valley. I’m happy to see it’s available here. It’s interesting that a place with Sunday supper doesn’t have pasta, but as told by our server, “no boiling water here”. The demographic again is quite diverse — you would not be uncomfortable coming with your grandpa or grandkids.
Order the thin-crust sausage pizza. It has a whiter crust than I’m used to, but is sort of a Neapolitan style and the egg cracked on top is a good recommendation. Follow it up with the corn dish, which is a cross between an omelette and a pancake. And the mozzarella in the eggplant is so fresh. I choose the last fresh ice cream sandwich for dessert. The house-made vanilla gelato is perfectly paired with the cookie, which is lemon poppy seed.
Pro tip: When in Nashville, visit the Germantown neighborhood for better dining. Go to East Nashville for a cool scene, great drinks and the music and nightlife, and head downtown for honky-tonks and tourist destinations.
We take a bottle of wine back to the hotel and enjoy a last glass. I lay in bed thinking about where to spend the next 72 hours away; it’s never too soon to plan!
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