Nashville tempts palate with reopenings
Now that many of us are fully vaccinated, we can finally plan a getaway. Our first trip might be a road trip, perhaps a longer drive than we would have undertaken before.
After having to stay put for more than a year, I’m looking for a destination that’s within a day’s drive but feels different from my normal stomping grounds.
It only takes 10 hours to drive from D.C. to Nashville, but it feels like it’s a world away. I love Nashville for its creativity and talent in music, cuisine and beyond, for its friendly vibe and fantastic food. Even if it isn’t in full swing, I would be happy to be in Music City.
Nashville’s museums and restaurants are open, but attendance is limited, meaning more reservations and less spontaneity.
Shops are also open, and so are Nashville’s many lovely parks. And, of course, in a city known for its live music, indoor and outdoor concerts are resuming.
Live music rebounds
At the mother church of country music, the Ryman Auditorium — formerly known as the Grand Old Opry House — some concerts are being added to the light 2021 schedule. There’s also an excellent backstage tour of the building.
On Nashville’s waterfront, the Ascend Amphitheater is a good bet, with a summer schedule that begins with ballet in mid-May and includes artists like Lindsey Stirling, Phish and John Legend.
The City Winery is already hosting shows in a large, well-ventilated tent with tables appropriately distanced. Also following mask and distancing protocols are 3rd & Lindsley and Marathon Music Works. A cool New York transplant, Brooklyn Bowl, will be opening its lanes and its music stage soon.
Along downtown’s Lower Broadway (sometimes called NashVegas!) and its side streets, you’ll find plenty of Nashville’s iconic bar-restaurant-clubs, called honky-tonks. It’s an exciting privilege to see songwriters present new material at places like the Bluebird Café and The Listening Room.
Just 45 minutes away is the new FirstBank Amphitheater in Franklin, Tennessee. Built in a quarry, its dramatic setting includes cliff walls and waterfalls. It’s scheduled to open later this year.
About 90 minutes from Nashville, in Pelham, Tennessee, The Caverns is an actual underground music venue where PBS filmed a television concert series called “Bluegrass Underground.”
The pandemic caused them to vacate the caves, and in October 2020, The Caverns Above Ground Amphitheater was born. In addition to live music, there are two different tours of the caves; one is a challenging three-to-four-hour adventure.
The museum scene
Combining culture and music, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum has been the gold standard for years, with exhibits that demonstrate the influence Country music has had on many genres. “Sing Me Back Home” is its permanent exhibit, with an excellent film, stories and displays from Country’s pre-commercial roots to the present.
Before leaving, book a tour of RCA Studio B, the oldest of Nashville’s recording studios. Elvis, Dolly and many others recorded their hits here.
If you prefer to focus on one artist, I recommend the small but packed Johnny Cash Museum.
For a dose of beauty and history, spend a few hours at Cheekwood Gardens, a 55-acre complex with gardens, an art museum and an extravagant 36-room house built in 1929.
Belle Meade Plantation is an opportunity to tour a much older mansion, focus on African American history, explore the vast grounds, learn about thoroughbreds and end the day with a wine or bourbon tasting. Belmont Mansion was built around the same time, 1853, and has been meticulously restored.
Martin Luther King’s birthday this year marked the opening of the National Museum of African American Music. More than 50,000 square feet of exhibit space tell the stories of 400 years of African American music, from spirituals to the blues and jazz, all the way to hip-hop. The museum is the only one in the country, its website says, “with a dedicated focus on the impact of African American music.”
For a different slice of history, visit President Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage, the plantation where he lived after his presidency ended in 1804 until his death in 1845. It is one of the oldest and largest historic site museums in the country.
Four decades of research about the 200 enslaved men, women and children who worked in the house and cotton fields have produced historically significant and fascinating information that’s on display and presented by guides.
The Frist Art Museum is 20 years young but definitely world-class, with an acclaimed Picasso exhibit just wrapping up. Currently open four days a week, the museum changes its exhibitions every few months.
Its ArtQuest gallery has 30 interactive stations where, with the assistance of staff and volunteers, visitors of all ages can make a print, paint an original watercolor or create a sculpture.
Fine dining to cafeterias
Hungry yet? Eating in Nashville offers an embarrassment of riches, from fine dining to hot chicken, morning biscuits and “meat and three” dishes.
Like many restaurants, the fine dining Margot Café and Bar is open with limited seating, so reservations are highly recommended. Owner Margot McCormack, called the Alice Waters of Nashville by Time Magazine, specializes in the foods of Provence and Tuscany.
Acclaimed chef Sean Brock chose Nashville for his first Husk outside Charleston. With a charming wraparound porch, this is a great choice for modern Southern cuisine.
Make reservations as far in advance as you can to experience a special occasion at the Catbird Seat’s u-shaped bar, where a nine-course ballet of a meal is skillfully prepared. Lots of music industry people dine at City House for Italian food influenced by the American South.
When in Nashville, one must try the Nashville Hot Chicken, poultry that’s buttermilk-soaked, cayenne-rubbed and deep-fried. Hattie B’s and Prince’s are well established and beloved, but they aren’t the only games in town.
“Meat and three” is a very Southern food category consisting of a protein and three vegetables (mac-n-cheese counts). At Arnold’s Country Kitchen, a James Beard America’s Classic, people have been lining up cafeteria-style since 1982.
For coffee refuels, stop at Barista Parlor, located in a converted transmission repair shop. Frothy Monkey, with several locations, also serves great coffee, brunches and more.
At Golden Sound, in an old recording studio, the baristas will recommend the ideal method for grinding the bean you choose. From the installations on the walls to the mugs and tables, locally sourced isn’t limited to breakfast meats and jams.
A unique dessert spot is Las Paletas, for savory (avocado) and sweet (corn, hot chocolate) ice pops created from old Mexican family recipes.
Unique shopping venues
Walking off a big meal goes nicely with shopping, and the 12 South neighborhood is ideal. No national chains here.
White’s Mercantile, a general store akin to Anthropologie, is owned by Hank Williams’ singer-songwriter-musician granddaughter Holly.
Imogene + Willie sells custom-fitted “heritage blue jeans” that are popular with celebrities. Down the street, Judith Bright’s contemporary, affordable jewelry is handmade by local artisans.
There’s lots of great shopping all over town. A six-acre complex of shops and restaurants, called Fifth + Broadway after its location, opened in mid-March about half full. It has a vast food hall, live music venues and shopping. New tenants continue to move in.
Batch Nashville, at the Farmers Market, which should reopen soon, is a one-stop shop for all manner of Nashville-made goods, sold singularly or grouped in popular gift boxes.
Attached to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Hatch Show Print is a letterpress shop that sells both vintage and new posters made by hand with an enormous stock of wooden block letters and images that have been accumulating since the business started in 1879.
If you go
As we emerge from the pandemic, any travel requires making calls to confirm what’s open. And please note: not all websites are up to date.
Downtown hotel rates start at $145 per night; 12 new hotels opened in 2020, and 14 more are opening this year. From the hip Virgin and the luxurious Joseph, there are choices upon choices for every style and budget.
Airbnb is doing a brisk business as well. Don’t call too far in advance, since re-opening is a moving target.
Round-trip, nonstop flights from Washington, D.C. to Nashville start at $244 on Southwest Airlines.