Nashville

It is not just hot chicken and country music.

In fact, if I never have hot chicken again, that would be fine with me. Sorry to be a hater, but I didn’t get it. I felt like the heat and discomfort was just making it impossible to enjoy a good plate of fried chicken. But hey, that’s me.

As to country music, I could care less about the pop country crap, but Nashville is inseparable from the real stuff—The Ryman, Ernest Tubb’s record shop and so on. I wanted to be near that history, and I could go see all that again. And again. However, it was great to see some music from other genres which Nashville is full of. I got to see Elise Davis at The High Watt. Great stuff, and thanks to Brooklyn Brewery for putting on the show and supporting great music. And for the old stuff, Robert’s Western World was just as described—and the grilled cheese was a nice bonus.

But, I was mostly there for the beer. And man, was there a lot of it. Thousands descended on the Music City Center to talk craft beer at the annual Craft Brewer’s Conference. I was struck by how focused, motivated and friendly the crowds were. The seminars, whether on bacteria in brewhouses or raising capital, were packed daily. The expansive floor was full of suppliers and brewers all trying to figure out where the industry was going next.

For a nascent brewery like our partner, City-State Brewing Company, this was an invaluable opportunity, and founder James Warner made the most of it. We were up, down and all around, trying to soak up as much as we can (and yes, drinking up a fair amount as well).

We left with the sense that the brewery we are building—a robust taproom in a great area with an eye towards a strong local distribution presence—is exactly the right spot for us to be in. For an entrepreneur, feeling like you are on the right rack is one of the most helpful things that can ever happen.

Thank you to the Brewer’s Association for an incredible conference, and to the dozens of helpful colleagues we met. We hope to see you all next year in Denver.

For Mothersauce, this was also a chance to see Nashville, and hear its story about what food and beverage means down there these days. I spent the mornings and the evenings learning about the city, and I enjoyed nearly every minute.

Nashville gets compared to Austin a lot, and while I can see that is irritating to proud locals, as a native of neither, I get it. From the surrounding hills, the heat, the river cutting through the middle, its easy manner, and most of all the explosive growth, it is easy to see a parallel.

As far as food culture, there is a kinship as well. Both cities have a very powerful, historical food tradition (tex-mex & barbecue in Austin, hot chicken & southern meat-and-three in Nashville), and yet with their growth has come a burgeoning food scene that often is completely outside the tradition.

So where will they go?

To me, coffee is always a marker. If a city has a vibrant coffee culture—independent shops, high quality local roasting—that is always a good sign. Nashville certainly has that. Regional chain Revelator Coffee is great, but my favorites were Barista Parlor (most stunning setting I can recall) and Crema (perched high above the river with the whole city to stare at). Great coffee at all, friendly people, and a clear devotion to the craft.

Next, the top end of the dining scene (yes, in price, but also in commitment to ingredients and skill) can say a lot. Is it all steakhouses? Is it “high-end” barbecue (why people try that I will never understand)? Is it national chains planting flags to tell a city what they should like? All those things are bad indicators.

I confess I was disappointed that a number of people recommended some steak and chop houses when I asked where to go to eat, but coming from DC where I sometimes think we invented the concept, or at least are responsible for keeping it alive, it isn’t really fair for me to judge too harshly.

That aside, what I found were some extraordinary concepts that would sit right at home in DC or anywhere. My favorite meal was easily Rolf & Daughters. Great service, excellent cocktails and wine, and one of the best pasta dishes I can recall. They have the benefit, along with honorable mention City House, of being in Germantown, a very charming neighborhood that I could see living in and being right at home.

The company in town to talk about is definitely Strategic Hospitality. It seemed half my list of recommended places were under their umbrella. They are doing a fantastic job bringing original, fun and unique concepts to Nashville. I love seeing a company working to elevate the dining scene of an entire city.

Since we are about to open a bowling concept, their multi-purpose spot Pinewood Social was a must. We bowled, we drank, we ate and it was all a blast. It was great to see that you can have the most proletariat of pastimes combined with elevated food and drink, and it just works. Again, nothing makes the terror of entrepreneurship easier to take than when you feel you are on the right track. Look for our version, The Eleanor, in NoMa this June, by the way.

From wandering in East Nashville to hanging out down in the Gulch, from Vanderbilt to Germantown, there were many more places that I enjoyed. It isn’t a walkable city, really, but it isn’t big, and you can hop from area to area very easily. I think I could easily fill another few days with more research. I am already scouring the tours of my favorite artists to see if I can catch one at the Ryman next time I am down there.