The vibrant, eccentric, doggedly authentic capital of Tennessee is in the midst of a massive makeover; thankfully, the city’s many old-time charms remain very much intact
Author Joe Keohane Photography David Eustace
DAY THREE | Virtually You’ve sustained some damage, and you’ve got local guy Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” running through your head. (Well, I woke up Sunday morning / With no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt / And the beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad / So I had one more for dessert.) Breakfast beer is inadvisable, but you’re in need of some coffee. And maybe some grease. You hail a cab and head for East Nashville, the heart of the city’s new cultural resurgence.
Barista Parlor doesn’t reveal itself readily. It’s hidden behind a fence, but once you locate it, you find a large, open-faced building with rough-hewn wooden tables supported by metal cables over sleek concrete floors. You order a terrific bourbon barrel vanilla latte—the vanilla of which was aged in a former bourbon barrel, resulting in an initial sweetness yielding to wood and bourbon flavors—and a biscuit with apple butter and spicy sausage from the butcher shop next door.
Next, you walk over to the leafy, devotedly quirky Five Points district, where you happen upon a cluster of indie shops called the Idea Hatchery. In a classic Nashville moment, you meet Gavin O’Neill, owner of a small but well-curated vintage store called Hello Boys, and learn that his boyfriend’s great-great-grandfather was the first person killed in the Hatfield-McCoy feud. His business partner is the daughter of country legend David Allan Coe. The woman who owns the shop next door is married to alt-country singer Todd Snider.
A few blocks away, on Fatherland Street, is another cluster of hip boutiques. One, 1907 Apparel, echoing the cultural grandiosity that built the fake Parthenon, sells T-shirts reading: “LONDON PARIS ROME NASHVILLE.” Other outlets carry art, furniture, tea. A cashier in a shop selling vintage goods explains that he moved here to Nashville with his band, but the lead singer got a big head, signed a record deal and fired the rest of the guys.
Lunch is nearby at Mas Tacos Por Favor, which is housed in a blue 1974 Winnebago parked at a farmer’s market in front of East Nashville High (notable alum: Oprah). You grab a quinoa sweet potato taco, followed by a breakfast taco with eggs and chorizo, chased with a watermelon agua fresca. The guy hosting the farmer’s market comes over to chat. Not surprisingly, he’s a songwriter waiting for a break.
You call a cab and wait, lazing out on the grass, listening to a couple of folk singers do their thing. You’re off to another neighborhood undergoing a resurgence, down 12th Avenue South. Hewing to the Mexican theme, you get a creamy coconut popsicle at Las Paletas, an establishment so popular that it seems everyone on the block is nursing one. You stroll around 12th and arrive at Katy K Designs, an endlessly intriguing vintage Western-wear stalwart filled with boots, patterned dresses and wildly embroidered shirts. Dolly Parton used to live two doors down. Owner Katy Kattelman did outfits for her. Not long ago, Kattelman says matter-of-factly, “Jack White brought Pee-Wee in here.”
Dinner, however, brooks no honky-tonk frivolity. It’s at the Catbird Seat, a very high-end, very avant garde restaurant. You enter through a basement door, then take an elevator up and step into a white, windowless room with a U-shaped counter bracketing the chefs. You’re in for a 10-course tasting menu. It’s an intense experience: oysters with buttermilk snow; salmon tartare with curried crackers; potato soup with sturgeon caviar, horseradish cream and garlic flowers; an Oreo made of Parmesan and porcini cream; swordfish with reduced charcuterie and truffle sauce; a dehydrated meringue with eucalyptus; cider made with Trappist yeast finished with maple syrup; and lots of wine. Followed by more wine.
By the end you’re exhausted. You shuffle outside and, miraculously, there’s an empty cab coming up the street. In you go. “Where to?” Your body wants you to say “bed,” but you remember a guy you met earlier, who told you there was a great bluegrass show tonight at the Station Inn. An all-star band. A rare treat. The cabbie awaits your answer. You think a moment.
“Station Inn, please.”
Boston-born JOE KEOHANE, an editor at Esquire, is thinking about acquiring a pair of cowboy boots, possibly embroidered.