nashville road trip: sweet, spice, and everything nice

When Ed and I decided to take a road trip to Nashville, Tennessee, I wasn’t planning on blogging about it. I’d hoped the food would be good, but it would be my first visit, we’d only be there for a couple of days, and I didn’t think I’d have enough to say. What I didn’t expect was to love every single spot we tried. The food was at times comforting, at times exciting, and all around let’s-do-it-again tasty. Even though I’m far from a Nashville expert, I’m still so high on fried chicken and biscuits that I absolutely must share with you my Music City dining highlights.

biscuit + donut = bonut

biscuit + donut = bonut

We didn’t plan this trip to Nashville with a goal to explore the city’s classics, we just wanted to try the restaurants that sounded the best to us right now. That means we didn’t make it to Arnold’s, Prince’s, the Loveless Cafe, or the Capital Grille, though I know those are Nashville favorites (and I hope to sample them on follow-up trips). The list below reflects a lot of new Nashville, which served as a nice counterpoint to the classic honky tonks, country music history, and old southern charm we encountered.

hattie b's hot chicken

hattie b’s hot chicken

Hattie B’s Hot Chicken: One perk of traveling to Nashville during the week in mid-February was that the crowds were minimal, so we had no trouble making reservations or getting seats as walk-ins. Not so at Hattie B’s. This place had a line out the door on a rainy Monday night (and every other time we walked by). The dark meat plate was definitely worth the wait, though. The thickly spiced, extra crunchy skin was a perfect foil for the flavorful, juicy meat. The southern greens taught me everything I ever wondered about why people love long-cooked collards: meaty without being overly salty and tender without being dull and mushy. We also knocked back two portions of pimiento macaroni and cheese and somehow, thankfully, made room for the banana-iest banana pudding ever scooped into a styrofoam cup.

biscuit love: east nasty in the front, the princess in the back

biscuit love: east nasty in the front, the princess in the back

Biscuit Love: The next morning, famished after a night of honky tonkin’, we made our way to more fried chicken. This meal was our favorite of the trip and a must visit when we go back. Bon Appétit named Biscuit Love’s “East Nasty” the best sandwich of 2015 and I totally get it: a fried boneless chicken thigh topped with a peppery sausage gravy and aged cheddar piled on a biscuit that is impossible to stop eating. It’s hard to say it’s better than the Princess, though, which is a biscuit topped with Nashville hot chicken, honey, mustard, and pickles. The twangy sweet heat on that Princess was crazy addictive and was Ed’s favorite dish of the trip. But for me, a devoted fried dough obsessive, the most revelatory taste at Biscuit Love was the plate of Bonuts: hot rounds of freshly fried biscuit dough coated in crunchy sugar, filled with lemon mascarpone cream served on berry compote. They were light but also wonderfully heavy, moist even without the cream, chewy-tender, and oh my God how have I been on this planet almost 35 years and never had fried biscuit dough? Now I can say that I’ve really lived.

Patterson House: This charming bar has everything you could want in a speakeasy: cozy booths, low lights, shiny vintage decor, and a long list of thoughtfully crafted cocktails. The service was also very friendly, which felt especially southern and welcoming. Our favorite drink of the evening was the Best Stuff on Earth, a dead ringer for Snapple Peach Iced Tea, but better (because, gin).

rolf and daughters: casonsei with swiss chard, ricotta, walnuts, aged balsamic

rolf and daughters: casonsei with swiss chard, ricotta, walnuts, aged balsamic

Rolf and Daughters: There has been a lot of buzz around Rolf and Daughters for a couple of years and we were eager to have the experience. The dining room was bustling, the service was excellent, and the food lived up to the hype. The menu is a fresh southern take on Italian with stellar housemade pastas. We couldn’t believe how much we liked the pasta stuffed with swiss chard, ricotta, and walnuts. The garganelli verde with pork was hearty, bright, and really hard to share. We also went bonkers for their brassicas: the broccoli and kale small plate paired perfectly with the beef cheek and sausage brussels sprouts panzanella. Everything tasted like what I aspire to get my dishes to taste like: simple ingredients with big, bold, bright freshness. I left full of great food and great ideas.

martin's bbq joint: redneck taco and baked beans

martin’s bbq joint: redneck taco and baked beans

Martin’s BBQ Joint: I barely looked at the menu at Martin’s; when I saw the Redneck Taco, I stepped right up to order. It’s a cornbread hoe-cake topped with pulled pork (or other BBQ meat), slaw, and sauce. What more could a gal want? We’d been tipped off by our Uber driver that this house specialty was a can’t miss. The pile of southernness really worked for me, it had sweetness from the hoe-cake, juicy, smoky pork, hot BBQ sauce, and cooling slaw. The baked beans were out of this world, too: meaty, rich, and spicy.

city house: ham belly pizza

city house: belly ham pizza

City House: In planning our trip, Ed and I came across many articles pointing to City House as one of the best restaurants in the city. It’s almost 10 years old, but the flavors and energy of the open kitchen seem as vibrant as a brand new spot. The dish that gets a lot of well-deserved attention is the pizza with belly ham, mozzarella, grana padano, oregano, and chiles with an optional fried egg. It’s a whole pizza where every nibble is the perfect breakfast bite: little bit of egg, a mix of melty cheeses, familiar herbs, a touch of heat, all on the most perfect thin (but not floppy) crust. Our sole regret was that we only ordered one. Another standout item was the steak, which was aged with a soy rub and topped with a punchy, sharp pile of greens, rice, and cheese. The finale was a grand Tennessee Waltz Cake: six layers of coffee-basted cake between concentrated cream soda buttercream topped with chocolate, nuts, and toffee, served with caramel and whipped cream and probably a bunch of other delicious sweet things I missed because I was so enraptured.

five daughters bakery 100 layer donuts: chocolate sea salt, maple, vanilla cream

five daughters bakery 100 layer donuts: milk chocolate sea salt, maple glaze, vanilla cream

Five Daughters Bakery: I couldn’t leave Nashville without sampling one of its most exciting bakeries, especially because this bakery’s specialty is 100 layer donuts. The donuts are made from croissant dough, rolled in sugar, filled with cream, and topped with glaze. They’re Nashville’s take on a cronut and apparently the lines for these treats can snake out the door into the neighborhood. Luckily for us, Five Daughters was slow on Thursday morning, but I would’ve waited. I’d wait right now and I was just there two days ago. These treats are beyond anything I’ve had before: a stack of light layers, buttery, salty-sweet, creamy, and crunchy. If they weren’t so delicate and perishable, I would’ve stuffed our trunk with pink boxes. Seriously. Best. Ever. (I still love Portland’s Blue Star, but these are a different animal.)

In conclusion, wow. What a delicious city, y’all.

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