What’s behind Nashville’s transformation from foodie desert to foodie destination?

As recently as 2006, Nashville’s independent restaurants were in a battle for survival. Big upscale chains were moving into the city, and the indies fought back, by banding together and supersizing their bulk-buying and advertising muscle.

Then last year, GQ dubbed Nashville “Nowville.” The national press was suddenly hailing the city as a foodie destination, and Nashville chefs as rock stars. What changed? Kim Green went on a citywide eating tour and has this report on the city’s thriving food scene.

Paquette runs the show at EtchA Downtown Food Desert

Deb Paquette saw it happen. She’s presided over Nashville kitchens for so long, even veteran chefs call her “Mama.”

“As long as they don’t call me “Grandmama,” I’m good with it,” she laughs.

When Paquette came to Nashville in 1982 to work a banquet chef in the downtown Hyatt, “foodie” was a newly-coined term. There was no Top Chef, just Julia Child and Jacque Pepin. And the city’s culinary choices were grim: chains, chains, chains, and a few underappreciated gems. “Jose’s, it was an incredible Spanish restaurant,” Paquette recalls. “But nobody was ready for a Spanish restaurant! Oh my god, it was delicious! And no one would support it.”

In thirty-years of running upscale kitchens from Bound’ry and Cakewalk to her own Zola’s restaurant, Paquette often wondered if indie restaurants like hers would survive. When Zola’s closed, Paquette was ready to leave the Nashville food biz and head to the Caribbean. But she stayed.

Paquette never thought she’d end up back downtown. But what was once a seedy ghost town now bustles with life. She opened a sleek new restaurant called Etch on the ground floor of a 20-story condo, in eyeshot of a symphony hall and a soon-to-be mega convention center. “I’m so glad that I’m here able to see the growth that I have been here waiting for since 1982,” says Paquette.

Neighborhoods and Restaurants: Chicken and Egg

Food writer Kay West has been waiting since 1993, when she bought an old bungalow near 12th Avenue South. She wanted front porches and sidewalks. Twelve South offered plenty of street life: a car wash where her boyfriend got mugged and a fish-and-chips place that served numbers, not fries. But there were no actual restaurants to walk to.

Now there are eight in a six-block stretch. Big new houses, apartments, and shops are springing up. And you wonder, which came first the chicken or the egg?” says West. “And I think the chicken and the egg teamed up at about the same time and made a nice omelet.”

Pioneering restaurants and homeowners drive change in tandem, says city planning director Richard Bernhardt. He also uses the term “Gen Y” a lot. He says that generation, born in the 80s and 90s, wants walkable neighborhoods instead of big yards and long commutes. And they want eating to be an adventure.

“I don’t think it’s at all a coincidence that you’re seeing restaurants that cater to the demands of that generation kind of come of age with the generation,” says Bernhardt. “And I don’t think it’s a surprise to see urban neighborhoods revitalized. All that comes out of really the demands of that generation.”

Generation Y

Josh Habiger is Gen Y. The 33-year-old Minnesotan has cooked on Alaskan fishing boats and in world-class restaurants in London and Chicago. He grew up thinking Nashville was a country town. But once he got here, he liked the creative energy. “There’s so many young people doing really cool things,” he says. “Whether it’s a handmade tie, or blue jeans or a hat. I don’t know, those are the things that I love about Nashville.”

Habiger took a gamble that Nashville would embrace his bold idea: a fine dining restaurant for a no-frills city, a high-art tasting menu without the white-tablecloth fuss. He walks around his U-shaped bar, introducing a young couple to their second course—three colorful bites, like paint daubs on a white palette. “The little cracker there on the end is a play on Nashville hot chicken,” he says, leaning an elbow on the bar.

It’s not that Gen Yers are the only people who patronize The Catbird Seat and other independents. It’s that before, eating indie was maybe considered a little edgy. The market for places like these was much smaller. Now, twenty- and thirty-somethings are making creative cuisine mainstream—as both eaters and entrepreneurs. And they’re transforming the city in the process.

Evolution of the Palate

“It’s a traditional, I think it’s more of a holiday soup,” says Teresa Mason, cheerfully explaining posole—a Mexican stew—at her tiny cinderblock restaurant. She grew up in the outskirts of Nashville, where the only restaurants were mom-and-pop diners and fancy eating was Sunday dinner at Shoney’s.

She sharpened her palate working in New York eateries and fell in love with street food while wandering Latin America. “Man! Just daydreaming, like, ‘I wish I could do that,'” she recalls. “One day…I thought, ‘Duh! Just do it then.'”

Mason pioneered the Nashville street food craze with her Más Tacos Por Favor food truck. Two years later, she opened a brick-and-mortar Más Tacos in a transitioning East Nashville neighborhood. Now there’s a modern rowhouse and three new restaurants all within a block. And they’re busy. “For a couple of hours every day, definitely, there’s a line out the door,” she smiles. “It’s exciting! It’s unbelievable to me. It’s the only thing I’ve ever done in my life where I’m like, ‘Yes! Success!'”

Like Habiger, Mason has helped redefine Nashville’s tastes and draw the national spotlight southward. But when the bright light fades, will all of these new restaurants survive? Probably not. But the word “foodie” is here to stay.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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