Sunday, February 10, 2008

50 Things to Love about Nashville, Part II

If you're new to the blog, let me catch you up to speed in twenty words or less:

People be complaining bout me complaining bout Nashville, so now I'm listing things that make the city worth living in.

How many was that?

25) The Cookie-Dough Eggrolls at Jackson's
For other restaurants, I listed the place and then told you what my favorite thing there was. Not for Jackson's. Don't get me wrong, it's a decent little place in Hillsboro. I saw Vince Neil there one time. But really, the only standout are the cookie-dough eggrolls, and they're probably my favorite dessert in Nashville. They're insane. On an awesomeness scale of 1 to 100, 1 being "anything having to do with baseball" and 100 being "seeing a crusty, post-op Vince Neil slouch his way into his rockstar clothes at a random Nashville bistro," I'd give them a 92. Right between "Baywatch re-runs" and "Curry and Copeland, Alabama's defensive ends from the '92 national championship team."

24) Recording Studios...Everywhere
This is an offshoot of #30 in Part I. There are plenty of great things about living in an industry hub, with a virtual farm system like Belmont greasing the wheels of every aspect of the music business. For one, there are tons of 1) great recording spaces 2) gifted sound engineers that don't have any steady place to work 3) plenty of studio owners going out of business and giving you studio time for practically nothing. The recording industry in Nashville is really in flux right now, and Music Row specifically is reeling. But, there are still a ton of great engineers with great rooms and great equipment. So, who wins? Random singer/songwriters trying to record on a shoestring budget..aka, THIS GUY.

23) Steeplechase
Nashville's very own May-time horse race. If you remember my feelings about Easter Sunday at Germantown Methodist Church, you can pretty much copy and paste them here. Except, instead of beautiful girls there are cute girls and instead of church bells there are damn dirty horses. On the bright side, you can drink openly at Steeplechase without some snooty pastor saying something like, "Chris, you've got a problem." No, holy-man, I've got a solution.
What were we talking about again?
(Editor's Note: That link takes you back to Part II of my "Things That Make Life Living" from two years ago. If you look around, you'll notice someone else in Part II: Michael Vick. Think about THAT for a little while.)

22) Mojo Grill
Attached to the Broadway Brewhouse, this is a weird and very un-Nashville place. It's smoky, it's dark, you order inexpensive Cajun fast food at a counter, it comes on paper plates, and you eat it at wobbly tables. But if you like Cajun cuisine (and I do), the food's excellent.
Try: The Cajun sampler: jambalaya, red beans & rice, and crawfish etouffee all in one place. So you don't have to really decide anything. The Cajun Burrito is a huge, steaming, sloppy pile of condensed joy as well.

21) College Kids
Nashville might be a music town, or a banking town, but my first introduction to it was as a college town. Vanderbilt, Belmont, Lipscomb, and Fisk are all within the same 4-5 mile radius; Vandy and Belmont are literally next door and practically share the same boundaries (Hillsboro Village is one dividing'll usually see kids in boat shoes dance-fighting with kids in skinny jeans outside Fido). You've also got Tennessee State and MTSU in the surrounding area. I really feel like the city--or really, every city--is better served by a large and diverse college student population. Nashville--especially the heart of midtown--is certainly energized by the huge college crowds. They support the music scene, they fill the restaurants and some places, they practically drive the economy. I swear, when all the students arrive in late August for the first week of school, you can actually feel the renewed energy in the city. One more reason to love fall, I guess...

20) International Market
The stretch of Belmont Ave across from Curb Cafe is practically owned by the same family. Two or three restaurants, a coffee house, a few antique stores, etc. Everyone seems to love PM, the local sushi joint, but I think the crown jewel of the neighborhood is the International Market, where $5 buys you the biggest plate of thai food you've ever conceived of. It's half-grocery, half-cafeteria...just sidle up to the counter and start pointing at stuff. Also, if you used to go to Salathai (before it closed), the co-owner now operates the IM. Sweet talk him a little and he'll make you anything from Salathai's old menu.
Try: Everything. For $5? Please. I'd eat my own foot.

19) Mulligan's
You know those cities where every bar looks the same, and they're all sparsely furnished, and they feel sterile, and the drinks are $26, and the music is some combination of techno and what-my-dishwasher-sounds-like, and all the girls look like Michelle Pfeiffer in Scarface, minus the whole "good-looks" thing? And you're standing there wishing that there was one--just one place--where people actually go to drink and have something approximating a good time. Maybe they have tons of places to sit. Maybe the bartenders and waitresses are actually friendly. Maybe the drinks are inexpensive. Maybe they have a completely awesome Irish folk trio that plays drinking songs and the entire crowd sings along. Maybe they have a dart-room that I didn't even know existed before. Maybe it's an actual pub in a city full of un-glorified clubs with punctuation in their names ("Tayst." I'm serious. Tayst, period. Tayst? No, Tayst. Tayst.) Anyway, if you need somewhere to go on St. Patrick's Day, go here and thank me later.

18) Clothing XChange
This thrift store in Hillsboro Village used to be another vintage clothing store called something like "Vintage Clothing Store." None of the Village spots have creative titles. There's a posh boutique that's actually called "Posh Boutique." Like, "Trendy Bistro." Or "Overloud Club." Anyway, Clothing XChange ideal for a dude like me: I need good clothes for, say, $3 a piece, and there's no shortage of college kids in that area, trading in their stuff. Meanwhile--and this is bizarre--nobody actually goes there. It's a great thrift store, on the corner of Hipster and Arthouse, and yet nobody else is ever in there. Who wins? THIS GUY.

17) Centennial Park
Famous for 1) its replica of The Parthenon, and 2) its appearance in Altman's Nashville, it's a nice swath of green in the middle of the city. There are always a lot of college kids and families strolling around the park, but it's big enough that it never feels cramped. Also, every Wednesday in the summer they show a movie in the park on a giant screen and folks come out early, set up a few blankets, hang out, and watch the movie while the sun goes down.

Short for San Antonio Taco Company, this is Nashville doing Texas doing Mexican. It's right next to Vanderbilt, and I used to eat here all the time. Things I love about SATCO:
1) It's fast. You go up, write down your order, they call up your name immediately.
2) I don't care how snobby you are--especially about TexMex--the queso is formidable.
3) The patio is huge and shaded and one of my favorite places to relax on a warm day.
4) On what seems like the first real spring day every year, go to SATCO and see all kinds of attractive Vanderbilt girls that, for every other day of the year, don't exist. It's truly a phenomenon. One day they are there, tan and be-skirted, drinking on the patio, and then--like Verbal Kent--they're gone.
Try: Chicken fajitas, chips and queso. Or you could just order a tub of queso and dunk your head in it. They call that "the Milam."

15) Non-Country Music
Folks always ask me what it's like being a non-country musician in Nashville. "Ain't that like being a rabbi in the Vatican?" Nyuk-nyuk! The honest answer is that it's not bad, and it's getting better all the time. Whether it's the emergence of actual rock/punk/alt-country/pop bands (The Lonely Hearts, The Daisycutters, American Bang or, of course, Kings of Leon), the thriving "singer/songwriter" scene (Mat Kearney, Gabe Dixon, Jeremy Lister, Landon Pigg, Tyler James, etc.), the surprisingly bustling emo scene (Paramore, Beauty School Dropouts, etc.), the widening circle of talented Americana artists (Moriah Harris, Wes Charlton, etc.), or the promotional teams that are smartly putting all these artists together, consolidating their fanbases, and greating a unified "non-country" fanbase in Nashville (Movement Nashville, Black Flag Militia), it's tough to argue with the presence of Nashville's non-country artists right now. Even if you don't necessarily like some of their music, they're currently impossible to avoid. So ubiquitous, in fact, that (hey, weird!) even major labels are finally noticing. That's something, at least.

14) Park Cafe
Enough with your bargain-bin restaurant picks, Chris! Where can I get a real meal? Well, 1) bugger off, queenie, and 2) here y'are. Nashville has some terrific restaurants at every price-range, and Park Cafe is one of my favorites of the "your parents better take you here" category. The restaurant itself is actually big, but it feels much smaller--it's divided up into smaller rooms, each housing just a handful of tables. It's intimate, it's nice but not pretentious, and the food really is excellent.
Try: The green chili mac-n-cheese. The pork chop is my favorite entree, but holy God, the green chili mac-n-cheese. It's a 95 on the awesome scale. Right below "swimming in a pool filled with gold coins, like Scrooge McDuck."

13) Gruhn Guitars
Nashville's premier guitar store, which is saying something. Go, if nothing else, just to walk around and stare at the price tags. God only knows where some of these instruments have been, and who has played them. But for all its prestige, the staff is incredibly laid-back and helpful (guitar-store guys are notoriously stuffy/lame) and the prices on "normal" items (new strings, etc.) are among the lowest in the city.

12) 3 Crow Bar's Trivia Night
3 Crow is at the heart of East Nashville's 5 Points district, which means it's the epicenter of all things "kool." Mixed clientele aside, the bar really is a good place to watch NFL games on Sunday, or see an infrequent concert. Every Thursday, though, they host a trivia night that's the best in the city. The setup/rules are standard, and identical to every other place in town. The difference is the competition. Remember that kid in high school who was a slacker, C- student, but got a 1600 on the SAT? Know what happened to him? He moved to East Nashville and started dominating trivia, that's what. Come if you want, but you'd better have smart friends if you want to stay competitive. Or, a Blackberry and a friend at home in front of a computer.
(Editor's note: We don't condone or endorse cheating. At least not for trivia night at a bar.)

11) El Palenque
Nashville's lousy with cheap Mexican restaurants. Which I love, because Mexican restaurants are ideal for hungry musician-types. Free chips and salsa (hello, dinner) and inexpensive beverages, so you feel like you ordered something and gave them some business. My favorite is El Palenque, a well-hidden spot in Green Hills. All the Lipscomb kids go to La Paz (literally one block away), but that's because they don't know any better. Palenque's chips and salsa are always fresh and delicious (I'm the expert here, not you), there's ample seating (even if it's crowded you don't have to wait), and The Thing I Get is my favorite Mexican dish I've had anywhere.
Try: The mole enchiladas (3 in all, I get two chicken, one beef). The best $8.50 you can spend in Nashville.

10) The Basement
I mentioned The Basement in Part I, explaining that the music venue is actually the basement of Grimey's Record Store. The venue has become host to a veritable who's who of nascent artists in Nashville, and it's Step One for getting some indie-cred in the local scene. The entire venue feels small because of the low ceilings and the divided floor-space, and the "stage" is really just a glorified stair right in front of the crowd. I don't know that Nashville has a more intimate room...yet somehow the atmosphere still supports sweaty rock shows just as much as stripped-down acoustic sets. It's a great place to go on Tuesdays, especially Tuesdays in mid-February, because certain singer/songwriters play there, and there's no cover, and the room's rockin, and what the heck else are you doing on a Tuesday for crying out loud...

9) Wing Basket
On aforementioned Awesomeness Scale, #99 is "Hugh Hefner's Life" and #98 is "DBo's Wings" in Memphis. So, yeah, I love hot wings. I've scoured Nashville for anything, something, everything worth noting in the world of wings. Goose Wing Basket. It's near Vandy, it's on Elliston, it's reasonably priced, and it's very, very solid. Not outstanding, but very solid. And in this wing-starved city that's good enough for a Top-10 mention. They have a handful of different wing-flavors, and they're actually all good (usually the "variation" wings at places are afterthoughts on the menu and negligible). Service is speedy, too--call in about 15 minutes ahead of time and they'll be ready by the time you get there.
Try: Classic Hot, and Kentucky Bourbon.

8) Yazoo Brewing Company
Nashville's microbrewery, and they brew it, and they brew it well. Yazoo (named after the hometown of its owners, Yazoo, Mississippi) is served practically everywhere in Nashville, although not all of its brews are. The pale ale seems to be everyone's favorite, the porter is excellent, the hefeweizen is good, the dos perros and stout are solid, the ESB is great (though hardest to find).
Try: The ESB, their version of a English-style amber. Similar to Newcastle, but much better.

7) Fido
You've heard me talk about it before, and plenty in these posts--Fido is the flagship establishment of Nashville's Hillsboro Village, the sister coffehouse to Belmont favorite Bongo Java, and practically the lunchroom for the city's music industry, midtown's businessfolks, and every other college kid in the area. It's huge, it's comfortable, it's got solid, inexpensive coffee, and it's centrally located to, well, everything. Fido's on my list not necessarily because of what it tries to be (it's teeming with the kids I ranted about here), but because of familiarity and convenience. Also for nostalgia. I used to live practically next door, went constantly to study, work, meet a friend, or meet for work, and still do at least a few days a week. For all its hipster nonsense, it's got plenty of good memories for THIS GUY, and the hottest coffee on the planet. That's good enough for me.
Try: The dark roast, and the "Great Pumpkin Skinny Chip" muffin. Sounds ridiculous? Sure. Pumpkin muffin with chocolate chips, and the whole thing is as big as John Madden's head. Best muffin in town.

6) Nick and Rudy's
You'll notice it because it's trying not to be noticed. Nick and Rudy's doesn't have a huge sign out front, it doesn't have any awnings or parking lot announcing its presence, it doesn't even (really) have windows. That's because it's an old-school, Mafioso-style steak joint that knows how good it is. The restaurant itself is gorgeous, the piano's always twinkling, the menu is outstanding, the service is great, and I've never had a bad meal there. And while the menu is expensive, the daily lunch special is around $10 and is frequently great. My favorite lunch there was--surprisingly--their catfish plate.
Try: The lobster bisque and the veal scalloppine.

5) The Ryman
Nashville's best music venue, hands-down. If not for the Grand Ole Opry, it would easily be Nashville's most historic concert hall. Either way, it's a truly unique concert experience. Going to a concert here is like seeing the symphony, but for pop music. The crowd is (typically) silent, so much so that between-song banter is easily heard without mics, and many artists choose to play some songs without mics or PA (this also speaks to the incredible acoustics of the room). It's truly an experience to go to the Ryman for the first time, see everyone pack themselves into their seat, and feel that weird, silent, nervous energy before the artist takes the stage. Its atmosphere is incredibly intimate, but its size makes the venue's experience grander, more naturally powerful than other rooms. The Ryman is such a great place to see a show, in fact, that I very nearly ALMOST enjoyed a Nickel Creek show there.
(Sidenote: As I mentioned here, one of my favorite concerts of all-time was My Morning Jacket in the Ryman over a year ago. They came out and made it a rock concert, with kids streaming down the aisle and dancing closer to the stage. The squadron of stuff-shirt ushers didn't know what to do.

4) Pancake Pantry
First, two caveats:
1) I'm not a breakfast person. I don't really like the food, and I'm rarely hungry in the mornings.
2) On peak hours and weekends, the Pantry has a line out the door and down the street. DO NOT wait in this line to eat at the Pancake Pantry.
The Pantry is such a Nashville landmark, and its breakfast so highly touted, and its location so central to the colleges and businesses of midtown, that everyone always feel like they HAVE to go. If you're a tourist, you have to go. If you have friends in from out of town, you have to go. And then you end up going when everyone else does (Saturday and Sunday morning) and you wait 90 minutes for a 30 minute meal and, I'll be honest, it just isn't THAT good. But...if you go during the week, or very early in the morning, or mid-afternoon, you can walk right in and take your time. And then you'll see what the fuss is about. The Pantry really does breakfast well, and I don't even particularly like pancakes. The service is friendly and quick (if it's not crowded) and the food is excellent. Their cinnamon-based syrup is a solid 89 on the Awesomeness Scale.
Try: The sausage and cheese omelet. Comes with three silver-dollar pancakes. And, for the love of God, get some hash-browns, too.

3) Climate
Regardless of where you're from, Nashville's climate is hard to criticize. It's south enough that the summers are hot and the winters are reasonable. Its north enough (and high enough) that spring and fall are legitimate, extended seasons here. November and December are about as cold as you want them to be (to get into the holiday spirit) but the winter's never as bad as you think it'll be, and it starts warming up (on and off) by March. No constant threat of inclement weather, no natural disaster opportunities, no snow buildup obstructing traffic. We don't really even get that much rain. I know I compare Nashville to other cities a lot (and usually it's not complimentary), but I can say for certain that there's at least one thing Nashville's got on Memphis, and it's weather.
(Editor's Note: Memphis's climate is good, but it's so low-lying that it's hotter and much more humid in the fall and spring than Nashville. So, it really has two glorified seasons instead of four.)

2) Chappy's
Chappy is a gentleman from Louisiana and South Mississippi whose restaurant was destroyed in Katrina. He packed up and moved the business to Nashville and I've written letters to Jesus thanking him for his role in that decision. They read, "Dear Jesus, thank you for giving Chappy the idea to set up a restaurant near me and my stomach. People from Louisiana are awesome. They are insane and hilarious and they could cook my shoe and make me pay $40 to eat it. I don't know if you and Chappy are tight, per se, but I believe you sent him to Nashville specifically to feed me, and for that I am grateful." Everything about this place is spot-on: the wait-staff is great, the prices are reasonable, and the food is outstanding (if you have any affection for creole cuisine at all). By the bar, a zydeco band plays most weekend nights to give the restaurant some tempo, but the noise is not overwhelming. Chappy himself usually greets the tables wearing pants that I can only describe as "jammers." He could wear a barrel with straps as far as I'm concerned as long as he has a kitchen and hands that work. Every the tiniest detail of this place is unique and tasty, down to alligator-based butter you can choose for your bread. Yes, you read that right. You can spread alligator onto your bread because someone (and my money's on Chappy) wrestled an alligator, defeated it, and celebrated that triumph by making the gator into a delicious, creamy butter. I could write a lot about this place. Chappy's is awesome. Trust it.
Try: Aforementioned GatorButter, the fried green tomatoes (our waiter's mama slapped him when he told her that Chappy's were better), Chappy's salad (with his creole vinagrette), and the Veal Alexander. And the bread pudding. And a triple bypass.

1) 360 Degree Skyline
Coming from Memphis, there's really only a few places you can see the full skyline. In some ways, that makes it more dramatic. But Nashville's skyline is visible from practically everywhere in the city. For one, the city's 440 loop circles downtown and pretty much always takes you by the skyline. For another, the city's lowest point is its center, with the surrounding areas in higher elevation. So you're always perched slightly above the ground floor, ready to see the skyline. Especially in winter--when all the foliage is gone--it's shocking to me how far away I can be and still see the skyline, with its new condo developments, bank buildings, and BellSouth's trademark Batman silhouette. Nashville's skyline is pretty, and flawed, and a fitting microcosm for the city itself--impressive compared to smaller, more remote places, but kind of pathetic compared to the real megacities. It's groping and it's growing and it's practically screaming, "look at me!" And if that's not good enough, it's the title of a Dylan record. There's something about the fact that no matter where you are in town, or in life, or how your day's going, or what road you're on, or what time of day it is, or what you're coming home to, or what you're driving away from, you can pretty much always look over and see those sad, stretching cloudscrapers, see the lights go off in them, and you know just where you are. For better or worse.

Next time: Nine Things to Love About Tulsa!

And the first eight don't count,

P.S. IMPORTANT! As you know, I've posted a new demo on Myspace every Monday. Four weeks later, and you have "Tin Angel," "Nightshift Town," "Don't Give Up On Me Now," and "Shine." This week's new demo is called "Edge of the World," and it's up now. This is the last demo I'll be posting from the studio--at least for a while. So hop over to Myspace and download it for FREE! Also, you can buy the others from the Snocap store right there on the page. Enjoy!

1 comment:

ross k. said...

Hey, I don't think Valentine's Day is for lovers, but this is...a surprisingly good poem new at Slate:


by Frank Bidart


How those now dead used the word love bewildered
and disgusted the boy who resolved he

would not reassure the world he felt
love until he understood love

Resolve that too soon crumbled when he found
within his chest

something intolerable for which the word
because no other word was right

must be love
must be love

Love craved and despised and necessary
the Great American Songbook said explained our fate

my bereft grandmother bereft
father bereft mother their wild regret

How those now dead used love to explain
wild regret

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