Look for the signs: a fixed-gear bicycle shop, a coffee roaster run by fellows with scraggly beards, a bar with handmade bitters, food trucks and, perhaps, a paleta shop run by young women with advanced degrees.
East Nashville, a down-on-its-luck side of town being brought to life one great plate of food at a time, is the indicator species for this city, which has been climbing the charts as a new food star.
Like Atlanta and Charleston, S.C., before it, Nashville is enjoying the attention of a nation that sure likes the South these days. But even if you set all the Southern infatuation aside, Nashville is one of several midsize cities whose food sensibilities (and hipster quotient) are growing as people leave the dog-eat-dog cities on the coasts in search of more affordable, pleasant places to live and eat.
Nashville has long embraced its history as well as the newcomer looking to make a mark. And whether in music or in food, the new is informed by the old. So to really understand what’s new on the plate here, one has to first seek out Nashville’s two totem foods: a meat-and-three lunch and an order of hot chicken.
Both are a distillation of Tennessee’s agrarian roots and Nashville’s working class. The former expresses itself in the fried chicken livers, well-seasoned roast beef and braised turnip greens at Arnold’s Country Kitchen, part of the cafeteria-style concept of a protein and three sides.
The latter comes in the form of hot chicken, a dish unique to Nashville, made in cast-iron pans in the back of cinder-block buildings and strip-mall storefronts where cooks fry big pieces of cayenne-coated chicken, sometimes infusing even the oil itself with pepper. You eat the dish with white bread and pickle slices. It is ecstasy and torture, a culinary expression of the pleasure-pain principle.
These are decidedly low-budget pursuits. There has always been the other end of the Nashville dining spectrum, the one the working class and aspiring musicians could rarely afford but music producers and politicians could. Its modern-day manifestation is a collection of bistros and white-tablecloth places that stars like Sheryl Crow and Nicole Kidman frequent without the press of paparazzi and fans.
Somewhere between the two lies a different Nashville food scene, where the ethos of community, culinary adventure and democratized kitchen culture are uniting to define a new kind of Southern cooking that doesn’t forgo its roots, but allows chefs to transcend them. As one chef told me, “You don’t have to cook pork if you don’t want to.”
The restaurants, butchers and produce purveyors in the tight, tattooed East Nashville neighborhood are one place to find it. On blocks where a year or two ago you might have been mugged, you can now buy bars of locally made Olive & Sinclair chocolate from Scott Witherow, a Tennessee native who collected résumé points from Nobu and the Fat Duck. He grinds his own cacao and uses brown sugar to give his chocolate a Southern character.
The surprises in East Nashville continue at Mas Tacos Por Favor, which Teresa Mason started in 2008 by selling well-rendered examples of Mexican street food from a 1970s Winnebago. The storefront is more recent, and decorated as if Ms. Mason had called her friends and asked them to scour their attics for tables and chairs. The fried tilapia tacos and carnitas are a draw, certainly, but the tortilla soup is perhaps best in show.
All over the Nashville hipster food kingdom, mention that broth — clear and bright with lime and unimaginably chickeny — and people close their eyes and nod.
Walk across the street and you’ll find a party at the Pharmacy Burger Parlor and Beer Garden, which opened in December. On a busy day, hundreds of hamburgers are ground from Tennessee beef and served on soft potato rolls. The backyard is a sea of picnic tables holding local beers and house-made ginger ale, filled sometimes until closing at 3 a.m.
People like Scott and Sara Gibson eat there regularly. They’re a couple in their 20s, attracted to the pretty and plentiful old housing stock in East Nashville. He sells toner to the government. They’re far from hipsters. But they go to the local butcher because the meat tastes better, and they like eating close to home.
That makes them grateful for the food and music revolution in their neighborhood, led in no small part by Jack White, formerly of the White Stripes. He records in one of the dozens of studios in the neighborhood. “He’s kind of a god around here,” Mr. Scott said. “Where he goes, the hipsters follow.”
Like all good food revolutions, it didn’t just happen overnight. Margot McCormack is the East Nashville urban pioneer, opening Margot Café a decade ago in a 1930s building that used to house a service station.
It’s a lot like eating at a Chez Panisse knockoff because that’s the kind of food she likes herself: a seasonal mix of California and French provincial. But it’s also a menu of necessity. When she started, she didn’t have a walk-in cooler and needed to use whatever came in the back door that day.
Things got so good that five years ago, Ms. McCormack opened a second spot around the corner, Marché Artisan Foods. It’s a loud place packed with people who like to go to the Nashville Rollergirls roller derby and eat peach macarons with salted caramel.
She is also on the board of the Nashville Farmers’ Market, which took a hard hit during the floods of 2010. The market isn’t an artisanal charmer. It mixes a little bit of flea market with rows of squash and tomatoes and a food court that can seem kind of dead on some days. But there is a real dedication to the place and some new energy, like the wood-fired pizzas and handmade sodas at Bella Nashville pizza.
“I don’t care about winning a James Beard award or being part of the Nashville food renaissance or whatever people are calling it,” Ms. McCormack said. “Like a lot of us here, we just feel a certain sense of responsibility.”
And as the current food politics demand, that includes a responsibility to the people who grow the food. In fact, when a natural disaster hits (and floods and tornadoes do with some regularity), the first response is often, “How can we help the farmers?”
The hipster playbook, with its insistence on local food, is evident in other neighborhoods. Before East Nashville caught the fever, there was a 10-block stretch called 12South. If you go there, order an avocado paleta dipped in that local chocolate at Las Paletas Gourmet Popsicles, owned by the sisters Irma Paz-Bernstein and Norma Paz-Curtis.
In Germantown, a historic district a short drive from East Nashville, Tandy Wilson runs City House. In the way that Nashville is like Austin’s cousin but raised by a stricter father, City House is a lot like Roberta’s in Brooklyn but with smoother edges.
When chefs aren’t working and musicians have some money to spend, they come to this former sculptor’s studio tucked into a residential side street for pizza topped with house-made belly ham, oregano and chiles, and trout with peanuts, raisins and parsley.
Supper on Sunday is a particularly fruitful time to eat there. That’s when Mr. Wilson, who describes himself as “an old redneck from Tennessee” but who cooks as if he was raised in Italy, lets loose in the kitchen and puts out mackerel spiedino and pizzas tricked out with boiled peanut pesto, yellow squash and bacon.
He’ll even sell you a bowl of popcorn seasoned to taste just like hot chicken.
At the highest end of the Nashville food renaissance sits The Catbird Seat, a small, precise restaurant that has reeled in national food critics and high-rolling diners like trout since it opened in October. You can barely crack a food magazine without reading about it.
The concept will be familiar to those with enough money to spend exploring the frontiers of American fine dining. You eat at a bar surrounding a small open kitchen while the chefs Erik Anderson and Josh Habiger serve you dish after dish. Their working style is more like the Giambi brothers’, but their dishes are influenced by the French Laundry, Noma and Alinea.
Beef tartare gets depth from horseradish, juniper and burned bread crumbs. Sous-vide eggs and grilled pork belly meet over rhubarb mustard. Yogurt is infused with sweet hay, and bourbon is turned into little pearls that sit atop pineapple gelée.
The confident sommelier Jane Lopes more than keeps up, mixing a reserve brut with quince vinegar and honey or dry riesling with sake, maple syrup and lime.
The chefs have a little fun, too. In a nod to the city’s hot chicken, they crisp squares of chicken skin, coat them with sorghum and Korean red pepper and then add dots of puréed white bread and a dusting of dill powder.
It’s a sophisticated approach to cooking that might seem unexpected from the city that gave America “Hee Haw.”
“Nashville is a different kind of place,” said Benjamin Goldberg, who owns The Catbird Seat with his brother Max. “It’s not what you might expect. One of the main differences is that people here want you to succeed, no matter what kind of food you are doing.”
Where the Food Is
BOLTON’S SPICY CHICKEN AND FISH
624 Main Street, (615) 254-8015.
THE CAT BIRD SEAT
1711 Division Street, thecatbirdseatrestaurant.com
1222 Fourth Avenue North, (615) 736-5838, cityhousenashville.com.
LAS PALETAS GOURMET POPSICLES
2905 12th Avenue South, (615) 386-2101.
1017 Woodland Street, (615) 227-4668, margotcafe.com
MAS TACOS POR FAVOR
732 McFerrin Avenue, (615) 543-6271 myspace.,com/mastacos
NASHVILLE FARMERS’ MARKET
900 Rosa Parks Boulevard, (615) 880-2001,nashvillefarmersmarket.org
, @nashfarmmarket on Twitter
THE PHARMACY BURGER PARLOR AND BEER GARDEN
731 McFerrin Avenue, (615) 712-9517, thepharmacynashville.com
, @ThePharmacy1 on Twitter.