Thanks to the reputation of his Charleston, SC restaurant Husk, Chef Sean Brock is known as of the country’s master of Southern cooking. His motto? ” If it ain’t Southern, it ain’t walkin’ in the door.” When the James Beard Award-winning Brock returned to Nashville in 2013 (he had lived and worked here at the Hermitage Hotel from 2003 – 2006) to open Husk Nashville, it signalled to the rest of the country that Music City’s food scene was at the top of the charts.
Brock now splits his time between the Southern cities, and on a recent trip to the Tennessee capitol, we asked him for his picks on where – in addition to Husk Nashville in the Rutledge Hill neighbourhood – to experience the best of the cuisine of the south that he has made his signature. From his home on Second Avenue, right in the heart of downtown, Brock gave us a glimpse of what he loves to eat and do in his second home.
“The most overlooked institution in Nashville is the Capitol Grille,” says Brock of the restaurant inside his former place of employment, the Hermitage Hotel. “I eat there as often as possible. They do not get the attention that they should, I think, because they are in the basement of the hotel.”
The restaurant has its own sustainable vegetable and herb garden and raises its own beef. With those hyper-local, hyper-fresh ingredients, Chef Tyler Brown makes what Chef Sean Brock calls “classic” Southern dishes, such as cornmeal dumplings. Capitol Grille is one of Nashville’s Old-School dining spots, nestled in the 105-year-old historic hotel and across the street from the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, so it gets its share of pre-theatre dining. It is the kind of place where even cowboy boot-wearing locals decide to dress up before heading out. But when Brock has a craving and doesn’t feel like changing out of his favourite Nashville Sounds jersey, he heads to the restaurant’s bar, where he orders a whiskey and the Tennessee Stack cheeseburger.
At the opposite end of the dress code from Capitol Grille is what Brock calls his “favourite restaurant on the planet.” Arnold’s Country Kitchen is a meat-and-three, a type of Nashville restaurant where diners choose one meat (protein) and three “vegetables” (in this case macaroni and cheese counts as a vegetable). Local businessmen, politicians, tourists and music stars alike wait at Arnold’s in a line that snakes through the door and into the parking lot.
“You get there and you know you’re about to eat something that is going to make you the happiest you have ever been,” Brock says. “You sit in this unassuming place and you have this experience that changes the way you think about restaurants.” Brock took momofuku founder David Chang to Arnold’s on a trip to Nashville to show him what he calls, “the dream restaurant. You can’t just open a restaurant like that”.
While Arnold’s has been an institution in Nashville since 1982, and certainly has made it into every guidebook on the city, Chef Sean Brock is now also excited about what he calls his “new discovery,” another long-time restaurant called Mary Old-Fashioned Barbecue. Located in a stretch of Germantown, in a building where your pulled pork is handed to you through a window, Mary’s is what Brock calls “one of the great hidden places in Nashville. This is the kind of place that sets the city apart.”
But while Southern food and drink is essential to Nashville, Brock is enjoying Nashville’s culinary renaissance and the breadth of dining options available that are more than succotash, fried chicken and grits. “I am convincing all my chef friends to open restaurants in Nashville.” When they come to town, Brock shows off the city’s cornucopia of culinary choices at a cross-section of food highlights, from the high-end Rolf & Daughters and Pinewood Social, to El Tapatio (“I love their chicharron tacos,” he says) and ramen at Otaku South.
“I eat ramen in every city, but I think what Sarah [Gavigan] is doing at Otaku is amazing,” he says. (Otaku is currently in the process of moving to a new location later this year.)
For what he calls “character,” he heads to Brown’s Diner near the Vanderbilt University campus for a burger, or to Santa’s Pub or Springwater Supper Club and Lounge – both dive bars with reputations for appealing to locals rather than tourists.
“There is something that is hard to explain to people about what is going on in Nashville. There is this specific energy that is very contagious,” he says. “All these people are moving here from LA and New York City and it makes you proud. It makes you want to work harder. When a city catches on like this, there is no stopping it.”
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Have you been to any of Chef Sean Brock’s favourite restaurants in Nashville? Where do you go for great Southern food in the city? Let us know in the comments section below.
Written by Margaret Littman