Beyond the honky-tonk: how a food revolution in Nashville is changing perceptions of Southern fare

Nashville, Tennessee, is gaining a food reputation that matches its musical merits

The newly revamped Div Motel. Courtesy Anastasia Miari

It may be known as "Music City", the home of Johnny Cash and the country music capital of the world, but in the past decade Nashville, Tennessee, has begun to offer much more than honky-tonk for those passing through.

Along with huge regeneration and a downtown building boom that began in the 1990s and completely transformed the inner city's architectural scene, Nashville has also revamped its culinary offerings. It now delivers a taste of tradition laced with a little more finesse than is historically attributed to the food of the southern states of the US.

“Most people have this idea of Southern food being unhealthy and greasy and calorie heavy, but it’s so much more than that,” says chef Sean Brock, a Nashville resident and the man credited with redefining the city’s approach to comfort food.

For the longest time, Southerners didn't recognise the importance of our food culture

A star in the most recent series of Netflix's Chef's Table, Brock is putting the ingredients, plants, preserves and old traditions of the South back into the spotlight, turning away from greasy, deep-fried fare towards good old-­fashioned home cooking inspired by his grandmother and the culinary traditions of those living amid the Appalachian Mountains.

The South has not always been proud of its culinary exports, explains John Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance. "For the longest time, Southerners didn't recognise the importance of our food culture," he says. "We swept the knowledge under the rug, we swept our people under the rug."

Beginning with his grandmother's time-perfected dishes in 2010, Brock, who won the James Beard Award for American Cooking in 2015, was the founding chef at Husk, which is now one of Nashville's most popular restaurants. That is where he began celebrating traditional Southern food, placing importance on local produce and the Southern history so tightly linked with it.

Husk restaurant. Courtesy Anastasia Miari

Searing thick wedges of meat, reimagining cornbread and delicately plating up shrimp and okra on elegant ceramic dishes, Brock traced the French and West African influences of Southern food, telling the story of the South in the upmarket setting of a history-loaded colonial mansion home. He's since left Husk for pastures new. This year he published a book, South: Essential Recipes and New Explorations, and is launching an enormous flagship restaurant complex in Nashville devoted to his native Appalachian cuisine.

Down the road from Brock's new venture in East Nashville (the hip and happening place to hang out for those in the know) is Folk, which has taken up residence in an enormous old warehouse space, with high ceilings, exposed brick and an open kitchen that all create a relaxed, convivial vibe. "Everything here is sourced from within a three-mile radius," waiter Scott tells me.

Here, you can take a break from the classics and opt instead for Southern produce distilled into small sharing plates, such as whole crunchy radishes served with fig-leaf-oil-drizzled yoghurt or toast; lima and butter beans with pickled ramps; and expertly crafted sourdough pizzas churned out by hipster chefs who are visibly having a whole lot of fun in the open kitchen.

Desert at Setsun, Nashville. Courtesy Anastasia Miari

Also in East Nashville, Setsun sits on the corner of a residential street alongside traditional American condos and wooden bungalows. Red, green and blue fairy lights twinkle in the window of this small pop-up-turned-­permanent restaurant serving up sharing plates of “nouveaux American” food with a Nordic influence. Chef Jason Zygmont turns out crunchy cucumber Caesar salads spliced with Korean chilli crisps, for a spicy take on a salad that appears on all American menus; turnips done both ways (roasted and grilled); and white “fingerling” sweet potatoes topped with a fermented green tomato butter, pistachio and dehydrated lemon rind. It’s fancy fare in a most relaxed setting, as the familiar sounds of Fleetwood Mac float out from a vintage record player in the corner of this cosy spot that also features a fireplace and original wooden ceiling.

Apple pie at the Loveless Bakery. Courtesy Anastasia Miari

Those looking for something a little more in keeping with the Southern theme may want to drop into the Loveless Diner, an institution nestled into the rolling green hills just outside Nashville. "We come here just for the buttermilk biscuits," says Cindy Giles, who lives north of Nashville and has arrived with her nephew in tow for a fix of the roadside diner's most revered export.

Buttermilk biscuits – more akin to rolls or savoury scones – have been made in the same way here since Betty Loveless, the diner's first owner, developed her hankered-­after recipe in the 1950s. We recommend you stick to the biscuits, served with a selection of home-made jams, and refrain from dense distractions such as fried chicken.

The Johnny Cash Museum in Nashville. Courtesy Anastasia Miari

For a taste of that, head instead to Parson's Chicken & Fish, a stark white building with a red roof that stands out against an industrial setting of brick warehouse buildings and an active railway line. Here, the Southern favourite of fried chicken is smartened up with brioche buns. Fans of nuggets can enjoy tender chicken in a crunchy coating amid Romaine lettuce leaves and home-made herb-baked croutons.

Meanwhile, the best place in Nashville to enjoy a burger is poolside at the Dive Motel, a trendy new boutique spot that was a rundown motel in its former life. Here, guests can tuck into hearty American diner favourites in the city’s most Instagrammable setting. Expect disco balls, 1970s wallpaper, mid-century furniture and a motel setting that could well be in the movies.