As the weather warms, travelers anxious to get back to honky-tonkin’ in Nashville can expect not only to find things much as they were prepandemic — Tootsies Orchid Lounge, Legends Corner and Robert’s Western World are still cranking out boisterous fun along Lower Broadway — but also a vertiginous number of new restaurants, hotels and music venues. They will also find one of the most impactful music museums to open anywhere in the decades: the National Museum of African American Music.
There were losses, of course, such as the closing of Douglas Corner, the well-known music venue, and Rotier’s Restaurant, but venerated country music draws like the Ryman Auditorium, the Grand Ole Opry House and the small-but-mighty singer/ songwriter venue, The Bluebird Cafe, made it through, as did most Nashville restaurants.
Indeed, according to the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp. (NCVC) the city added a staggering 197 new restaurants, bars and coffee shops; a couple of jazzy retro bowling alleys; and 23 hotels in 2020 and 2021.
“I think we are one of the very few destinations that kept building while everything was shut down,” said Deana Ivey, the president of the NCVC. “We have more music, more restaurants, more hotels and a growing arts and fashion scene. If the early numbers we’ve received for March are correct, then March will be the best month in the city’s history.” As an indicator, she said, the preliminary number for hotel rooms sold in March 2022 was 7.6 percent higher than March 2019.
Currently, according to the NCVC, vaccination and masking requirements are being left up to businesses, and a number of music venues are requiring proof of a negative Covid-19 test, so visitors should contact those venues directly.
Culture and revelry
Nashville’s newest cultural gem, the National Museum of African American Music (NMAAM), opened last year at the long-planned 5th + Broadway, a complex of restaurants, shops, offices and residential space across the street from the Ryman Auditorium. The museum aims to tell the comprehensive story of African American music’s influence on American culture. Museum designers have done a noteworthy job of laying out the intersectionality of varying genres in the 56,000-square-foot facility where videos of musicians are in constant rotation.
Numerous artifacts on display include BB King’s guitar “Lucille,” George Clinton’s wig and robe, and a microphone used by Billie Holiday. Storytelling is partitioned into six main rooms, five dedicated to specific genres, including R&B, hip-hop, gospel, jazz and blues, with rock ‘n’ roll mingled throughout. The main gallery, Rivers of Rhythm, ties it all together within the context of American history. The museum also informs visitors that Jimi Hendrix, Little Richard and Etta James all spent time singing and playing in Nashville.
In the revelry lane, Nashville now has two venues with a common theme, Brooklyn Bowl Nashville, in the Germantown neighborhood, and Eastside Bowl, in Madison. Both claim a stylish 1970s decor and vibe that combine bowling with a restaurant/bar/music experience. The music venue at Brooklyn Bowl Nashville, based on the original Brooklyn Bowl in, well, Brooklyn, seats 1,200. Jimmy Fallon hopped onstage in February to join the local Grateful Dead cover band The Stolen Faces, and Grand Ole Opry’s new inductee, Lauren Alaina, recently played; Neko Case is scheduled for August.
Over in Madison, Eastside Bowl, which seats 750, is also bringing in respected talent. The singer-songwriter Joshua Hedley performed in April, and the Steepwater Band rockers are scheduled for May. Eastside Bowl has regular bowling and “HyperBowling,” a cross between pinball and bowling with a reactive bumper used to navigate the ball. The food includes the much-missed shepherd’s pie from the Family Wash, an Eastside institution that closed in 2018.
Eat and sleep
Nashville fans coming back to the city for the first time in two years will find a food scene still ramping up at breakneck speed with the chef and founder of Husk, Sean Brock, doing some heavy lifting. In 2020, he opened Joyland, a burgers and fried chicken joint, and, on the other end of the spectrum, the Continental, an old-school, fine-dining restaurant in the new Grand Hyatt Nashville. Recent dishes there included tilefish with crispy potatoes, leeks and watercress, and an unforgettable whipped rice pudding with lemon dulce de leche and rice cream enveloped in a sweet crisp. Last fall, Mr. Brock launched his flagship restaurant, Audrey, in East Nashville, which centers on his Appalachian roots; upstairs his high-concept restaurant, June, is where he hosts “The Nashville Sessions,” which highlight tasting menus created by notable chefs.
Other renowned chefs are finding a place in Nashville. The French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten developed the concept for the new restaurant Druisie & Darr at the recently renovated Hermitage Hotel, and the James Beard Award-winning chef Andrew Carmellini has brought in Music City outposts of New York’s The Dutch and Carne Mare, both at the newly installed hotel W Nashville in the Gulch neighborhood. Others are adding on; RJ Cooper, also a James Beard winner, launched Acqua, next door to his swanky Saint Stephen in Germantown last month.
For both locals and travelers, the opening of a second Pancake Pantry downtown is relieving fans of having to wait in line at the Hillsboro Village location for the shop’s made-from-scratch flapjacks (their heavenly sweet potato pancakes with cinnamon-cream syrup come to mind). Similarly, the much-applauded Arnold’s Country Kitchen on 8th Avenue South now has a night and weekend schedule to accommodate the usual crush of meat-and-three fans. Cheering things up on the West End Corridor is the historic and colorful Elliston Place Soda Shop, back after relocating to 2105 Elliston Place. The ice-cream shop had been in operation for over 80 years right next door, and now has a polished-up menu, a full bar and, you guessed it, a stage for live music.
Certainly, there won’t be a dearth of accommodations for visitors any time soon. The city added 4,248 hotel rooms over the last two years. The 130-room, hipster-forward Moxy Nashville Vanderbilt is the first hotel ever to open in cozy Hillsboro Village, and the massive new luxury monolith, the Grand Hyatt Nashville, downtown has one of the highest rooftop bars in the city, along with seven restaurants.
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On the extreme luxe side (think “curated pillow menu” and original art in each room) the Joseph, which began taking reservations on Korean Veterans Boulevard in mid-2020, brought in the Michelin-starred chef Tony Mantuano to oversee the food at the hotel’s restaurant Yolan.
Nashville’s gains over the past two years did not come without some collective gasps at the losses. The popular Sutler Saloon in the Melrose neighborhood announced in March that it would be shutting down. The closing, also in March, of the Ernest Tubb Record Shop, a country music institution on Lower Broadway, surprised the city, as did the closing of Douglas Corner after 33 years of helping launch some careers (Tricha Yearwood, and Alan Jackson, for starters). The beloved Rotier’s Restaurant, which had operated off West End Avenue since 1945 will also be missed, and the George Jones Museum, which had only been in operation downtown for six years, shut down in 2021, citing the pandemic. Finally, after being a generator of family memories for generations, Chaffin’s Barn Dinner Theater called it quits in 2020.
Still, it seems every day in Nashville there is fresh news about a restaurant, cafe or honky-tonk swinging open its doors. Just this month, Garth Brooks announced that he had purchased a property on Lower Broadway, and teased the name of his future bar on Twitter with a video of his new three-story building and letters slowly spelling out “Friends in Low Places,” one of Mr. Brooks’ finest bar anthems.