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VOL. 38 | NO. 7 | Friday, February 14, 2014

Grand new grub: Top chefs, hot restaurants are drawing a new breed of tourist to Music City

By Jeannie Naujeck

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Sure, most tourists come to Nashville for the music. But the city’s burgeoning culinary scene is starting to attract visitors more attuned to their palates than their ears.

The emergence of culinary tourism combined with a booming landscape of chef-driven restaurants is drawing foodies – a well-heeled set with sophisticated palates who are more inclined to put “Eat at The Catbird Seat” ahead of “Visit Tootsie’s” and “See the Grand Ole Opry” on their travel checklists.

And it’s a big reason why Nashville placed 15th on the New York Times’ recent list of “52 Places to Go in 2014.”

The Catbird Seat, which offers a seven-course tasting menu for $100, has been lauded by publications ranging from Time and the Wall Street Journal to Food & Wine and Bon Appetit. Thanks to the plaudits, its 32-seat room fills as soon as reservations open.

“Over the past two years, we’ve seen an incredible number of people flying in from all over the country and the world to eat,” says Max Goldberg, who with his brother Ben owns The Catbird Seat and a half-dozen other properties including Patterson House and the new Rolling Mill Hill eatery Pinewood Social.

“There are so many exciting things happening from the culinary perspective. Nashville is on this incredible surge of momentum, and it’s the most exciting city in the world right now.”

$250 a head? For dinner?

Word of mouth is the most important driver in the decisions of the luxury traveler, says Lisa Bush, director of sales and marketing for the Hutton Hotel which, along with its 1808 Grille, recently received Forbes’ Four Star award and was featured in its prestigious Forbes Travel Guide.

“There are trusted sources on which [luxury travelers] rely to lay the foundation for a trip – and sometimes to curate the entire experience: close friends and associates, travel agents, and, yes, organizations with high and clearly-defined standards – like Forbes, Michelin, and Leading Hotels of the World, of which the Hutton is a member,” Bush says.

1808 Grille at the Hutton Hotel on West End is the recent recipient of Four Stars from the prestigious Forbes Travel Guide. The hotel’s concierge also steers guests to other top area restaurants.

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The 1808 Grille depends on a healthy local business, as well as serving guests at the Hutton, regarded as one of Nashville’s finest, along with The Hermitage Hotel, the state’s only Forbes Five Star Hotel. Its restaurant, The Capitol Grille, holds the Forbes Four Star award.

Based on the percentage of tickets charged to guest rooms, business at the 1808 Grille is roughly a 50/50 mix of locals and hotel guests for dinner, while breakfast is about 90 percent hotel guests and lunch is 90 percent local diners.

“From its conception, 1808 Grille was designed in the tradition of unique and memorable restaurants located within hotels – a concept the industry had trended away from in recent decades, but which we’ve always admired and wanted to revive,” Bush says.

“You might say it’s an award-winning restaurant other hotels’ concierges might recommend to their guests.”

As for what other restaurants the Hutton’s concierges recommend? Rolf & Daughters, Lockeland Table, Etch, Watermark and The Catbird Seat. The city’s upscale restaurants convey a quality and style that is uniquely Nashville, she says.

“While I don’t believe Nashville is ready for $250+ a head New York-type restaurants and private clubs, I don’t believe that is the experience visitors are looking for,” Bush says.

“While the quality of dining, lodging, and entertainment experiences in Nashville are on par with other major American cities, here they are executed with an intimacy and warmth that you won’t find elsewhere – and which are quickly becoming the city’s calling card among luxury travelers.”

‘New country music stars’

Etch, the downtown restaurant from Zola chef and owner Deb Paquette, was named in the December 2013 Zagat Guide as Nashville’s best restaurant.

And the national reputation of Husk, a Charleston restaurant that opened a Nashville location in May, was why Alicia Klein of Seattle and a friend from Lexington, Ky., made it their first dinner stop during a three-day visit to Nashville this week.

“He’s been to the one in Charleston so he wanted to try this one,” Klein says of her friend.

The central bar at the Pinewood Social Club is steps away from bowling, bocce and karaoke.

-- Leigh Singleton | Nashville Ledger

Many of the restaurants opening here are helmed by chefs who’ve gained acclaim elsewhere before setting up shop in Middle Tennessee.

Travel and Leisure magazine called Nashville’s enterprising chefs “the new country music stars” in its list of the year’s 10 most important travel trends, citing Rolf & Daughters, Josephine and Pinewood Social, whose chef, Josh Habiger, moved over from Catbird Seat.

“We are starting to be known as a Southern culinary destination, which is pretty neat, says Greg Adkins, executive director of the Tennessee Hospitality Association.

“We’re starting to be nationally recognized with some really great chefs.”

Thanks to Chef Matt Bolus, who came to Nashville from Charleston, and positive press, The 404 Kitchen in the Gulch has been packed every night since it opened in mid-October, says owner Mark Banks.

“The 404 Kitchen has already become – and will continue to be – a foodie destination. This was by design,” Banks says.

“(Bolus) is offering a world-class dining experience, and press – local, regional and national – has taken notice. This has certainly helped fill seats, though honestly Matt’s talent is such that he’d bring folks in with or without it.”

A ‘vibrant downtown’

Adkins attributes the success of the hospitality industry to Nashville’s reputation as a good place to do business, with a strong Chamber, a favorable business environment that attracts corporate headquarters and political leadership that has invested in structures like the Music City Center that expose more visitors to Nashville.

“For a restaurant to be successful you need a lot of local business and tourism business,” Adkins says.

“We have a very vibrant downtown, three interstates, day business from the business traveler and group business from the convention center. And you have a very strong brand as Music City. It creates the perfect recipe for success for the hospitality business to thrive Monday through Sunday.”

Embry

Can Nashville become another Charleston or New Orleans? Those cities thrive as foodie destinations partly because they have intense concentrations of top-flight restaurants within blocks of each other, says Pat Embry, editorial director of LocalEats, a Brentwood-based curated national mobile dining guide and author of two Nashville dining guidebooks.

Nashville hasn’t yet achieved that volume, though one could throw a dinner roll from City House to Silo to Rolf & Daughters in Germantown. But Tennessee’s restaurant growth rate is over three percent, Adkins notes, and investment groups are reportedly looking to sink even more money into Nashville.

The long haul

Whether all the new restaurants will make it for the long haul is a question. In December, veteran restaurateur Randy Rayburn predicted 2014 would bring a shakeout of “undercapitalized” restaurants due to the high number of new seats opening over the past few years.

“He’s right on the money … it’s a tough, tough, business,” Embry says, noting that the white tablecloth restaurants with longevity – Jimmy Kelly’s, Margot and Rayburn’s Sunset Grill and Midtown Café among them – feature owners who are ever-present.

“That’s what makes them last – on-site ownership,” Embry says.

“The owner often greets you at the door, is behind the cash register or is in the kitchen on the line. Randy Rayburn will bus your table and won’t even expect a tip. Outside money means a different dynamic.”

Still, Nashville has opportunities for the right proprietors, Embry says.

“We need a great seafood restaurant or two – to me, that’s the most glaring hole in our culinary game,” he says.

“I love gastropubs and bistros that specialize in well-sourced small plates and craft beers, so bring ‘em on. Combination market-cafe-bistros, such as Two Boroughs Larder in Charleston, would do well here with the right folks involved. More breakfast joints. And if we could move Catfish Kitchen from Burns to Nashville that would be most excellent.”

For Goldberg, no restaurant in the world – not even his own – compares to a certain Nashville landmark.

“Arnold’s meat n’ three is my favorite restaurant in the world,” Goldberg says. “It will always be there. It’s the most special place.”

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