In the Scene's 20th Anniversary Issue currently on the stands, Carrington Fox lays out the culinary equivalent of a Rand McNally atlas to show the changes in the city's dining landscape over the past two decades. We're talking neighborhood by neighborhood from East Nashville to Cool Springs--a guide that encompasses more than 80 restaurants (and I'm betting there's someone here who's tried them all).
It's so exhaustive, in fact, that it encourages a little parlor game I like to call "Hoods for Foods." Using Carrington's article as a compass, let's pick out the five neighborhoods that stand out as the city's top dining destinations. And by destinations, I mean population areas that have a) a high caliber of dining selections; b) a strong likelihood of finding something exceptional; c) good quality in a wide price range; and d) that something extra that makes for a genuinely memorable evening, be it an attractive tree-lined street, lots of local color, or nice places to walk and explore after dinner.
Without further ado, our five contenders.
1. Nolensville Road
For range and affordability, nobody tops Nashville's Avenue of the Americas, where an enterprising glutton can score a Salvadorean bean-and-cheese pupusa (Las Americas), a som tum papaya salad of equal parts cool and fire (Thai Taste), syrup-soaked seker pare cookies (Istanbul Cafe) and a bag containing a half-dozen flatbreads the circumference of a radial tire (USA Bakery)--and still have change left over from a $20.
Bonuses: Some of Nashville's liveliest signage, in a plethora of tongues; an eye-opening glance at the city's kaleidoscopic ethnic diversity.
Drawbacks: Traffic congestion, too many payday check-cashing services.
You Gotta Try: The doner sandwich at Istanbul Cafe, a slightly spicier cousin to the gyro made with tender little chunks of marinated steak; the hibachi service at Korean BBQ marvel Seoul Garden.
2. Hillsboro Village
Why does this get the nod over West End, which includes one of the city's top chef attractions (Zola), a neighborhood-anchor fave (Tin Angel), a couple of upscale-chain blockbusters (P.F. Chang's, J. Alexander), killer junk food (Five Guys, Which Wich), and not one but three damn fine Indian buffets (Bombay Palace, The Woodlands, and Sitar a half-block away)? It has to do with that magic word "village"--a cozy, welcoming vibe that invites you to park, walk and peruse. You'll need that walk, too, if you're leaving the Pancake Pantry, Pizza Perfect, or Fido after a corked bat of a breakfast burrito.
Bonuses: A rainy afternoon spent browsing at Bookman/Bookwoman, sipping vanilla-scented tea at Jackson's and catching the latest Olivier Assayas joint at The Belcourt.
Drawbacks: Near-gridlock at lunchtime, traffic merely awful rest of the day.
You Gotta Try: The Frank Dileo sandwich at Savarino's--an addictive mix of grilled Italian sausage and the vegetable world's answer to crack, broccoli rabe. Take half home, if it means you'll have room for the homemade gelato and Italian ices.
3. Five Points, East Nashville
Watch this space, and someday you might see Riverside Drive/Village blaze to the front of the pack: it already boasts such treasures as Dee's Q, Mitchell Deli, Sip, The Pied Piper Eatery and Bailey & Cato (and I haven't even tried Watanabe's yet). But the Five Points pentagram is the pinnacle for now, with Marché and Margot on the high end, I Dream of Weenie, The Pied Piper Creamery and The Jolly Rogue on the low end, and Batter'd and Fried in the middle. The clincher: late-night visits by the Mas Tacos Por Favor camper.
Bonuses: The Turnip Truck grocery and the East Nashville Farmers' Market within strolling distance.
Drawbacks: Parking sometimes scarce on weekend nights.
You Gotta Try: The Some Like It Hot ice cream (chocolate and cayenne) at Pied Piper; the steak haché at Marché--think of the most zestily seasoned hamburger you've ever had, with a light Middle Eastern accent.
Granted, any neighborhood with Tandy Wilson's City House in the mix has the equivalent of a two-block head start. But Germantown, once chronically underserved, now boasts a jewelbox of a coffee shop (DrinkHaus), a cheery cupcake emporium (The Cupcake Collection), a chocolatier (Cocoa Tree), a power-lunch powerhouse (Germantown Cafe), a hot-dog joint (Zackie's), and the excellent pasta boutique Lazzaroli's along with anchors Monell's and The Mad Platter. And its ambitions don't end there. Germantown über alles!
Bonuses: A vibe more like San Francisco than Nashville, with a well-maintained charm that offers strong encouragement for persistence in historic preservation.
Drawbacks: Still no pub.
You Gotta Try: The puttanesca sauce at Lazzaroli's; a mocha with a sliver of fresh orange peel at DrinkHaus; a lemon cupcake from Cupcake Collection; the house-cured belly-ham pizza with an over-easy egg on top at City House.
5. Charlotte Pike
Within a few blocks, you can go from the vintage Americana of Bobbie's Dairy Dip and Wendell Smith's to the Vietnamese stand-off of Kien Giang and Miss Saigon, with the hit-on-arrival French restaurant Miel and taco stands in between (and Jim N' Nick's and Paradise Ridge beyond). And some folks here at Bites swear that Korea House has the finest Korean food in the city. Dollar for dollar, Charlotte offers some of Nashville's best ethnic food for the buck.
Bonuses: Rifling through the voluminous stacks for book, CD and DVD oddities at McKay's.
Drawbacks: You take your life in your own hands walking across White Bridge Road.
You Gotta Try: The Vietnamese iced coffee and mint-laced spring rolls at Miss Saigon; the sweet potato fries and chocolate malt at Bobbie's.