Eating at the Wildhorse Saloon definitely falls into this category for most locals. I can't count how many times I've walked right past the front door on Second Avenue on the way to eat lunch at a fast food joint downtown or to grab a pregame beer before a Preds game. I just assumed that the Wildhorse was full of conventioneers from Sheboygan learning to line dance while they ate from a faux meat-and-three buffet. Well, you know what happens when you assume ...
Sure the Wildhorse gets its share or tourists, but there's plenty of room inside for us Nashvillagers to enjoy ourselves too. And my preconceptions about the food were very, very wrong. Executive Chef Laurie Potts has worked at the Wildhorse for most of a decade, and she has introduced a new menu that raises the level of cuisine well above the expected "boneless chicken Marriott" that you would expect from a facility that hosts so many large groups. There's a reason the Downtown Rotary Club eats at the Wildhorse every single Monday. Those barons of Nashville industry could eat anywhere they want, and they're not gonna settle for bad food.
Which brings up another preconception about the Wildhorse - there's no sense eating there because they're always booked up with private events. True, there are probably four or five full buyouts every month, but as long as you consult their online event calendar before you go, you're unlikely to be surprised by 2,000 plumbers sharing stories about Findlay sprinkler heads and Langstrom 7-inch gangly wrenches while dancing the Electric Slide. Instead, you may find yourself sharing the space with several smaller groups genuinely enjoying themselves while they leave some of their discretionary income behind in our fair burg.
Few things can brighten a bad day more than realizing that millions of people plan their whole vacations around visiting the city where you live and work every day. On a recent lunchtime visit, I spent my break listening to a lively country soundtrack and watching ESPN and GAC on the huge televisions that surround the stage. Then out of nowhere, all of the contestants of the Miss Teen America competition suddenly appeared on the dance floor and held an impromptu Hula-Hoop competition to a Black Keys song. I gotta say that beats the hell out of watching the Fox News ticker at a Chinese food buffet.
If you're looking for a place to get fired up before Game 5 of the Stanley Cup playoffs tomorrow night (and hopefully for many weeks to come), here are some important reasons why you might want to consider the Wildhorse. First, it's conveniently located to anyplace downtown, including both the Bridgestone and LP Field. While there is no happy hour at the Saloon (it's always happy hour, blah blah), drink prices are pretty reasonable, and there are always plenty of servers and bartenders to make sure you get what you're looking for in time for the puck to drop, or the kickoff. The food offering ranges from quick appetizers to a full meal depending on how much time you allot to fill your tank before venting your rage on the opposing team.
And finally, it seems like the Wildhorse has become the headquarters for almost every group of visiting team fans. It's not surprising that someone planning a trip to Nashville would do a little research and come up with the Wildhorse as a place to enjoy their last fleeting moments of happiness prior to a proper thrashing. But why shouldn't we make this last bastion of comfort for them a little less pleasant by crowding them out with our home jerseys and our special brand of Southern (in)hospitality? "Welcome to Smashville. Hope you have a sad flight home."
So how's the food, you ask?
In general, I found it to be relatively affordable for downtown and surprisingly well-crafted. Chef Potts has taken on the daunting task of almost completely revamping her menu in the past few months. Knowing she has to please a wide range of tastes from around the world, Potts has created a deep menu, but without sacrificing the Southern fare. As a bonus, she has introduced a real focus on local and sustainable ingredients that feature many of the same artisan producers that you'd see on fine dining menus around town. No, she doesn't serve Benton's bacon with her meals, but that particular delicacy would probably be wasted on the thousands of conventioneers, and the price for their meals would become prohibitive. Not GSA boondoggle convention expensive, but you get the drift.
With a relatively small kitchen staff, Potts is pumping some great food out of her kitchen, starting with an appetizer of fried pickles that I'd hold up as some of the best in town. Hand-battered in corn meal and double dipped in buttermilk, these perfectly fried chips are served with sour cream and a special jicama ketchup for dipping. An order is plenty big enough for a table to share, but don't fill up on them or you'll miss out on some of the other great options.
The ubiquitous shrimp and grits could have easily been a throwaway item on the menu, but Potts takes deserved pride in them. Made with coarse Shelton Farms yellow corn grits mixed with Sweetwater Valley smoked cheddar, the dish would be good even if there weren't shrimp on top. The Wildhorse's smoker stays busy with an assortment of ribs, pulled pork and brisket that all arrived at the table well-cooked and redolent of hickory. Sauce options include a Carolina mustard, sweet molasses and a spicy barbecue that was really quite good. The side dishes for the barbecue were appropriate, among them a Southern chow-chow coleslaw and some 15-ingredient smoky baked beans that were pretty exceptional.
Save room for dessert, especially if you have someone to share the large portions with. The three highlights were a decadent lemon chess pie, Lillie's buttermilk chocolate cake with Blue Bell ice cream and Chef Potts' signature Moon Pie banana pudding. At $8 apiece, the pricing seems a little steep, but they are well worth it, especially when you share. Consider dropping in for dessert and to watch the show on the dance floor after a night of honky-tonkin' downtown and you won't be disappointed.
In fact, think about dropping by on your way out to see bands downtown, since we know that starting times for local entertainment can run distressingly late for us oldsters, thanks to the tradition of Exit/In Standard Time. Live music and free dance lessons start just about every night at 6, unless there's a special event or a concert scheduled. Even if you choose not to scoot your boots, it's always entertaining to watch.
So don't wait for your cousin who's been saving up for months to come to town so that you can show her the sights of Lower Broad. Take the reins yourself and check out the Wildhorse some time. And bring your camera in case a bevy of competition-grade beauties happens to take over the dance floor.