Nashville noshin’

This is how I came to meet Nick Bishop, the owner of Hattie B’s Hot Chicken. Having spent the morning gorging on biscuits, country ham and fried green tomatoes at Loveless Café, pitmaster George Harvell and brand manager Jesse Goldstein asked about other quintessentially Nashvillian dishes I’d managed to try during my visit. There was barbecue and meat n three, sweet tea and grits.

“What about hot chicken?” asked George.

“I’ve had chicken-fried chicken,” I replied. “Is that the same thing?”

At which point they laughed and shook their heads then had a conversation about which hot chicken joint, Hattie B’s or Prince’s, was the superior hot chicken joint. Having factored in where I was staying and what else I needed to do in the afternoon, George and Jesse decided on Hattie B’s. “Don’t order anything hotter than the medium” was Jesse’s final nugget of advice as I headed off.

Their decision was seconded by my taxi driver who declared that he thought the chefs at Hattie B’s changed the oil in the fryers far more frequently than at rival hot chicken places, thereby ensuring a superior flavour. “You might want to order the mild chicken,” he suggested as he dropped me out the front.

Hattie B’s isn’t a three-hat restaurant. The menu is written on a board ­– basically chicken, with four levels of heat from Mild to Shut the Cluck Up, and sides ­– you order and pay at the counter and someone drops your food to you when it’s done. On a warm spring afternoon, the patio is the place to be.

The chicken arrived in a basket, sitting on piece of white bread with two slices of pickle on top. Dishes of mac ’n’ cheese and coleslaw came as the sides. Heeding the advice of everyone, I’d ordered the medium chicken, and it was hot. Damned hot, as they say in this part of the world. But delicious, too.

Satiated for the second time in about three hours, I dropped my empty basket at the return station and headed off down the stairs where a man was standing in the sun.

“How was your meal?” he asked.

“Absolutely delicious,” I told him without a word of a lie.

“That’s great to hear. Y’all have a good day.” Everyone in Nashville says ‘y’all’ and you’ll find yourself doing the same once you’ve been on the ground for two or three days.

About to walk off, I twigged that this man probably wasn’t just a random person wishing diners a fine day. It turns out he owns the establishment and, sure, he’d love to have a chat about hot chicken.

“Hot chicken has enjoyed a resurgence in the past four or five years,” he says. “Local people have always eaten it, but it’s got a lot of publicity lately and a lot of people are talking about it. Here’s what you’ll find in the States: things that were old are now new. People want old, they want tradition, they want the way things used to be in a lot of ways.”

That’s what he gives them, albeit with some tweaks. Most of the fried chicken you’ll find in the south is soaked in buttermilk before being breaded and fried. Not hot chicken. Some places soak it in hot sauce; at Hattie B’s the chefs make their own blend of spices of, among other ingredients, cayenne pepper and dried habanero. “Then it’s mixed with oil to make a type of demi-glace,” explains Nick. “Depending on what level of heat you’re eating it’s either brushed on or dunked into the infusion of oil. The Shut the Cluck Up has some extra spices shaken over it.” Those extra spices include scorpion powder, made from the hottest chilli in the world. “It puts people in a euphoric state,” says Nick then laughs.

It’s hard to not feel on top of the world in Nashville. The capital of Tennessee isn’t a huge city – the population is a little more than 600,000 – but it’s changing fast, according to those who live there. And for those who live nearby. At the end of 2012, Charleston City Paper writer Robert Moss predicted Nashville would become the South’s foremost culinary city. Then, of course, there’s the music, most famously and for many years country. That’s changing too, with artists like Jack White, The Black Keys and Brit Jamie Lidell calling the city home.

“Nashville is a pretty progressive town,” says chef Clay Greenberg, who moved from Oklahoma City in 1995 for the music business, started cooking in restaurants in 2000 and opened his own restaurant Silo in Germantown in August 2012. “There are a lot of people from here who are progressive and a lot of people from the rest of the country and the world coming here. They expect more, because they’ve travelled around the world.”

Greenberg is definitely one of the chefs and restaurateurs leading the charge from the industry’s higher-end establishments. Everyone speaks of Tandy Wilson at City House and Margot McCormack of Margot Café & Bar as exemplars of the local scene, along with Tyler Brown at Capitol Grille, Matt Farley of The Southern Oyster & Steak and Josh Habiger and Erik Anderson of The Catbird Seat.

They all tend to have a similar ethos to Greenberg: “You’ve got to have some sort of classical background and then really be in tune with what’s growing around here.” Everything he serves in the restaurant comes from the local area, as well as his own garden. The menu changes daily, although mac ’n’ cheese always makes an appearance. Even that, however, has been given a modern overhaul, utilising pasta made in the city and cheese from East Tennessee. “It’s made to order, it’s creamy and super high-calorie and it’s awesome,” says Greenberg of the Silo’s spin on a Southern classic.

His approach is similar to that of Matt Farley. Four years ago, Farley moved from New York and set to work at a series of restaurants run by Tom Morales. The idea for The Southern, which opened last year, was to take classic dishes from all over the south and bring them together. The updated Nashville classic on the lunch menu is meat ’n’ three. “I had no idea what a meat ’n’ three was before I moved here,” confesses Farley. Most people don’t. It’s basically a protein – anything from pork chops to chicken-fried steak to meatloaf ­– with three sides. Mac ’n’ cheese is a popular one, then there’s mashed potato, fries, coleslaw, baked beans and collard greens.

“It’s comfort food,” explains Farley. “That’s what we’d call it back at home. It’s heavy and warm and makes you want to go to sleep. If we want to lighten it up in the restaurant we do, especially when it gets warm and it does get hot here.”

Certainly the cooked-to-order meat ’n’ three is quite different to the traditional version that would served buffet style at lunch spots across the city, some of which, like Arnold’s Country Kitchen, still pack them in today.

Another of the traditional spots that just seems to become more popular as the years go by is Loveless Café. Its original owners, Lon and Annie Loveless, started selling chicken and biscuits from their home in 1951 to travellers who were driving along Highway 100 between Nashville and Memphis. Eventually they converted more rooms in the century-old house into dining areas then built a motel. The Interstate eventually bypassed the Loveless. “By the time that came about the Loveless was already doing really well,” explains Jesse Goldstein. “There’d be nights after the Grand Ole Opry when they’d call and say ‘Keep the kitchen open, we’re coming out’ and they’d all pile in here and take over.”

Signed photographs line the walls of the front room and you could spend hours looking through the familiar faces.

“George Jones used to come in and he actually lived in one of the motel rooms when he was sobering up,” says Jesse. “He once got pulled over driving a lawnmower when he was coming to the Loveless.”

“Was he really?” asks one of the waitresses. “I did not know that.”

The Loveless is famous for a few different types of food: its buttermilk biscuits (pretty much what we would call a scone) with their secret recipe that’s been handed down verbally but never written down; the country ham that’s salt-cured; the fried chicken that’s served from breakfast right through the day; and, of course, the barbecue.

George Harvell arrives at 2.30am between Monday and Thursday to start his 12-hour(ish) shifts. First he shovels out the pit and gets a fresh fire started using the indigenous hickory wood. Unlike many parts of the south, Nashville doesn’t really have a definitive barbecue style, unlike neighbour Memphis, famous for its ribs, or Kentucky, just across the border, where mutton and lamb are popular. Harvell oversees pork, turkey breast, chicken and ribs. He cooks pork butt ­– about 16 each day – for eight-and-a-half to nine hours then wraps them in foil and puts them back in the pit overnight. It’s a process that takes about 21 hours. As we talk he’s “pulling” the pork, separating the meat you eat from what you don’t – while the pork is hot. “It’s gotta hurt when you’re doing it and it does,” he says. “You don’t want to hold on for a long time.”

He’s been doing this for almost 30 years and now makes his own dry rub for the Loveless. “I learned from a mentor and friend who owned a catering business,” he explains. “He taught me how to do it his way and I’ve added little things. And I listen. You know, there are some old country boys in bib overalls who walk through here who’ve been doing this all their life and they’ll give you little tips. You don’t learn anything when you’re talkin’ all the time.” He laughs, and keeps on pulling the pork, greeting people who walk by his barbecue shed on the way to the café: “Morning y’all. Welcome to the Loveless.”

Jesse comes by with coffee and we check out the Loveless Barn, a relatively new addition where a live radio show, Music City Roots, is recorded each Wednesday night, and parties, weddings and corporate functions are held. The motel rooms have been transformed into stores and studios for artists and artisans. There’s also a small store where visitors can buy biscuit mix and Loveless merchandise. Because, although this old-fashioned establishment has only 124 seats, it will serve close to, maybe even more than, a half-million people this year.

“I think our general manager Vance Page sums it up best when he says, ‘The Loveless Cafe is like Grandma’s house – everyone is welcome, no one is turned away, and you’re welcome to stay as long as you’d like,’” says Jesse, explaining why the place has such enduring appeal. As a life-long Southerner, he says it’s something you find all over Nashville. “Southern hospitality is not just something that you find in restaurants, it’s something that’s found in our veins, something we are born with, raised with work to pass along to others. I can’t speak for everyone in the South, but as a born-and-bred Southerner myself, I think the mystique of Southern hospitality can perhaps be explained when you think about the old adage ‘be kind to your neighbour’. Here, we think of everyone as neighbours, regardless if we’ve met them before.”

He sees Nashville restaurants as being quite unique, and believes it comes from the hospitality. “I often say that there’s no ego to Nashville restaurants. We have plenty of places that compare to many of the finer restaurants in major cities, but none of them take themselves so seriously that they forget what their mamas taught them, as we like to say. Whether you’re dining at the James Beard Award-nominated City House where chef Tandy Wilson has a great sense of humour with his menu (and where the servers wear t-shirts) or at our most notable ‘high end’ restaurant The Catbird Seat, where the chefs themselves humbly serve you each course, it’s a ubiquitous sense of Nashville hospitality you will find in most any establishment.”

The Hit List

Eat

Loveless Café is open from 7am and serves breakfast all day, as well as lunch – on the weekend, you can wait for up to two hours for a table (or get take-out). It’s about a 20-minute drive from the centre of Nashville. 8400 Hwy 100, +1 616 646 9700.

Happy hour at Silo starts at 4pm, and dinner service begins at 5pm. It’s also open for Sunday brunch. 1121 5th Ave N, +1 615 750 2912,.

The Southern Steak & Oyster specialises in its namesakes. It’s great if you’re on your own too, because you can sit up at the big bar. 150 3rd Ave S, +1 615 724 1762.

For a quick fix of hot chicken head to Hattie B’s. Don’t even be tempted by the Shut the Cluck Up. 112 19th Ave S, +1 615 678 4794.

Do

No visit to Nashville is complete without getting a musical fix. Head to Broadway and its honky-tonks where the music starts at 11am and goes all day and night. The locals recommend Robert’s Western World and Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, where Willie Nelson famously wrote ‘Crazy’ sitting up at the bar, but anywhere along here is a lot of fun. Spend the afternoon at the Country Music Hall of Fame, book a tour or a ticket for a show at the Ryman Auditorium, or visit the Johnny Cash Museum.
A much shorter version of this story appeared in get lost magazine.

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