This is the third in a 5-part series on a road trip from Houston to the author’s hometown of Detroit.
Every few years a midsize city wows America with its utter coolness. About 10 years ago it was Austin, the music capital of the world! Before I even moved to Texas, I thought Austin was where it was at. They had SXSW! And ACL! And Tacos! And Hippies! And Bats! And it was the Only Blue City in a Very Red State! Every travel and food show and magazine seemed to be fixated on just how Hip! Austin was.
After actually visiting Austin multiple times over the years, I now understand that it's just a regular, midsize American city with really good PR and a lot of young people. SXSW is kind of a shitshow and so is ACL. Tacos are served all over Texas. There are other blue cities in this red state, obviously including Houston. Hippies are annoying. And bats hang out under a lot of bridges.
Nashville appears poised to be the next Hip American Midsize city. It has a strong country music culture, like Austin, in addition to a lot of young transplants from bigger cities and its very own hipster neighborhood on the east side of town. It has its own Cochon Butcher. And it plays host to one of my favorite ABC TV shows, the aptly named Nashville. Connie Britton and Jack White live there (not together). I actually have a theory that where Connie Britton lives is where cool things are happening; she lived in Austin in the heyday of "Austin, the hippest city in America" while filming Friday Night Lights too.
So on this cross-country road trip from Houston to Detroit, I made it a point to drop into Nashville for an extra couple of days so I could thoroughly investigate the source of all the hipness rumors. I rented an Airbnb in East Nashville and made plans to see as much as I could.
On my first day in town, I had a quiet brunch at the French-inspired Marché (apparently a Jack White favorite), and a great cup of coffee at Barista Parlor. I headed to the 12 South Taproom for a local brew and a snack. For dinner, I braved the crowds at Rolf and Daughters to find a spot at the bar for a solo dinner. I ended up sitting next to a pair of cousins who were originally Houston natives. Cousin A was visiting Cousin B, who has lived in Nashville for six months, having moved there to focus on her music career after living in NYC for 10 years.
Life was more affordable and laid back in Nashville compared to the Big Apple, she told me. Most of East Nashville is populated by transplants like herself from LA and NYC, she continued, explaining that these were the folks responsible for opening all the hip bars and restaurants on that side of town. She confessed that she moved here to get away from NYC and was finding it difficult to cultivate a new identity in Nashville with everyone else she knows from the Big Apple crashing her party. She also told me that her hairdresser does Connie Britton's hair too. This was my favorite bit of information.
My good friend from Houston, Heather, informed me her best friend from back in the day lived in Nashville and owns a dueling piano bar in downtown Nashville with her partner, Sam. Jaime and Sam took me out on the town my second night. First stop was a classic cocktail bar Bastion in the Wedgewood-Houston (WEHO—yeah, I know) neighborhood. It was newly opened by Strategic Hospitality, the same team responsible for Patterson House, another famous cocktail bar in Nashville. I loved the atmosphere of this laidback venue, which reminded me of a more upscale version of Houston's Poison Girl, complete with vintage pinball machines and the feel of an outdoor space inside.
We took a quick tour of downtown Nashville, heading down Broadway, where their bar, The Big Bang, was located. Unfortunately, it was raining pretty hard and the SEC was in town, making it impossible to actually get around. The plan was to dance it up at Robert's Western World, the honky tonk featured on Aziz Ansari's Netflix show Master of None. Robert's is popular among tourists and locals alike for hosting the best rockabilly music in town.
Our evening ended with dinner at East Nashville staple The Treehouse, where the refined food was a pleasant contradiction to the divey appearance of the restaurant, which literally looked like a falling-apart treehouse. It was also much cheaper than something comparable at a bigger city, I noted with glee.
I realized this was the charm and draw of Nashville: lots of good food and drinks in casual venues and all of it totally affordable for the many musicians and young creatives that live out here. This also appeals to the more famous set: celebrity sightings are common in a city driven by the music industry, though Nashvillians seem to be pretty laidback about the whole things, plus there aren't paparazzi around to harass anyone. And it's not a big deal to catch Jack White brunching with his family in tow or run into Kelly Clarkson or have the same hairstylist as Connie Britton—though that last one is still a pretty big deal to me.