EAT YOUR HEART OUT
2017 Focus sets out on a whirlwind tour of food, fun & tunes in Nashville.
By Libby Callaway Photographs by Christopher Testani
When I moved to Nashville from New York just over a decade ago, people didn’t come here for the food. Music has always been the city’s main calling card. But in recent years, Nashville’s culinary scene has picked up major steam, with celebrity chefs opening restaurants and a local stalwart winning a James Beard award. Now the ideal Music City pairing is a terrific meal followed by amazing live music. And today we’re making it a perfect trio, with a sleek, stylish 2017 Ford Focus transporting us among eight of Nashville’s hotspots.
We start the tour at Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint on Belmont Boulevard, a largely residential area where street parking can be a challenge. But not for the Focus: With the touch of a button, the available Active Park Assist* helps steer us into a narrow spot. Inside, famed local pit master Pat Martin practices the art and craft of West-Tennessee-style “whole-hog” barbecue. If you’re lucky—and have a strong stomach—you’ll get to enjoy a plate of ribs while watching Pat’s “pit crew” break down one of the porcine carcasses over the massive hog pit just off the dining room.
Sated, we head to the Neoclassical building on 8th Avenue that holds Grimey’s New & Preloved Music, Nashville’s much-loved independent record store and a vinyl enthusiast’s dream. Grimey’s frequently welcomes in-store performances by local heroes and out-of-town luminaries. But the music doesn’t stop there. Upstairs, you’ll find the studios for Nashville’s newest independent radio station; downstairs, the aptly named Basement is a hot venue among the local rock cognoscenti, a popular spot for album-release parties (and a legendary surprise heavy-metal gig a few years back).
Back on ground level, backing out of the parking spaces in the front of Grimey’s can be tricky, but the Focus’ rearview camera* and Reverse Sensing System* help make easing into 8th Avenue traffic much less harrowing. Next up: Bastion, the latest brainchild of chef Josh Habiger, whose former restaurant, the reservation-only Catbird Seat, has racked up several national awards and James Beard nominations. Located in the quickly growing Wedgewood Houston district, home to a major recording studio and multiple art galleries, Bastion is a double-shot bar-restaurant combo. The party-in-the-front, if you will, is a roomy bar where thrift-shop decor, inventive drinks and insanely great nachos demand attention; the business-in-the-back is Habiger’s intimate restaurant (we’re talking three tables), where he and his team regularly devise a new menu for each evening’s multicourse meal, known as the Feast. “We try and keep the restaurant pretty low-key, not too fancy,” says Habiger, “so it should appeal to anyone who comes through the sliding doors.”
A 10-minute drive away in Green Hills, a booming neighborhood southwest of downtown that’s equal parts retail and residential, is the Bluebird Cafe, a world-famous listening room. The venue’s vaunted writer’s nights are the ultimate gigs for singer-songwriters looking to impress the Music Row honchos who drop in to sample the talent. Long an industry hangout, the Bluebird gained mass appeal a few years back when it appeared on the TV show Nashville. “What happens nine times out of ten is that once you get people through the door, they get sold on the experience and our mission,” says Erika Wollam Nichols, general manager of the Bluebird, “and that is promoting the value and importance of songwriters.” Don’t expect to just breeze in, however: reservations at the Bluebird are highly recommended.
Stomachs rumbling, we hop on the 440 loop, which connects Green Hills in the west to downtown in the east. Nashville is a city experiencing rapid growth and thus traffic has gotten heavy in the last few years, especially on the interstate. The Focus’ available Technology Package, which includes BLIS® (Blind Spot Information System) and Lane-Keeping System, comes in handy as we head to the Gulch, one of the city’s fastest growing areas and home to the 404 Hotel & Kitchen.
The 404 is a study in efficiency. The hotel is housed in a former mechanic’s garage and has only five rooms, while the Kitchen is situated in an attached shipping container that seats 46 for dinner seven nights a week. But chef Matt Bolus doesn’t need a lot of space to dazzle with his farm-to-table menu, featuring ingredients from local and regional vendors: His food is remarkable in its simplicity and presentation. “I just love to cook,” says Bolus, smiling widely. “What I love to cook changes with the season, weather, music—but as long as I am cooking I am loving it in some way.”
Our next stop is a show at the famous Station Inn, located in a gray stone building next door to the 404. Bluegrass is the name of the game at the Inn, where numerous roots-music virtuosos have gigged. Music’s not the only thing Station Inn is known for: Most Tuesdays, singing duo Doyle & Debbie send up classic country music culture in their popular long-running comedy show.
By now it’s getting dark—time to expose the Focus’ moonroof and take the scenic Korean War Veterans Memorial Bridge over the Cumberland River to East Nashville, a sprawling neighborhood called home by many in the city’s artist community (and more than a few bearded, motorcycle-riding hipsters). Music seems fitting so, before pulling away, I plug my iPhone into the USB port and activate Apple CarPlay™.† Once connected, I cue up some of Nashville’s finest tunes, past and present, and nod my head in time to the music.
Besides an abundance of scenesters, the east side also boasts some of the city’s best “hot chicken,” the name given to the fiercely spiced fried-bird delicacy that’s indigenous to Nashville. Bolton’s Spicy Chicken & Fish recently expanded from its original cinderblock building on Main Street to a larger dining room next door, where the bravest order extra hot (bring a tissue for the inevitable tears). “We use a dry rub,” says Dollye Matthews, Bolton’s co-owner, “and we fill it full of love, joy, peace and happiness that you take with you after you eat!” Plus the price is right: You can get a chicken sandwich and a soda for less than $7.
Inevitably, on weeknights, you’ll run into crews of cool kids gaining sustenance before heading down the road to the collection of bars and nightclubs near East Nashville’s Five Points district. One of the area’s most popular after-dark draws is The 5 Spot, a dive-y neighborhood bar and venue that is a terrific place to see some of the city’s best indie performers in country, rock and bluegrass. It’s also home to Keep On Movin’, a stylish soul- and funk-driven dance party that takes place every Monday night.
After filling up on Nashville’s top meals, music and merriment, we head back to the fun, style-forward Focus, ready to transport us home again—a perfect urban car in a totally magical city.