Book a 90-minute direct flight from Charleston to join Music City’s never-ending party of flavor and sound
Cathedral-tall ceilings and the glow of stereo amplifiers set the mood, and there’s so much vinyl. Shelves behind a long bar that previously held liquor bottles are now filled with LPs, literally thousands of albums collected by chef Sean Brock. Opened last fall, Bar Continental is part hi-fi palace, part restaurant and bar.
It’s a Monday, and Brock says it’s his favorite night of the week in the listening lounge he’s created in the Grand Hyatt Nashville on Broadway. Guests can bring in their own records to play on Mondays, and Brock is kicking off the night at the turntables—the previously Charleston-based chef wearing checkerboard Vans and headphones often looks up with a boyish glint in his eyes. “This is one of the greatest songs of all time,” he says, cueing up Nina Simone’s 1973 rendition of “Funkier Than a Mosquito’s Tweeter.”
Bluesy rhythms and a building drumbeat fill the room as Simone sings. “She’s from Appalachia,” Brock notes, smiling at the Southern connection. A rare, original version of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” is up next, and Brock suggests listening to it from different parts of the space. When he turns up the volume, I can feel that song practically taking over my heartbeat, as if Robert Plant and the band are performing live in the room.
Brock says that during the pandemic, he stepped up his collecting of rare record pressings, often from the 1960s and ’70s. He sources quality recordings and then buys multiple copies. He’s ever-tweaking the system and learning about sound engineering from music industry pros who frequent Bar Continental. “What’s really happening here is obsessing over the quality of the recordings, the same way I’d obsess over the quality of the ingredients,” he admits.
I get it. Watching him choose records and drop a needle precisely on the turntable is reminiscent of observing him in kitchens over the years—in Charleston at McCrady’s and Husk and then Husk Nashville. Brock’s attention to Southern ingredients, food culture, and cooking led to a James Beard Award for Best Chef, Southeast in 2010, followed by two best-selling cookbooks and the television shows Mind of a Chef and Chef’s Table.
At Bar Continental, the spotlight is on the music, and because it’s Brock’s place, the kitchen spins out a serious menu of snacks and plates. The night’s offerings are winter-cozy with Brock’s cheeseburgers (thick patties with cheese melting, almost pooling), fries, roasted honeynut squash, blue crab-scallop cakes, and sticky toffee pudding.
Chef Sean Brock at the turntables of Bar Continental, the hi-fi listening lounge he opened last fall in downtown Nashville.
RHINESTONE SPARKLE, GUITAR TWANG
Checking out what Brock’s cooking—he’s got four dining options going in Nashville these days—is one of the inspirations for this food- and music-focused long weekend, loosely based on a similar excursion of ours more than a decade earlier for Charleston.
We land in Music City on a direct Southwest flight of about 90 minutes. The Nashville International Airport is freshly rebuilt with more expansion plans and improvements on the way. Live music begins immediately—on a small stage, someone’s playing a guitar as we roll our carry-ons out to grab an Uber.
Soon, we see downtown Nashville sparkling in the noonday sun. During each of our visits over the past decade, the skyline appears to have more shimmering tall buildings—and construction cranes. The growth includes more than 200 new restaurants in the past two years, according to a tally kept by the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp.
We’re staying at Bobby, a nine-story hotel in the heart of downtown that’s steps from the clusters of honky-tonks on Broadway and Printers Alley that thump with music as crowds weave through—couples, tour groups, and bridesmaids in cowboy boots. Black-and-white images of Nashville musicians are on display, and near the lobby fireplace, there’s a guitar to borrow and strum. The music truly never stops in Music City. We’re booked into an upper-floor suite outfitted with a soaking tub and a skyline view—along with a record player next to a stack of classic albums. I dive right in, playing some Tanya Tucker and James Brown.
Our lunch that day is at Audrey, Brock’s tribute to his maternal grandmother and to Appalachian food and culture. In East Nashville, he’s built this new home base for his cooking and a dining room with craftsmanship in every direction—in the open kitchen, the art, quilts, cookbooks, and pottery.
Tastes begin with hot, two-inch thick biscuits cut into squares and drenched in a white sausage gravy—an amazing wallop of flavor. A chicory martini is delicious with a floater of cream on top, and the plates keep coming. The cornmeal fried okra is dusted in sumac, beautifully mauve-purple. Sack sausage with a sweet heat and crispy edge is next. Then, a bowl of the creamiest blue corn grits and shrimp with bay leaves.
We’re now in hour two of our lingering lunch (I notice other diners are in no rush either), and we must try the chicken and dumplings. Always on the menu, they’re brought to the table in a covered, cast-iron skillet to be ladled out hot and steaming. The light broth is wonderfully seasoned. We almost skip dessert, but the apple cobbler made with cornmeal cake and buttermilk whipped cream is the perfect capper for an afternoon of flavor and happy comfort.
EAST SIDE SIPPING
A couple of Nashville friends suggest a mini cocktail tour in East Nashville, and we meet them at sunset at Urban Cowboy Public House, the “backyard” bar of an eight-room bed-and-breakfast in a Victorian-era house. In the patio garden with lights strung overhead, people gather around a brick fireplace for beers, margaritas, and the seasonal brandy milk punch (as well as craft cocktails). We sip and wander, ending up sitting awhile with our friends in the inn’s front parlor rooms that have a Wild West-meets-New Orleans feel—bull horns on the wall, curvy chandeliers above, and upholstered parlor chairs.
At the next few stops, we realize that bar-hopping on a Saturday night in East Nashville takes some strategizing. There are already wait lists at the neighboring Fox Bar & Cocktail Club and at Tiger Bar, so we put our names on both and slip into Mickey’s Tavern, a classic neighborhood joint with dart boards and tall-boy Miller Lites. It’s an easy place to be, and we’re tempted to stay longer when the Fox Bar texts that they can seat us, so we walk back and slide into a rounded banquette. I order a whiskey sour that arrives in a coupe, and it’s beautifully silky. Next time, I’d love to try one of their six different old-fashioneds or that icy, pistachio-green cocktail I see the server deliver to a woman near us—a bourbon, ginger, lime, and apricot concoction named “Maybe She’s Born with It.”
By text, we learn that there’s a table for us at the final stop of the night, Tiger Bar. Inside, there’s a bit of a circus feel—a 1930s gin-joint vibe fused with a sideshow theme. Martinis, cognac, and sparkling wines are on the classic drink menu. We order bubbles and popcorn and take in the surroundings—paintings of circus tigers and boxers, lampshades dripping with fringe, and the chalky haze of smoke machines. Nashville sure loves a cocktail and a show.
BRUNCH TO SUPPER (CLUB)
The next morning in Germantown, there’s a line at Henrietta Red even before the doors open for Sunday brunch. Once inside, we get a warm welcome from co-owner and chef Julia Sullivan, who’s Nashville-born with connections to Charleston. Her grandfather, Red, was a traveling doctor in the Lowcountry—he and her grandmother Henrietta once lived in Rockville on Wadmalaw Island—and Sullivan considers the restaurant an homage to their spirit of hospitality.
Piano jazz filters through the sunny dining room while we try several of the brunch options—the green curry oysters and lump crab cake, matcha pancakes with a caramel-milk glaze, and the Turkish eggs with lamb sausage. I alternate between a cup of locally roasted Crema Coffee and a Paloma cocktail, soon realizing that tasting the chile salt on the rim is a terrific counterpart to the eggs and seafood. It’s all delicious, and we’re ready for a long, post-brunch stroll.
Sullivan suggests we walk a few blocks to Spread, a charming house-turned-wine shop and bakery with a selection of tinned fish from the West Coast and the Mediterranean. After buying a few cans to bring home, we head down to the Cumberland River and into the revitalized Neuhoff District. There, the staff at Monday Night Brewing is getting a few bonfires going for the afternoon crowd, who’ll gather at long tables beside the brick facades of the city’s long-vacated, early-1900s meat-packing structures.
A few hours later, we meet another friend, soul-country singer/songwriter Arum Rae, at Dino’s, a dive bar in East Nashville. She’s wanted to get there since she moved to Nashville in early 2023. The bar is famous for its cheeseburger—Bon Appétit and Anthony Bourdain gave it high marks—but I’ve also heard its Nashville hot chicken is some of the best in the city. We order one medium-heat and one hot and then settle into metal chairs with worn vinyl seats and squint through the dim light—red light bulbs here—at collages and artworks featuring Dolly Parton.
An episode of Bewitched is playing on the TV above the bar when they call our names to pick up orders. The chicken arrives in paper baskets with fries and soft white bread buried below. Both the medium and hot versions build heat nicely, it’s never too much, and the chicken is fresh and perfectly cooked. Bonus: the bread is useful as a mop to get up the bits at the end.
Part two of our night is just a few steps away at Jane’s Hideaway next door. We’ve reserved a table at the supper club that features live music nightly in a long room with a stage at one end. We order more food, why not? Plates of meatloaf, mashed potatoes, okra, and Brussels sprouts—all to share—are calming after the hot chicken, along with rounds of Tiny Bomb pilsners. The level of musical talent in Nashville always impresses, and the night’s group led by Oliver Bates Craven and Frank Evans is exceptional, playing bluegrass tune after tune on fiddle, banjo, bass, and drums. Other musicians come and sit in for later sets, and they’re still at it—picking parlor-style—when we close out for the evening.
NOODLES & BLUE JEANS
Other stops on this music-food whirlwind include checking out a growing number of shops in the 12 South neighborhood, from the denim and T-shirts in an old service station at Imogene + Willie to soft sweaters at the new Buck Mason (there’s one coming to King Street). For one more lunch, we go to Xiao Bao, another spot with a hometown connection, opened by Joshua Walker and Duolan Lee in 2023 as a sister restaurant to their spot on Spring Street. The menu and flavors are familiar, including spicy green papaya salad, pot sticker dumplings, and handmade biang biang noodles so long they come with scissors—and a nice amount of heat.
We happen to see Walker, who explains that adding fun and charm are goals for the space. Furnished largely with mid-century finds, the interior is in a glossy palate of deep burgundy, green, and cream. Laminate and chrome surfaces may remind of a retro diner, and then there’s the gleaming gold walls in a private dining room equipped for karaoke. Walker makes sure we leave with a couple of the restaurant’s pink and red pens printed with the phrase “Happiness is available. Please help yourself.”
Note if you go: there’s no sign at Xiao Bao. It’s an industrial-looking building next to a fire station—but you’re at the right place if you see a giant strawberry out front, a find from a 1990 fairground. Quirky, yes, but I’m not surprised. It seems that somehow even as the city grows, Nashville just keeps on spinning to its own rhythms.
Flight: From Charleston International Airport (CHS), Southwest offers direct flights of less than 90 minutes to and from Nashville (BNA); southwest.com
Transport: The airport is within eight miles of downtown, and the sprawling city can easily be explored without a car using ride-share (we found Uber drivers readily available).
Best Souvenir: An LP from a Nashville-based artist. We picked up Arum Rae’s 2023 album, Loose Ends, also available online at magnoliarecord.store
(Left to right) Vibrant colors pop up all over town—murals featuring late US Representative John Lewis of Georgia; Musician Arum Rae under one of the Dolly Parton portraits at Dino’s, a dive bar in East Nashville; Printers Alley near Broadway, home to honky-tonks, neon lights, and live music.
Bobby Hotel: Modern re-do of 1970s office tower with music-focused art and 144 oversized guest rooms. The rooftop lounge incorporates a vintage Greyhound tour bus. 230 4th Ave N., bobbyhotel.com
Noelle: This 1930s-era hotel reopened in 2017 with chic, Art Deco style and 224 guest rooms, plus the elegant Trade Room lobby bar and Drug Store Coffee. 200 4th Ave., noelle-nashville.com
Urban Cowboy: Cowboy style meets curvy Victorian mansion in East Nashville with parlors, eight guest rooms, and two bars. 1603 Woodland St., urbancowboy.com/nashville
Audrey: Opened in 2021, chef Sean Brock’s flagship restaurant is a personal tribute to his Appalachian roots.
809 Meridian St., audreynashville.com
Bar Continental: Vinyl listening lounge serving cocktails, snacks, and plates; located street-level at the Grand Hyatt Nashville, 1000 Broadway, barcontinentalhifi.com
Dino’s Bar & Grill: This circa-1970s dive bar in East Nashville is famed for cold beer, cheeseburgers, and Nashville hot chicken. 411 Gallatin Ave., dinosnashville.com
Henrietta Red: A light-filled, open dining room and oyster bar in Germantown by Nashville-born chef Julia Sullivan with a focus on regional produce, meat, and seafood; 1200 4th Ave. N., henriettared.com
Xiao Bao: Try the hand-pulled noodles and Asian comfort food in the mod sister restaurant to Charleston’s Xiao Bao Biscuit. 830 Meridian St., xiaobaonashville.com
Imogene + Willie: Find American-made jeans, T-shirts, and other clothing plus home accessories in the flagship store founded in 2009 in a vintage service station/garage. 2601 12th Ave. S., imogeneandwillie.com
Keep Shop: One-of-a-kind home goods, sequined blazers, cowboy hats, and boots by local makers on the ground floor of the Noelle hotel; 200 4th Ave. N., keep.shop
Savant Vintage: A quirky trove of vintage finds, pearl-button Western shirts, eclectic art and statuary, fur-trimmed coats, lamps, and cacti; 2302 12th Ave. S., @savantvintage on Instagram
Spread Market & Larder: Mini bakery, wine shop, and pantry in the Germantown neighborhood; 1330 5th Ave. N., spreadthings.com
Bar-hopping in East Nashville: Possible stops include dive bars Mickey’s Tavern and Dino’s; pizza and drinks by the fire at Urban Cowboy Public House; and fancy drink spots Tiger Bar and the Fox Bar & Cocktail Club.
Dinner & a Show: Reserve a table for the live music plus a delicious comfort food menu at supper club Jane’s Hideaway. 407 Gallatin Ave., janeshideway.com
Music Lovers: Attend a concert or go for a tour of the iconic Ryman Auditorium and Museum. 116 5th Ave. N., ryman.com
More Nashville: Look for Dine Nashville events throughout February. Find info and additional resources and ideas at visitmusiccity.com.
Web Extra: Read about Sandy and Frank’s 2013 tour of Nashville with chef Sean Brock