A two-year-old culinary crop is elevating Nashville’s formerly dicey neighbourhoods to the level of gastronomic destinations like Brooklyn, Portland and Charleston, South Carolina.

In Nashville, Tennessee, Music City’s coolest epicurean destination is not downtown with the honky-tonk bars where you might expect, it is across the Cumberland River in a formerly dicey part of town called East Nashville, which encompasses a variety of neighbourhoods including Lockeland Springs, Maxwell Heights, Rolling Hills, East End, Five Points and Greenwood. Once known for high crime rates, drugs and poverty, the historic Victorian side of town often referred to as “East Nasty” has recently been revived by an array of artisanal food purveyors, highbrow coffee shops, hip cocktail bars and thriving restaurants, all of which are breathing new life into the area.

The last few years in particular have seen a culinary crop that is infused with young creative energy, elevating East Nashville to the level of other US gastronomic destinations like Brooklyn, New York, Portland, Oregon, and Charleston, South Carolina. And the entrepreneurs, chefs and workers — many of whom are also East Nashville residents— are propelling the turnaround with a palpable sense of community responsibility and local pride, making this a town you want to tackle with a hearty appetite.

Whether you are heading to coffee shops that feature cutting-edge equipment, cocktail bars shaking up inventive libations or burger joints that hearken back to the soda shops of yore, East Nashville takes its food, drinks -- and fun -- pretty seriously.

The 2012 tastemakers
Nestled off of the busy thoroughfare of Gallatin Avenue is Barista Parlor, where owner Andy Mumma and his staff garner rave reviews for their precise coffee making. Opened in May 2012 in a former auto repair garage, the shop’s stylish interior now features a wall-sized mural by local artist Bryce McCloud and furniture crafted from local Tennessee lumber. Baristas use a state of the art machine called “The Slayer”– handmade in Seattle and one of only a few dozen in use in the United States — which allows them to carefully control, or “profile”, each particular roast to bring out subtleties normally lost in harsher espresso making.

Catering to the coffee connoisseur, every drip coffee is hand poured, and patrons can customize their morning jolt by choosing espresso from a rotating selection of six coffee heavyweights: Stumptown, Sightglass, Counter-Culture, Coava, Intelligentsia and Madcap. The shop uses only local, non-homogenized milk from Hatcher Dairy for signature drinks like their Bourbon Vanilla Latte, and features an ample selection of loose-leaf teas. Daily kitchen offerings include sausage-egg-and-cheese biscuits made with ingredients from Porter Road Butchers and The Bloomy Rind cheese shop, which opened a joint retail space around the corner in late 2011.  

Lockeland Table, which opened in August 2012, already has a packed house nearly every night of the week and a reputation for upscale dining without any fuss. Co-owned by Cara Graham and Chef Hal Holden-Bache, the place is a top to bottom testament to East Nashville’s community roots: everything has a story and the theme of preservation runs deep. For instance, the restaurant’s community table (made of wood from an old Tennessee barn that has been in Graham’s family for more than 100 years) allows locals to pop in and meet other like-minded diners without calling ahead for reservations, and the bar tops are made of wood from a defunct Nashville bowling alley.

For drinks, bartenders Jim Popp and Liz Endecott are bringing back “shrubs” — a long-lost cocktail-making technique that involves combining fruit with sugar and vinegar and adding spirits. They also serve up local microbrews from Jackalope Brewery and East Nashville’s brand new Fat Bottom Brewery, as well as having a thorough wine list. The dinner menu is a further example of Graham and Holden-Bache’s commitment to local food and fresh ingredients: vegetables like okra, eggplant and acorn squash come from Kevin Baggett’s farm only two miles away, and greens come from the close by CC Gardens. The buttermilk ricotta and creamy mozzarella cheeses that top the wood-fired pizzas are made in house, and all of the herbs come from the duo’s garden in the back. Favourite dishes include house made herbed gnocchi; Carolina Mountain trout with sweet potato, sunchoke and apple hash; and Niman Ranch pork loin with Tennessee-smoked cheddar macaroni and cheese.

The 2011 neighbourhood favourites
Opened in December 2011, the Pharmacy Burger Parlor and Beer Garden (731 McFerrin Avenue; 615-712-9517) delivers a variety of handmade Tennessee beef burgers, salmon burgers and lighter vegetarian patties. The enormously popular Farm Burger uses Tennessee beef, Tripp Country ham, Emerald Glen Farm bacon, a fried Willow Farm egg on a special Provence bun to create a heart stopper that oozes bright orange yolk over your choice of side — do not miss the hand-cut sweet potato fries.

The offerings are paired with a continuously rotating selection of craft beers on draft, including some from Nashville’s Yazoo and Jackalope breweries, as well as handmade sodas, shakes and phosphates (a soda made using Acid Phosphate, a chemical component used in small doses to add bitterness to balance the sweetness of traditional soda syrup).

The ethos behind the Pharmacy is to have adults “remember how great it was to eat, drink and play in the grass”, said Owner Terrell Raley (who also owns the nearby upscale bar and restaurant Holland House). With outdoor picnic tables covering a sunny, sloped hill and a large indoor bar where you can watch the bartenders whip up sodas and pour beers, it is easy to see why adults and children would feel a similar sense of wonder.  

The 2010 neighbourhood staples
Owner Teresa Mason built a loyal following for Mas Tacos Por Favor in 2008, when she served tacos out of a colourful, retrofitted ‘74 Winnebago that she parked in front of bars in the neighbourhood’s hip downtown area of 5 Points (where Clearview, Woodland, and 11th Streets intersect).

The food truck is still in use, but East Nashville residents now head to her brick and mortar location on Mcferrin Avenue. Opened in the summer of 2010, diners file in for a taste of her legendary tortilla soup, fried avocado tacos topped with a yogurt-dill sauce, or crispy fried plantains and black beans. If you are thirsty, try the refreshing pineapple-cilantro agua fresca (infused coolers), which can be made into a tasty south-of-the-border cocktail with the addition of tequila (Mas Tacos allows diners to bring their own alcoholic beverages).

Inside, the unassuming restaurant is a hodgepodge of tin panelling, mismatched tables, Mexican tapestries and saddle blankets. The eclectic interior illustrates the collaborative effort between Mason and her creative supporters, who headed to local salvage yards to source the wood and tin used to build the space.

After dinner, head to No 308 to find a packed bar full of locals, loud music and inventive cocktails served with panache. Opened in December 2010 by Alexis Soler, No 308 hits the mark as a low-key bar with a high brow cocktail menu, with house made sodas and freshly made juices forming the backbone of their mixology staples. The list has something for everyone, with experimental favourites like the Smokey Robinson -- a savoury-sweet mixture of blanco tequila, smoked salt, honey and scotch with fresh celery and lime juice --and perfected classics like the whiskey ginger, made with house-made ginger soda for a fresh take on an old faithful. 

The bar is plastered with pages of the proprietor’s favourite authors like William S Burroughs, Charles Bukowski and Richard Brautigan. Stuffed taxidermy hangs on the walls and bar seats are made of repurposed tractor parts.

Like Barista Parlor, No 308 also makes regular visits to local Porter Road Butchers and The Bloomy Rind for the charcuterie ingredients on their small plates menu. Tennessee-born chef Abby Crosett serves up diverse late-night offerings ranging from traditional Cuban black beans and rice with a fried egg (an old family recipe from Solers’ grandmother), to Nashville’s famous “Hot Chicken” Chicken Wings with a buttermilk biscuit and pickles. The kitchen stays open until 1 am on the weekends, ample time to be hungry again after a long night of sampling cocktails.