Eat and Play in Nashville

Nashville buzzes with several energetic gay nightspots

The most progressive city in the so-called Bible Belt, Nashville has developed into one of the South’s gay-friendliest destinations. The country music industry, with which the city is famously identified, does have a fairly conservative reputation, but in fact the city’s legendary music business and fast-growing theater and visual-arts scenes have compelled quite a few gays and lesbians to move here. Nashville now buzzes with offbeat retail and entertainment districts, several energetic gay nightspots, and a wealth of attractions related to music and the arts.

Downtown Nashville is set around the courtly Greek Revival-style Capitol, which is perched atop the highest hill in the city. Behind it, the dignified Bicentennial Mall State Park contains elegant fountains and a 200-foot granite map of the state. You can learn a thing or two about the state’s history at the nearby Tennessee State Museum. History buffs should also note the Beaux Arts-style Hermitage Hotel, where, in 1920, suffragists from around the country and their opponents encamped while debating the ratification of the 19th Amendment (which granted women the right to vote).

A block over, 5th Avenue was the site throughout the ’60s of Civil Rights demonstrations, the success of which inspired similar protests throughout the South. These days, 5th Avenue has become rather artsy – it’s the site of several excellent galleries and the nearby Frist Center for the Visual Arts, which occupies a handsomely restored, art deco post office building and hosts world-class art exhibitions and traveling shows.

A few blocks east, toward the Cumberland River, you’ll come to Nashville’s old Market Street, now 2nd Avenue, where a long row of redbrick Victorian warehouses was rescued from neglect in the 1980s and converted into restaurants, music clubs, brew pubs, and specialty shops. First Avenue runs along Riverfront Park, a long brick promenade with views across the river. Here you can tour a reproduction of the settlement’s first outpost, Fort Nashborough.

Downtown’s most impressive attraction is the Country Music Hall of Fame, a handsome and huge modern structure whose exhibits not only honor dozens of legendary musicians (Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, and Dolly Parton among them) but also give an impressive overview of folk, bluegrass, rockabilly, and many other genres with close ties to Nashville. The nearby Ryman Auditorium is one of the grand music icons of downtown, often hosting Grand Ole Opry shows. Seating is in old wooden pews, and behind-the-scenes tours are given during the day.

It’s a short drive from downtown to reach the hub of the city’s recording industry, Music Row. You can tour Studio B, where everyone from Elvis to Dolly Parton has recorded, as well as a few other music-related museums. Follow Broadway beyond Music Row to reach Midtown and its main drag, West End Avenue – you’ll pass several of the city’s schools and medical facilities, including Vanderbilt University, as well as an art-filled, full-scale replica of the Parthenon.

West End Avenue eventually leads into ritzy Belle Meade, where many music celebrities and politicians reside. There are a couple of notable museums in this area, including the Greek Revival Belle Meade Plantation, once the site of a 5,300-acre Thoroughbred breeding farm, and Cheekwood, a 1925 Georgian-style house on whose grounds you’ll find the Tennessee Botanical Gardens & Museum.

Dining in Nashville has become increasingly sophisticated of late. In a railway and warehouse neighborhood on the edge of downtown, you can dine at one of the city’s current stars, Radius10, a snazzy, white-on-white restaurant with exposed air vents and an unfinished cement floor. Top dishes here include Kobe beef short ribs with black-truffle grits, and halibut with andouille sausage, dirty rice, and crawfish. A more traditional option is long-running Merchants, which is set inside a masterfully restored 1892 brick building downtown and serves tasty American fare.

Two neighborhoods that have developed increasingly gay followings in Nashville in recent years are East Nashville and 12th Avenue South, and both have a slew of great restaurants, too. Along 12th Avenue South, sexy and sophisticated Mirror restaurant serves Mediterranean-inspired tapas, such as smoked-lamb gyros with cumin sauce, and saffron ravioli stuffed with shrimp, mushrooms, and brie. Nearby Rumours Wine and Art Bar is fun for dinner or just to snack and sip wine – there’s a popular branch of Rumours in East Nashville, too. For an unusual and refreshing dessert, pick up one of the oddly flavored popsicles (chai tea, cucumber-pepper, chocolate-wasabi) sold at Las Paletas.

East Nashville eateries with superb food include lesbian-owned Margot, which turns out delicious French bistro fare. This is the place in town for Sunday brunch (reservations are a good idea). The same owners run the nearby coffeehouse and bakery, Marche, which serves up all sorts of tasty snacks. For sweets, check out Pied Piper Creamery, whose playfully named and concocted ice cream flavors are a big hit – order a scoop of “Trailer Trash” (packed with assorted candy parts), or tuck into a dish of “The Professor” (toasted coconut, almonds, pecans, and cashews).

Additional worthwhile dining and shopping opportunities await in funky Hillsboro Village, near Vanderbilt University, which offers an intriguing selection of stylish boutiques and distinctive restaurants. Here you’ll find Cabana, which serves crispy and delectable fried chicken, along with several inventive takes on down-home Southern food. Caffeine addicts get their fix at Bongo Java, in a turn-of-the-century house filled with local art. Bongo Java earned international infamy as the home of the “nun bun,” a cinnamon roll that bears an amazing likeness to Mother Teresa. The same owners also operate a cool coffeehouse and restaurant in Hillsboro called Fido.

For gay nightlife, head to Church Street in the West End. Arguably the neighborhood’s hottest gay bar, Tribe is a hip spot with a cute and diverse crowd and a full restaurant, an open-air deck, a decent-size dance floor, and a lounge area with plenty of comfy chairs. If you’re seeking a more high-energy experience, venture next door to Play, a sprawling dance club that packs in huge crowds on weekends. Although it’s a LGBT establishment, plenty of straights party here, too. Other gay hangouts in the same area include Blue Gene’s, a relaxed neighborhood joint, and Blu Bar and Nightclub, which is especially popular with Nashville’s African-American gay community. Nearby you can shop for books and Pride items at OutLoud, which also has a pleasant little cafe open for breakfast and lunch.

Over in East Nashville you’ll find one of the liveliest lesbian bars in the South, Lipstick Lounge, set inside a brightly colored and attractively furnished old house. On the main level there’s a small dance bar, and live music is often featured. Upstairs there’s a lounge with darts, video games, and the like. One neighborhood hangout worth going out of your way for – if you’re up for a quirky scene and hanging out with a completely unpretentious crowd – is Trax, a hard-to-find little dive bar in a somewhat industrial neighborhood south of downtown. Amid the linoleum floors and a fun juke box playing everything from country tunes to The Cure, you’ll find a pool table, darts, and an all-ages, mostly male (but all-welcome) crowd sucking down cheap drinks.

Although not a gay establishment, the famed Bluebird Cafe does have something of a community following. This intimate spot serves passable comfort food, but you really come here to listen to outstanding live music in an intimate setting. There are two shows each night, the first more amateurish, the second generally featuring quite seasoned professionals.

Nashville’s once staid hotel selection got a nice boost with the opening of the Hotel Indigo, a gay-friendly, moderately priced, and sleekly designed mid-rise in the city’s West End – it’s a short walk from gay nightlife. Also near West End gay bars, the posh and refined Loews Vanderbilt Hotel has dark cherry furniture, a slick white lobby, and first-rate service. This is the top business hotel in the city, and also a favorite of music celebs.

Occupying a turn-of-the-century railroad terminal on the edge of downtown, the Union Station Hotel has a gorgeous lobby and warmly furnished rooms. Light sleepers should keep in mind that freight trains rumble softly by some rooms, so request a unit away from the tracks if this concerns you. Run by the same team behind Portland, Oregon’s swanky Lucia and deLuxe hotels, the Hotel Preston offers the hippest accommodations in Nashville. Alas, the location leaves a bit to be desired – it’s 10 miles southeast of downtown, by the airport.

About a 20-minute drive east of downtown, the giant Gaylord Opryland Resort comprises a huge hotel, spa, golf course, and the Grand Ole Opry performance center. If you’re hungry, keep in mind that the open-air buffet at the Water’s Edge Marketplace offers terrific food, at least as buffets go, and at fair prices. Although it’s largely the domain of conventioneers and tourists, Opryland is at least worth a quick visit to admire the acres of indoor gardens and courtyards, and partake of some of the most colorful people-watching in Nashville.