We came in search of Music City beyond the twang and it didn’t take us long to find it.
A drag performer named China, in a fuchsia dress, belts out “I Will Always Love You” – lip-syncing the Whitney Houston version of this Dolly Parton original. It’s our first morning in town, and we’ve landed at Suzy Wong’s House of Yum. The restaurant’s chef and owner, Arnold Myint, was a “Top Chef” contestant. Suzy Wong is the main character of a 1957 novel and a campy 1960 movie – a Chinese lady of the night who takes up with a U.S. diplomat – and also Myint’s drag persona.
It’s only midmorning, but women sit around giant fishbowls of booze and let out high-pitched screams at some hazy memory of weekend hijinks.
We feast on the “Hong Kong Millionaire” – french fries topped with an egg and pulled-pork scramble helped along by cheese, tomato confit, scallions and sriracha.
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Nashville is more than the Grand Ole Opry, the Disney-esque Country Music Hall of Fame and Broadway – downtown’s touristic music road.
Urbanism and new residents are transforming the city, even as it upholds great culinary and roots music traditions. There’s no place quite like it.
Let’s start with music. In Nashville, it’s everywhere, intimate and diverse.
We sought to avoid country of the “I’m-drunk-and-got-my-girl-and-my-truck” variety.
The Bluebird Cafe draws massive crowds due in part to the “Nashville” TV show. So we head there for Monday open-mic night, which features more singer-songwriters than country-star wannabes. The venue shares a strip mall with a bridal shop and a laundry, and by the time we get there in a driving rainstorm two hours before the doors even open, about 100 people wait in line, all huddled under the awning, stepping aside for dry cleaning customers. By showtime, the head count reaches 400.
Unless you really need to see the Bluebird, I suggest you check out any number of other killer open-mic nights around the city, many in out-of-the-way bars.
One suggestion: 3rd and Lindsley. We sit in the balcony, sip RC Cola and rum and listen to Haas Kowert Tice, a talented young trio. Later the main event takes the stage: The Lonesome Trio – an acoustic band featuring Ed Helms and two pals – hits the stage with mandolin, guitar, banjo and bass.
On good advice, we also hit the dance party at the 5 Spot in East Nashville. The space was hot, dank and dark, and the DJ was spinning oldies and rockabilly, with classic Ed Sullivan performances projected on a screen.
Dancers cut up the floor fiercely to the Drifters’ “Drip Drip Drippity Drop,” swinging each other around with practiced exuberance.
Food and drink
You can now go to almost any U.S. city and get a great meal. But for flavor and simplicity, people staffing the stoves in Nashville know what they’re doing because their great-grandmothers did it and passed it on.
We’ll start at the high end, Husk, where the wines are categorized not by red or white but by soil type. The Bob Woods Murfreesboro ham sits out on the bar,We drink craft cocktails and share rice cakes with pimento cheese, and shrimp and grits with a wonderful earthiness by way of ’shrooms I have to guess are local.
But we enjoy “meat and three” at Arnold’s just as much. That’s roast beef or fried chicken plus three choices from the list of sides: green beans, corn, mashed potatoes, collard greens and banana pudding.
One night, we had a perfectly greasy burger, fries and shake at the Pharmacy. Music on the stereo: “Belong” from Washed Out, which Rolling Stone once accurately described as “zonked out electropop.”
To cool off, we hit up Las Paletas popsicles in the 12 South neighborhood. You’ll want to spend some time in 12 South. The neighborhood was in a bad way not too long ago, but now is a hotbed of restaurants, bars, coffee shops and boutiques.
The boutiques look suspiciously like someone from Brooklyn or Los Angeles decided to try Nashville for its cheaper rents. At Emerson Grace, the replica 1970s-era tour shirts of the Ramones, David Bowie and the Stones are hand-distressedand go for $159. At Savant Vintage, the stuff isn’t made to look old. It’s actually old.
If you like vinyl records: Grimey’s. “Scarlet Begonias” played as we walked in, which put me on the hunt for some Grateful Dead. I walked out with a double live album, 1977, Cornell University, every Deadhead’s holy grail.
Fun in the ‘other’ Nashville
Suzy Wong’s House of Yum: www.suzywongsnashville.com.
Bluebird Cafe: www.bluebirdcafe.com.
3rd and Lindsley: www.3rdandlindsley.com.
5 Spot: www.the5spotlive.com.
The Pharmacy: www.thepharmacynashville.com.
Las Paletas: www.laspaletasnashville.com.
Emerson Grace Search for it at www.facebook.com.
Savant Vintage Couture: Search for it at www.facebook.com.
Area info: www.www.visitmusiccity.com.