10 best restaurants in Nashville, according to chef Julia Sullivan

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Julia Sullivan grew up in Nashville and is one of many women chefs who are thriving in the city. When she graduated from high school in 2001, she moved to New Orleans to attend Tulane University. Then, she studied at Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., and worked in a few restaurants in New York City.

In 2013, she moved back to Music City, which had become a gastronome destination. “In terms of it becoming a restaurant town, it didn’t really start until the early 2000s, and the change sped up since then,” Sullivan said. She had no ambition to open a place in New York.

Chef Julia Sullivan gives her Nashville picksChef Julia Sullivan gives her Nashville picks — Photo courtesy of Andrea Behrends

“It’s not where I saw myself long term. I wanted to be back home close to friends and family. Because Nashville was a growing market, it seemed like it was a possibility to do it here versus an in larger city. I think the people who come here earnestly to live and invest in the city are really exciting and fun to be around and are a nice part of the community.”

Nashville might be known for hot chicken – she’s surprised it took off – but she doesn’t eat it much. In 2017, she opened Henrietta Red, named after her paternal grandparents. The Germantown neighborhood joint serves weekend brunch and nightly dinner, focusing on oysters, contemporary seasonal ingredients and sometimes homey Southern dishes.

In 2018, the James Beard Foundation nominated the restaurant for Best New Restaurant, and in 2019, she was a semi-finalist for Best Chef Southeast. One year she hopes to make the finals. “I want to go to the party,” she said. But when she’s off the clock, she likes to hit up spots in her East Nashville neighborhood.

Café Roze

Cafe Roze offers breakfast, lunch and dinner foods like beet toast.Cafe Roze offers breakfast, lunch and dinner foods like beet toast. — Photo courtesy of Carleen Doyle

Chef Julia Jaksic runs this all-day café that specializes in coffee (Nashville’s inventive coffee soda and a Roze latte made with cardamom and rose), sandwiches, salads, smoothies, cocktails (day and dinner drinks) and beet toast.

“I think Café Roze is great,” Sullivan said. “I go here for coffee and breakfast food and lunch. They have healthy breakfast options. You can do a grain bowl or a hearty breakfast with eggs and bacon.”

Margot Café and Bar

Sullivan describes chef/owner Margot McCormack as the “mother of the whole scene” with Margot Cafe and Bar.

“Her place opened the same year that I graduated high school,” Sullivan said, and it’s been a staple ever since. McCormack cooks up Italian- and French-inspired dishes with Southern elements, like Derby pie and Georgia shrimp hushpuppies.

The menu changes daily and centers on local purveyors, and they have a solid wine list. “The place is so unique and special,” Sullivan said. “Margot’s been in the same location for 19 years. It transports you a little bit to Northern California. It’s got this neighborhood-y California, French romantic vibe, and I just love that’s she’s still doing what she’s doing there.”

Two Ten Jack

The izakaya-style eatery offers several meat and veggie forward ramen bowls.The izakaya-style eatery offers several meat and veggie forward ramen bowls. — Photo courtesy of Andrea Behrends

“For dinner, there’s a bar at a restaurant called Two Ten Jack, which is a Japanese izakaya-style restaurant that’s very neighborhood,” Sullivan said. Named after a Japanese card trick, the place opened in 2014 as Nashville’s first izakaya (they also have a location in Chattanooga).

They offer on-tap cocktails, American and Japanese beers, shochu, Japanese fried chicken, sashimi, yakitori and several kinds of ramen bowls. In the winter, Sullivan likes to warm up with comforting bowls prepared by Jessica Benefield (Jack’s chef/partner).

Woodland Wine Merchant

“I live by a massive park in East Nashville, so I ride my bike a lot and will stop in Five Points Pizza, a different kind of pizza spot.” Five Points sells pizza-by-the slice and whole pies, and offers a happy hour slice and draft beer deal.

Speaking of booze, “There’s a great wine store across the street [from Five Points] called Woodland Wine Merchant,” she said. “It has an awesome natural wines selection and wines at all different price points.” They do weekly wine tastings and “carefully curate” their selections.

Dozen Bakery

Sullivan likes Dozen Bakery's pastries, including the ginger cookie.Sullivan likes Dozen Bakery’s pastries, including the ginger cookie. — Photo courtesy of Kate Hinrichs

Moving beyond East Nashville, Sullivan likes to grab breakfast at Dozen Bakery in the Wedgewood-Houston neighborhood. In 2015, Nashville native Claire Meneely opened up the brick-and-mortar bakery/lunch/brunch spot.

“I love Claire’s pastries,” Sullivan said. “There’s an awesome baguette that you can get with butter, or avocado or scrambled eggs, in the morning.” Dozen Bakery offers the split baguette on Saturday and Sunday, and customers can add the aforementioned items but also house-made jam and bacon.

“All of her pastries are delicious. I love the ginger molasses cookie,” says Sullivan. Besides cookies, Claire and team bake scones, croissants (the kouign-amann is buttery, caramelized and cake-like), galettes, pies and brownies with a snickerdoodle crust. They also have a full lunch menu comprised of soups, sandwiches, tartines and baguette sandwiches.

Folk

A soppressata pizza with provolone piccante, red onion and preserved hot peppers.A soppressata pizza with provolone piccante, red onion and preserved hot peppers. — Photo courtesy of Emily Dorio

In 2018, James Beard-nominated chef and owner Philip Krajeck opened Folk, a wood-fired pizza eatery. That was almost six years after solidifying his first restaurant, Rolf and Daughters, as one of Nashville’s best new restaurants.

Folk uses two wood-fired ovens to generate neo-Neapolitan pizzas. But pizza isn’t the main course – the rest of the menu is vegetable, seafood and meat heavy.

“I love it because it reminds me of Franny’s,” Sullivan said about a place she worked in Brooklyn, which shuttered in 2017. “I missed that neighborhood wood-fire experience, so I was excited when Philip opened that. The nice thing about Folk is that it’s seasonal, so you can try something different every time you’re there.”

Bastion

Raw scallops and rhubarb is one of the dishes you might find on Bastion's tasting menu.Raw scallops and rhubarb is one of the dishes you might find on Bastion’s tasting menu. — Photo courtesy of Andrea Behrends

From James Beard-nominated chef Josh Habiger, Bastion – named after a character from ’80s film The NeverEnding Story except with a different spelling – is a converted warehouse location in Wedgewood-Houston that offers two experiences.

The first is known as Big Bar, where customers get a casual experience of eclectic cocktails, local and national beers, gourmet nachos and bubble hockey. The other side proffers 24 seats for its elegant pick-your-own, five-course tasting menu – without nachos.

For a splurge, Sullivan likes to come here. “The tasting menu there is really awesome, and they also have good drinks and nachos in their Big Bar. But If I’m going to have a really nice night out, I’ll go to Bastion.”

Proper Bagel

In 2016, Heather Speranza, her husband, and parents opened the Belmont/Hillsboro-area modern Jewish deli/bagel shop. The New York family has more than 40 years of bagel-making experience, and they even fly in their smoked salmon from NYC.

“They have really a great everything bagel with a dill pickle cream cheese,” Sullivan said. “Or I’ll do a sun-dried tomato spread with bacon on top.” Other cream cheese options include Reese’s peanut butter cup, cookie dough, vegan cinnamon hazelnut and many more.

Proper Bagel‘s “proper breakfast items” include a carrot cake waffle, potato latkes and several varieties of toasts with toppings. “They also have really great bagel sandwiches,” Sullivan explained, such as reuben, smoked turkey blta (the “a” stands for avocado), and smoked fish sandwiches. Patrons can eat in or get bagels and spreads to-go from their market.

Arnold’s Country Kitchen

Arnold's signature meat and three plates still attracts Nashvillians.Arnold’s signature meat and three plates still attracts Nashvillians. — Photo courtesy of Arnold’s Country Kitchen

Of all the establishments in Music City, Sullivan thinks Arnold’s embodies what Nashville most represents food-wise. “It’s meat and three, which is a style that’s so significant here,” she said of the lunch-only and cafeteria-style spot that attracts lines out the door.

The “three” denotes the three Southern vegetable-based sides (mac and cheese counts as a veggie) that come with the meat. “They have great hospitality and the food is delicious, and it’s a place that’s unique to Nashville,” Sullivan said.

Arnold’s changes its menu every day, but you can expect at least four kinds of meats to choose from and around eight or nine sides. She adds, “I just go in and get whatever they’re serving. They have great roast beef, good fried chicken, catfish. They have a nice chocolate pie with chili in it that’s a bit spicy.”

Henrietta Red

For brunch, Henrietta Red shakes up a Bloody Mary and a cold brew coffee milk punch.For brunch, Henrietta Red shakes up a Bloody Mary and a cold brew coffee milk punch. — Photo courtesy of Garin Pirnia

It’s not haughty if a chef names her place as a go-to spot, especially when maybe once a month she likes to hang out there when she’s not cheffing. “Honestly, I think our restaurant is awesome in summer,” Sullivan said. “We have such a good, fresh oyster selection. The bar is nice and airy. Sometimes when I’m not working, I’ll pop in and get drinks and oysters and crudo there.”

If she has friends in town, she’ll bring them to the restaurant. “Some people find it stressful, I think, but I enjoy what we do and I think our staff is wonderful,” she said. “So I enjoy going in every now and then.”

The restaurant features a separate bar, and a sit-down bright dining room that buzzes during Saturday and Sunday brunch. The raw bar contains oysters and clams from the Gulf and from the coasts, and she integrates them into wood-fired dishes. Plus, the restaurant is walking distance to Steadfast Coffee, a popular coffee shop and roaster that Sullivan likes.

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