It’s undoubtedly a tough time to be in the restaurant industry in Nashville. But even amid a year filled with dozens of openings and an increasing number of shocking closures, a Sunday morning drive by this upscale diner typically shows a line of people awaiting brunch. One year into Nashville restaurant ownership, Chef Brian Riggenbach looks back at the beginnings, the wins, and the unexpected happenings.
Riggenbach and husband GM/Partner Mikey Corona moved to Nashville in 2016 to open The Mockingbird with long-time friend Maneet Chauhan. Before relocating to Music City, Riggenbach spent time honing his craft in Paris, Italy, and Chicago, then showcased his skills on Season 24 of the Food Network’s award-winning show Chopped. That’s where Riggenbach reconnected with Chauhan, and oh-by-the-way—yes, he walked away from the show a “Chopped champion.” After reconnecting, Chauhan invited the couple down to dine with her around town, where Riggenbach recalls eating ten times a day, everywhere from Adele’s to Arnold’s. He laughs about heading back to Chicago “with engorged bellies” and something to ponder. “She asked us to send her a rough draft of a menu that would offer something not already existing in the dining scene in Music City. We noticed a lot of farm-to-table, fresh ingredients, and southern staples during that trip. However, there wasn’t a lot of representation of other cuisines or cultures in the menus we came across.” So the couple grabbed old menus from their underground supper club and married those more global flavors with classic diner dishes. And thus, The Mockingbird was born.
The design of the restaurant is one of the most stunning in town. Riggenbach and Corona worked closely with Morph’s in-house interior designer, London Parfitt to bring it all to life. Riggenbach describes the feel as modern yet classic, funky yet refined, and smooth yet edgy. His funny-but-true insider tip—”Please see the toilets on your visit with us.”
In the last year, Riggenbach says, like any restaurant, they have changed a few things—”that in our minds and on paper were amazing, but ended up as a no-go (sorry cookie cages!) in the actual execution.” He says an important lesson has been not to take negative feedback as a personal attack. “The business of feeding the public is a difficult road to navigate at times. For instance, not everyone is going to like our version of mac & cheese because it uses a cheese some people might be unfamiliar with, or it’s not your mom’s recipe or you are not a fan of the pasta we use- and that’s ok. We have come to peace with knowing we are not going to resonate with everyone- but as long as we are giving it our 100%, we’re good.”
On the other hand, people have gone wild for the “punchin’ bags”—actual clear plastic bags filled with a cocktail. The inspiration for those, he says came from travels to Mexico. “Each visit, we’d go we would hunt for the off-the-beaten-path markets to grab some local food, beverages, and art. We would always start the journey with an aqua fresca served to us in Ziplock bags by local street vendors. It never failed that each time we’d get them they instantly put us in a fun state of mind since it was such a unique way to enjoy a beverage. We knew we had to bring that special sense of whimsy to our first restaurant just so that it would remind us of those carefree days—when we used to be able to take vacations!”
He recounts a few memorable moments in the first year—including the once-in-a-lifetime eclipse the week after they opened, plus serving some of their most admired music and TV stars while trying to hide their giddiness, and an implosion party on the upstairs patio to view the falling of the Lifeway building.
Riggenbach says the must-order dishes of the moment are the ever-popular burger and the grilled cheese. He also really likes their new fish set-up: achiote marinated trout that sits on a bed of plantain and chorizo hash, with allspice chips and a cilantro crema. “It’s a beautifully full-favored dish with lots of layers of flavors and textures that just is so satisfying and tasty!” says Riggenbach.
The Mockingbird, as the name implies, intends to incorporate its surroundings, while also creating something entirely unique for Nashville. One year in, Riggenbach, Corona, and Chauhan have done just that.