The neighborhood spot that’s been a local’s staple for years is still hanging on, and now, a whole new crop of restaurants and bars have joined it — at a shockingly quick clip. Yes, it’s getting harder to keep track of all the changes — a former meatpacking district and a downtown rail yard turning into entertainment destinations, to name a few — happening in Music City. The food and drink scene is no different. Choosing the 2023 Eater Awards winners was particularly challenging amid the culinary whirlwind brewing around these parts. The whiplash is real.
But the question stands: What does it mean to be the best? This year’s list focuses on businesses that are taking what’s familiar to Nashvillians and making it their own in a particularly exceptional fashion — and we have an unshakeable faith that they have what it takes to stick around for the long haul. A couple of other notes: while we love a good Crunchwrap as much as the next person, no chains. Also, the spots on this list were born and raised in Nashville — no outposts from out of town. (Although we reserve the right to change our minds on that in 2024.) Without further ado, here are the 2023 Eater Award winners in Nashville.
Bastion: Restaurant of the Year
Tasting menus are cropping up all over town, and if you’re willing to drop a portion of a paycheck on them, they can be quite the experience. Bastion in Wedgewood Houston is one of the best in the city — and one of the more affordable. Josh Habiger hasn’t lost his magic — he introduced the elevated tasting menu to Nashville at the Catbird Seat and continues to innovate on them within his 24-seat dining room. The multi-plate journey changes constantly, but you can always count on a culinary surprise on your plate and in your cup — whether it’s cobia with fennel and milk bread, raw beef with squid ink and sesame, or tomato water with bee pollen. Through fun collaborations with chefs across the country (like a recent washoku experience with Atlanta’s Mujō), Bastion proves that tasting menus can find ways to challenge the status quo while still remaining relatively approachable (at $125 per person, it’s one of the better tasting menu values in town).
Noko: Best New Restaurant
Smoked meats are practically a religion around these parts. And so in comes Noko, using that familiar wood-fire cooking technique to introduce East Nashville to gochujang hot wings, Wagyu brisket with Asian spices, and Korean bacon glazed with ssamjang. Partners Jon Murray, Wilson Brannock, and Dung “Junior” Vo (the former executive chef at O-Ku Charleston and head of Noko’s kitchen) officially opened its doors this past March, and Porter Road hasn’t been the same since. Guest come in droves for the delicate crudos and elegant tartares, a 42-ounce wood-fired tomahawk the size of the table, and a toothsome pandan ice cream with a slightly grassy, coconut flavor that deserves a second helping. Reservations fill up weeks in advance, but the wait is worth it.
The Fox Bar & Cocktail Club: Best Bar of the Year
Nashville has its fair share of bars, so it takes something really singular to stand out from the crowd. And the Fox Bar & Cocktail Club has what it takes. Yes, they make everything that isn’t alcohol in-house. And yes, the Fox colada with rum, white miso honey, sweet corn, and pineapple is probably one of the finest riffs on the piña colada that will ever grace a bar counter. But it’s the minimal-waste program here that sets it apart — in fact, they take waste from other places and turn it into ingredients for its drinks. Fruit husks are upcycled for citrus stock and spirit infusions, recycling is enforced, and all garnishes must have a long shelf life. So you can feel good about every single sip you take at this dimly lit 1,000-square-foot watering hole — and that calls for a few extra rounds.
The Twelve Thirty Club: Best Night Out
There is, indeed, a Broadway address on this list. And that’s because the Twelve Thirty Club has taken the ubiquitous Nashville honky-tonk concept and given it a new lease on life — one that might actually convince you to brave the throngs of pink cowboy hats even when you don’t have visitors in from out of town. It’s a Sam Fox-Justin Timberlake venture, so you can count on a mix of well-executed food and drink options and some stellar live music acts at each of the three concepts here: the supper club, the rooftop bar, and the polished wood honky-tonk. Consider the sweet cream cornbread and one of their variations on the Old Fashioned the ideal precursor to a night of dancing in a class-act tonk.
S.S. Gai: Best Fried Chicken
Not to state the obvious, but Nashville knows how to churn out a fried bird — specifically of the hot variety. It takes a lot to not just take on the establishment but beat them at their game. Chris and Emma Biard are doing exactly that with the Thai fried chicken at S.S. Gai. Situated in bay 3 of The Wash, their perfectly crisp chicken comes with sticky rice, fried shallots and garlic, tamarind chile fish sauce, chile vinegar, vegetables, and herbs that you can artfully arrange into rolls and dip to your heart’s content. You can also opt to turn up the heat with their “make it risky” option made up of an ever-changing combination of scorching seasonal ingredients (one recent combo used black lime, cabbage, and hot peppers soaked in fish sauce for a few days). And for a town with a broken-in palate, it’ll still manage to make you sweat.