Nashville is known for a number of homegrown specialties: Hot chicken, bonafide bourbon bars and the Grand Ole Opry, for example. An authentic bowl of ramen though? The Japanese noodle staple wasn’t regularly on the menu in Music City—or it wasn’t until ramen guru Sarah Gavigan hit the scene with chopsticks a’twirling. Born and raised in Tennessee, Sarah discovered her love of ramen while living in Los Angeles, and noticed a serious noodle need in her home state when she moved back home in 2009.
Sarah set about remedying Nashville’s dearth of Japanese comfort food by launching her own ramen pop-up, despite having no professional culinary experience. She named her venture Otaku South to reference her ramen addiction, as otaku translates to “obsessed.” Since opening, Sarah’s small time pop-up has flourished into a permanent fixture, with Nashville’s appetite for springy noodles and silky broth proving as voracious as her own.
As a Nashville success story with the inside track on the local scene (both edible and otherwise), what better person to give Music City recommendations than Gavigan? If you ask nicely, she might even give you the scoop on where to source prime pork bones for ramen broth. Until then, here are her top-seed picks for places to eat, imbibe and honky-tonk around Nashville.
THE TREEHOUSE, 1011 CLEARVIEW AVENUE
Yes, a real treehouse is part of the equation at this restaurant. No, there’s no cooking going on amongst the branches. Named after the colorful construction in the backyard, The Treehouse is rooted in the Five Points district of East Nashville in a house that the owner grew up in. The chef, Todd Alan Martin, specializes in rustic family-style dishes like shrimp toast with seaweed butter and patatas bravas topped with tomato-mint crema. If the urge should arise, you’ll also find a mighty fine walking taco (veggie chili and cheese served in a bag of Fritos®) rounding out the menu. Night owls are welcome too, as the kitchen caters to the late-night crowd who likes its music just a little too loud. As a regular, Gavigan always stakes out the best seat in the house—the one ”right by the kitchen.”
PEG LEG PORKER, 903 GLEAVES STREET
Gavigan suggests hitting this laidback joint specifically for the barbecue ribs, claiming that she could eat hundreds of them. If you’re lucky, the owner and pitmaster Carey Bringle will be calling out orders over the loudspeaker with his trademark chant of “Bizzle Bap!” “I laugh like crazy every time he says it,” says Gavigan. While you’re gnawing on ribs crusted in a 16-ingredient dry rub, remember to save room for the “squealin’ hot” chicken wings and smoky pulled pork. Don’t ask for the pork without slaw, or you might find yourself the butt of Bringle’s joke, bellowed over the microphone. This is a sauce-and-slaw establishment. Don’t you forget it.
HUSK, 37 RUTLEDGE STREET
Looking for a superior Southern bourbon selection? Husk delivers the brown spirit in spades, with more than 50 brands stocked behind the bar. An on-site cocktail apothecary program outfits bartenders with house-grown ingredients for every cocktail, and is dedicated to featuring local distilleries and seasonal flavors. If you find yourself spellbound by the bar program, take Gavigan’s cue and let drinks lead into dinner. The trance will surely continue under chef Sean Brock’s direction with smart plates like eggplant and crab purloo and boudin-stuffed quail. Gavigan’s advice? “Order the plate of vegetables. It will change the way you look at Southern food.”
NO. 308, 407 GALLATIN AVENUE
“This is dangerously close to my own restaurant,” hints Gavigan. She’s most impressed by the unmatched selection of Japanese whisky found at the bar, which is appropriately celebrated with Whisky Disco dance parties on Sunday nights. After the a dance romp, don’t miss the house-made sodas and cocktails named after famous writers like Hunter S. Thompson and William S. Burroughs. But Gavigan warns, “don’t even think of driving home from here—they pour ’em stiff.” Insider tip: If you play your cards right, the security guard might give you a ride.
PINEWOOD SOCIAL, 33 PEABODY STREET
Where else can you find a combination bar-bowling alley-pool-and-restaurant that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner? With such varied draws, it’s clear why Gavigan recommends whiling away an entire day at Pinewood. The local favorite Crema coffee bar will fortify you for a vigorous round of bocce ball or bowling on one of six vintage lanes imported from a dismantled Ohio alley. Once you’ve snagged your strikes, amble over to the poolside airstream trailer that dishes out tacos and frozen drinks. If that’s not entertainment enough for one day, park yourself at the bar awhile and watch bartenders hand-chisel ice from a 300-pound block for each cocktail.
THE BASEMENT, 1604 8TH AVENUE SOUTH, #330
“Literally in a basement, this place happens to have the best sound of any live venue I have ever been to. Plus, it’s the size of a small apartment in New York City,” notes Gavigan. The Basement may be compact, but as Gavigan notes, it’s got stunning acoustics. Peruse the impressive beer selection (local Yazoo Brewing Company included) and settle in to listen to local bands, singer-songwriters and touring artists of all genres, from indie-pop to gospel, all within intimate range of the low-set stage. Roll in on Tuesdays for the free New Faces Night, which features up to ten different acts and exudes a pleasantly familiar house-party vibe—as all good basements should.
(Photos courtesy Andrea Behrends)