En Route to Bonnaroo: Nashville (Part I)

The Southern Sojourn
June 2011

Aside from the general desire to share my wanderings, the flavors and the general feel of the South inspired me in ways that will be evident and bear a background story.  Accordingly, I present the city-by-city recap of my Southern Sojourn.

Now for Nashville, Round One…

I could preface all of the “En Route to Bonnaroo” posts with “our stay in ____ was way too short,” but our stay in Nashville was definitely too short.  It was one evening, one night and then a trip to a strip mall to properly prepare for our Bonnaroo experience. That being prefaced, within the short windows of time we had, Sandra and I managed to fall in love with one place in particular and find a few other favorable acquaintances along the way.

My friend Nicole mentioned visiting Nashville and was very excited for my first time in the music city.  I asked for her recommendations, bearing in mind our time was very limited.  Nicole gave me a gift called The Patterson House, and I owe her!   Before I get too far ahead of myself, let me at least mention dinner.

The meal in Athens, the sprawl of Atlanta traffic spilling way beyond city limits and my misjudgment of a “close” hotel location put us in Nashville proper pretty late in the grand scheme of the evening.  As we walked Broadway Street trying to determine a worthy, late dining option by appearance alone, a thought dawned on me- Matt may live here!

Matt and I met at an American Institute of Architecture Students leadership conference in Washington DC.  We reconnected at a similar conference in New Orleans, after which I took a  beautiful train ride to Wynn, Arkansas to visit him on his small town, home front.  Every now and then, I’d call Matt to keep our communication more personal and to keep us connected.  Granted, I hadn’t done such a great job recently, but I did think of him often.  I knew he was living in Tennessee, but I couldn’t recall if he had chosen Memphis or Nashville as his post college locale. Only one way to find out…

Moi:  “Hey Matt!  Where is it you live again?”

Matt:  “Nashville.”

Moi:  “Oh!  Guess where I am!”

Matt:  “Uhhh… Nashville?”

(Click the above image for the full set of Nashville pictures)

As I walked and talked, Matt confirmed The Tavern as an acceptable dining choice and said he’d meet us there in a bit.  Sandra and I passed the time with whiskey drinks while waiting for both a table and Matt.  Before I had really heard the bartender speak, I prefaced my newness to the expansive world of bar drinks and my preference for something authentically “southern.” Then he opened his mouth, and a New Zealand accent flowed…probably not the bartender to fulfill my request (not that a foreigner couldn’t master a regional drink, but his confidence in that department was low).  He sought back up, and the result resembled a whiskey sour.  Passable.

Our meal was notably more southern than my drink:  cornmeal-fried organic catfish, whole-citrus tartar sauce, jalapeño cornbread and “Tennessee sweet potato fries.”  It was good, but it was nothing really to ramble on a blog about.  The more impressive aspect of the meal was the reconnection and another crossing of friendship circles.  The world is a very pleasantly small place sometimes.  Matt, Sandra and I left the restaurant, united in our Toms shoes, Tavern experience and the new friendships formed.  Then we parted ways, Matt for home; we for The Patterson House!

The Patterson House literally is in an historical house.  Without the assurance of friends who have previously braved the entry, courage could easily be lost around the dark and unassuming porch, on the nondescript corner, when the feeling of “this can’t be it,” starts to dominate.  Once the assurance (or in our case, the background information) enables you to risk opening the front door, you find yourself in a dimly lit library with a curtain dividing you and a moment recreated from drinking history.  The physical division might be pretentious, but as Nicole said when recommending the place, “damn if it doesn’t work!”  You wait anxiously until the moment when they tell you it’s your turn to cross the curtain and see what it reveals.

The bar takes center stage, and the light hits the warm wooden surface and tiers of fancy alcohols romantically.  There are strategically placed stations, or palettes rather, of fresh mint and various colorful fruits that vary far beyond the typical lemon and lime offerings:  brilliant blackberries, red raspberries, strawberries and so on.  The feel is that of an old library or the exclusive parlor, where men would have adjourned in the era when I would have been stuck in a kitchen (whereas now, I am liberated and have the choice of both).  Even the ceilings are aesthetic and enviable with their antique tin tiles.  I could live in this room.  The aggressive shaking of cocktails interrupts the long staring and mind wandering.  The artists are at work, and it’s time to decide.  What to ask of them?

The unassuming corner house takes its name from former Tennessee Governor Malcolm R. Patterson, who vetoed the return of statewide prohibition in 1909. The governor contended prohibition should be decided at the local level rather than by the state. The Legislature overruled Patterson’s veto, and the resulting modern homage is a multi-paged menu of tantalizing cocktail options.  If the artisans didn’t do their job so well, those pages could paralyze a patron with indecision, but the lads and ladies in Prohibition style attire are there not only to aid in deciding but to delight.

Judge me as you will- hipster, elitist, pretentious, whatever, but I’ll be damned, this is how I could drink forever!  I had visions of touring the nation, finding the dimly lit but carefully designed, secret spots of major cities all over the U.S. and developing my new whiskey habit.  For the moment, I reveled in the Nashville night.  It began with a cherry smoked cola and whiskey in a tall glass with perfect ice for even the ice here is highly intentional.  The night continued with a frothy strawberry drink in a delicate glass, followed by a custom lavender, citrus, whiskey drink and a new camaraderie.

The mixology was magical, and our charming magician, Christian, saved us from the extremes of our bar neighbors:  two gents who were quite our senior and not in a “I’m Robert Redford, I can still attract young ladies” way and a more age appropriate “musician” who lost me when he told me, “Oh, if you love Mumford and Sons, you’d love my band.”  My love of Mumford and Sons runs deep, and I’m not about to let any old gent with an old timey vest purport to be the local version of their greatness.  End of conversation, you crossed the line arrogant one.

We found far more in common with our attentive artisan and with the folk at the end of the bar who used to number amongst the staff.  Our new kinship resulted in a slice of the beautiful bread pudding from the staff dinner and a samplin’ of the southern style beignets courtesy of Christian.  Oh why, oh why was I so full on catfish and sweet potato fries when these desserts had so much more flavor to offer?!?!

The Patterson House felt so removed from time, but the hours did indeed catch up with us.  Alas, the bar was due to close, and we were due to return to our very average hotel.  As it turned out, we’d return to the dimly lit parlor before we knew it, but I do declare (because that seems the southern thing to do), the first time was the charm.  In the meantime, we had to sleep.

The following morning allowed for one more dose of Nashville.  First, my friendship circles crossed when Heather arrived at our hotel door.  She barely made it after several flight issues, but there we were, all together, ready for a Nashville breakfast and not quite ready for a musical experience like nothing any of us had experienced to date.  First, breakfast.

The Pancake Pantry.  It was another hit on Nicole’s list, and judging by the size of the line late on a Thursday morning, it was a hit on a number of lists.  Much as internet menu perusing had me ready to order at Farm 255, I was set with my pancake preference by the time we were seated:  sweet potato pancakes with homemade whipped cream and pure maple syrup, please!

Despite wanting to sample various flavors from the extensive pancake menu, Sandra and I couldn’t help but order the same option.  Though I only tasted one other pancake variety via Heather’s selection, I dare say, we made the optimal choice:  a not too thin, not too thick pancake with the extra fluffiness and flavor of sweet potato, with a kick of cinnamon and spice and the melting cream, which tasted like pure butter in the best way that whipped cream can taste like butter melting over a pancake (ok, maybe it was just whipped butter?).  It was a very difficult endeavor not to eat the entire plate, and regardless of my valiant attempts at modest restraint, the inevitable pancake coma still hit by the time we were in a local vintage shop and strolling the eclectic street.

The rest of the day was an adventure to a strip mall to fill a car with all things Bonnaroo, so this, Nashville Part One, pauses with a plate of pancake leftovers and puddles of maple syrup.

The Southern Sojourn continued!  Stay tuned…

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