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Enjoy dinner and a show at these Music City chef’s tables and bars.
Story by Chris Chamberlain
Nashville, Tennessee, is known as Music City, so it’s no surprise that many of its residents know how to entertain—and we’re not just talking about the musicians in the honky tonks of Lower Broad’s neon highway. This includes the chef community that offers many opportunities for diners to enjoy the show being performed in the kitchen from the comfort of exclusive chef’s tables or at long bars offering a prime seat for a view into the open kitchen. From high-end gastronomic experiences at venues like The Catbird Seat and Etch to more laid-back chef-diner interactions at Bastion and The Chef & I, Nashville offers a plethora of options for dinner and a show.
When The Catbird Seat opened in Midtown in 2011, Nashville had never seen anything like it. A private elevator carries diners to the entrance of the tiny dining room where 22 guests can be served at a U-shaped chef’s bar while a few others occupy a couple of tables with a slightly inferior view of the culinary show. Reservations open exactly a month before your dining date, so set your clock to midnight to be the first to pull the trigger if you want to be part of one of the two nightly seatings.
Photo Credit: Ansley Cohen
Designed as an incubator of fine dining chefs, the Catbird Seat is now in its fourth iteration of kitchen leadership. The open kitchen is now under the direction of head chef Will Aghajanian and pastry chef Liz Johnson who present multi-course dinners using locally-sourced ingredients whenever possible to create dishes that are literally works of art.
Over the course of a dozen servings, sweet and savory dishes are prepared, plated on handcrafted dishware, and presented directly to diners by the chefs and their talented staff. If you want to be surprised by what’s coming, either snag an early reservation or don’t peek at what your neighbor is eating since the dishes are presented in a staggered fashion as guests makes their way through the meal’s magical progression. The chefs are constantly experimenting, and the menu changes frequently based on the whims of the staff and the availability of premium ingredients. Dishes are inventively plated and frequently interactive as diners decipher and unravel the architectural complexity of each plate. The entire culinary journey takes at least a couple hours to complete, so clear your calendar for an entertaining night to remember.
Chef Deb Paquette has earned legions of fans for her work in some of Nashville’s most beloved erstwhile restaurants like Cakewalk Café and Zola during her decades leading local kitchens. When she opened Etch in SoBro the restaurant debuted to great acclaim, and the crowds keep on coming to enjoy Paquette’s talents for layering exotic internationally-inspired flavors within artfully-plated dishes. One pro tip is that Etch is also open for lunch during the week; enjoy smaller portions of many of the same dishes that appear on the dinner menu, but at lower prices and with smaller crowds.
A seat at the long chef’s bar offers an unobstructed view into the kitchen to watch Paquette lead her crew with humor and professionalism. Keep your eyes, ears, and nose open to experience the delicate dance of the staff preparing dishes like her famous roasted cauliflower served with truffled pea puree, salted almonds, feta crema, and red bell sauce that she will never be able to remove from the menu. Paquette is a fan of Middle Eastern flavors, so any dish featuring lamb or venison are always safe bets.
Less formal, but no less delicious is the cuisine at Bastion. Chef Josh Habiger was one of the two opening chefs at The Catbird Seat, and Nashville is fortunate to have been able to keep this talented culinarian in town until he was able to open his own project at Bastion. Located in a fairly nondescript former machine shop in the gritty Wedgewood-Houston neighborhood, Bastion is divided into two distinct venues. A large bar area attracts casual drinkers seeking well-crafted cocktails and cold craft beers and only one featured food item, a remarkable plate of elevated nachos.
Photo Credit: Andrew Thomas Lee
But the real treat lies past another door to the dining room hidden away in the rear of the building. Like at his former home, Habiger operates Bastion on a ticketing system where seats at the 24-seat tasting bar are available a month out. His tight team of cooks works behind the bar preparing small plates, often cooked over live fire, and presenting them directly to diners. Occasionally, one of the chefs will take a short break from cooking to jump out from behind the bar to change the album on the stereo to add to the ambiance of the dining room or pump up the energy in the kitchen.
There are two ways to eat at Bastion. Parties of four to six patrons are seated at tables on the other side of the dining room from the chef’s bar to partake in what Habiger calls “The Feast.” The two-hour experience includes a large protein served family-style accompanied by amazing side dishes, some of which are also featured on the à la carte menu. The à la carte experience is available to smaller parties, because the focus is supposed to be on the kitchen and the food. It’s perfect for solo dining or a date night where couples can forget about the trivial problems of everyday life and just concentrate on what’s on their plates. The à la carte menu is presented in a minimalist grid listing only a few details about each dish, like a bingo card. Check off which dishes you’d like to try and be careful not to overlap too much with your dining companion so you can sample more of the menu. Bastion suggests ordering four to five small plates per person, but there’s also a box that just instructs the kitchen, “Let’s try everything!” It’s a massive undertaking to eat the whole menu, but well worth the attempt.
Contrasting with the cool vibe of Bastion, The Chef & I in the Gulch exudes more of a rock n’ roll gestalt. Guitars and photos of famous musicians decorate the walls, and the vibrant bar scene buzzes with patrons enjoying creative cocktails. The diners who sit at long tables in the middle of the room are treated to some excellent internationally-inspired entrees, but you have to imagine that they’re at least a tad jealous of the smart people who planned in advance to score a seat at one of The Chef & I’s two show kitchen chef’s bars.
Executive Chef Chris Rains and Executive Sous Chef Peter Sturdevant each man a station where they feed and entertain small groups of diners as they plow their way through special five- or seven-course tasting menus crafted by the chefs based on seasonally available ingredients. Both chefs demonstrate great panache with their cooking techniques, but even more engaging is the way they interact with their guests. Optional wine pairings are also available to help with a little social lubrication to make sure everyone at the chef’s bar takes part in the party!