East Nashville is a neighborhood in transition.
In the wake of an F3 tornado that whipped through the area in the spring of 1998, destroying an estimated 300 homes, businesses, and churches, the American Institute of Architects sent a team of volunteer experts to kickstart a concerted effort to redevelop and rehabilitate East Nashville.
The same low rents that attracted the artists, musicians, chefs, and small business owners who give East Nashville its charm — grungier than Music Row or Vanderbilt, more authentically blue-collar than the tourist traps on Lower Broadway — soon proved irresistible to real estate developers. By the early 2010s, the area had experienced years of explosive growth, increased density, and rising property values, and a series of zoning battles had given shape to the struggle for East Nashville’s soul.
Through it all, East Nashville’s fascination with food has remained constant, and Bolton’s Spicy Chicken & Fish has weathered the storm.
Nashville-style hot chicken may have flown the coop — west side outfit Hattie B’s has expanded into Birmingham, and chefs from Philly to Brooklyn to L.A. have put their spin on the fiery fowl — but Bolton’s is an East Nashville original. Since 1997 Bolton’s has occupied a low-slung, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cinder-block building on Main Street, a few blocks from the arcing bend in the Cumberland River that makes East Nashville’s southern and western border.
Hot chicken is an exercise in sheer audacity. It takes gall to entomb a piece of fried chicken in a brick-red sarcophagus of cayenne, paprika and garlic, and gumption to brave the inferno. Best paired with macaroni and cheese and turnip greens, Bolton’s would make for excellent fried chicken even without the spice: a crunchy exterior wrapped around juicy leg quarters and wings.
Your nose will run, your eyes will tear, and your lips will burn, but the adrenaline rush (and cool down) of housing a plate of Bolton’s is a thrill all its own. Neophytes shouldn’t venture north of “medium” at Bolton’s, but if that’s too much, most bars in East Nashville serve signature Bushwhackers — the frosty one-two punch of ice cream and rum should soothe any lingering effects. The truly insane gather in Shelby Park every 4th of July for the annual Nashville Hot Chicken Festival.
The Five Points neighborhood — the intersections of Woodland Street, North 11th, and Clearview Avenue — dominates the East Nashville nightlife, featuring plenty of bars and restaurants in an easily walkable few blocks. The annual Tomato Art Festival, complete with a 5K, redhead competition, and Ugliest Tomato contest, takes place here every August.
The jewel in the crown is Five Points Pizza, which serves the best New York-style slice on this side of the river. In one half of the space, a cozy restaurant and whole pies stacked with fresh mozzarella, prosciutto, and thinly sliced meatballs; in the other, a bustling counter and take out window for pizza by the slice. If the wait for a table is too long, leave your cell phone number with the host and pop over to a nearby bar for a drink — they’ll call you when a table is ready. Keep an eye out for the cats that live in Cumberland Hardware next door.
Skip the honky tonks downtown and hit any of Five Points’ venues instead. The Crying Wolf on Woodland showcases rockabilly and country western on Monday nights, and the Basement East (right next door) and the 5 Spot (on Forrest Avenue) feature everything from bluegrass to soul to local hip hop, with themed dance parties throughout the week.
Gallatin Road bisects East Nashville, and at either end you’ll find something to help you recuperate after a night on the town. On the southern end, near Five Points, is Marché. Housed in a former telephone switching building and renovated with a French bistro flair, Marché is East Nashville’s quintessential brunch spot: fresh bread and pastries, blood orange mimosas, and seasonally rotating menus. Farther north, past the auto-body shops and warehouses that hark back to East Nashville’s working-class roots, is the Nashville Biscuit House. Here, young transplants and old-time regulars alike rub shoulders in search of a no-nonsense breakfast. There’s no generation gap that can’t be bridged by black coffee, fried eggs, and a plate of rich, doughy biscuits.
Farther north still, tucked into a residential neighborhood straddling the border between East Nashville and Inglewood, is another enclave of shops, booze, and food. You could make an entire afternoon in the two blocks that make up Riverside Village. Start with lunch at Bailey & Cato for soul food, or cross the street to Mitchell Deli for soups and sandwiches. Then dive into Fond Object, a vinyl record store and vintage clothing and furniture boutique. For a nightcap, try a Moscow Mule (in a giant pewter mug) from Village Pub. Keep an eye out for Fond Object’s weekend concerts or outdoor movie nights, too.
From here, scoot down Riverside Drive until you reach the intersection with Rosebank Avenue. Here, in another squat, nondescript building, is the Riverside Grillshack, home of the best cheeseburger in East Nashville. Order a bottle Coke and a burger at the window and settle into the Grillshack’s only seating: two picnic tables in a screened-in porch. Lightning bugs and crickets make for good company, and your meal is similarly no-frills: smoky bacon, Muenster cheese, and a mountain of thick-cut fries.
For finer fare try Lockeland Table, a New American restaurant located in a repurposed H.G. Hill grocery store (that, in turn, was once a salon) on Woodland Street. There’s nothing too precious or twee on the seasonal menu — spaghetti and meatballs, roasted chicken, pork loin, fresh vegetables — just good local ingredients cooked with care and delivered by warm, knowledgeable staff. For fine dining that’s consistently excellent and reasonably priced, with a robust specialty cocktail menu to boot, Lockeland Table may be the standard bearer for East Nashville’s constantly shifting food landscape.
After eating and drinking your way through zip code 37206, some fresh air and a constitutional walk may be in order. For that, look no farther than Shelby Bottoms, an emerald haven far away from the hustle and bustle of the new construction that dots Gallatin Road, in spirit if not in fact. Tucked along the river in the eastern border of East Nashville, Shelby Bottoms is 960 acres of winding trails, soggy wetlands, and towering oaks and hickories, abounding with deer, foxes, and other forest critters.
Rent some wheels from the Nashville B-cycle station at the Riverside Drive entrance and set off in search of Shelby Bottoms’ solitary golden pheasant. No one is exactly sure how a bird whose natural habitat is the mountains of western China ended up on the Cumberland, another in a long line of outsiders who now call East Nashville home. Look for the flash of its distinctive yellow wings and striking crimson breast as you explore the Greenway.
The rubble has long been cleared and the homes rebuilt, but the legacy of April 1998 lives on, even if unnoticed, for better or for worse, in each new restaurant, each renovated mid-century craftsman, each new addition to East Nashville. But whether you’re a local, a tourist, or a transplant, order your chicken hot and your beer cold and you’ll fit right in.
Photos by Martin Cherry // Story by Joseph Leray