Trendy new restaurants are fun while they last, but it takes hard work and commitment (plus the occasional secret recipe) for a place to truly stand the test of time. These local institutions have been operating for nearly three decades or more, meaning you might get a brief history lesson with your order. Here are Nashville’s time-honored, pioneer restaurants, ordered by year of establishment.
Claiming the title of Nashville’s oldest restaurant, Varallo’s has been serving up its famous “three-way chili”—that’s beans, spaghetti and tamales—since 1907. (According to legend, the original recipe was so hot that you had to be drunk to eat it.) Open weekdays for breakfast and lunch, the family-run eatery is a spinoff of its first location on Church Street but continues to be a downtown gathering spot for everyone from elected officials to famous musicians to hungry students.
Since starting out nearly a century ago in a mule-drawn trolley car—a precursor to the modern-day food truck—Brown’s Diner has been delivering some of the tastiest and most beloved cheeseburgers in town. (The hush puppies aren’t too shabby, either.) At this no-frills Nashville institution, you’ll find plenty of locals, a straightforward affordable menu and the city’s oldest beer license.
Elliston Place Soda Shop
Seven decades after debuting in the Elliston Place corridor, Nashville’s oldest continuously operating restaurant in its original location is thriving. Under new ownership since 2013, Elliston Place Soda Shop is enjoying a resurgence in popularity without sacrificing its nostalgia: In addition to the classic milkshakes, vinyl bar stools and tableside jukeboxes, the diner’s address (which housed a grocery and a pharmacy during the Great Depression) is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Another old-school, family-run, beer- and burger-focused Nashville establishment, Rotier’s sets itself apart with its signature dish: the stacked-high French bread cheeseburger. (If you’re a burger purist, consider that it’s earned accolades from Southern Living and Food Network Magazine.) Also on offer are hearty sandwiches, fish platters and fries, plus ice cold beers and ciders to wash it all down.
The iconic Loveless Cafe was born when Lon and Annie Loveless began opening their front doors to feed hungry travelers on a lonely stretch of Highway 100. The couple’s homemade Southern dishes—including smoked country ham, fried chicken and buttermilk biscuits—became so popular that they converted their house into a cozy restaurant and built a 14-room motel so guests could spend the night. Today, more than half a million people visit Loveless Cafe annually, and the team bakes up to 10,000 of their world-famous biscuits daily.
Wendell Smith’s opened in 1952 as a casual spot to grab breakfast, sandwiches and salads along the then-blue collar Charlotte Avenue. More than 60 years later, it’s added meat-and-threes and soul food to its roster and welcomes a melting pot of customers in the drastically diversifying neighborhood. Running the show is founder Wendell Smith Jr.’s grandchildren, with his great-grandchildren already in training to take over the family business.
It doesn’t get more Southern than Swett’s. This local institution is known for down-home comfort dishes like collard greens, cornbread and fried chicken, all served cafeteria-style. Current owner David Swett Jr. is continuing the culinary legacy of his parents—who opened the business with only a second-grade education and while raising nine children—and even expanding on it: In 2012, he added a wood-fired rotisserie barbecue pit to the mix.
Swett’s Photo Credit: Nashville Originals
If you’re driving through Hillsboro Village and pass a seemingly endless line of people, they’re not waiting for a concert—they’re waiting for pancakes. Pancake Pantry’s namesake dish has become so popular that the restaurant’s website now features a live Pancake Cam where potential customers can check wait times. For more than 50 years, this Nashville landmark has kept its staff tight-knit (many employees have been there for decades) and its recipes tight-lipped (the batter and syrups are secret family recipes). Don’t forget: The eatery also offers burgers, salads and other non-fluffy items.
A proudly local establishment that eschews foodie trends, McCabe Pub keeps things simple with its all-American lunch, dinner, drinks and late-night happy hour menus. A great place to gather for burgers, hand-cut fries, casseroles or a cocktail, the Sylvan Park eatery is known as both Music City’s original neighborhood bar and the “Cheers” of Nashville. (McCabe Pub actually one-ups Cheers with its seasonal patio.)
Arnold’s Country Kitchen
Since opening 35 years ago, Arnold’s has made a name for itself nationally by earning a prestigious James Beard American Classics Award in 2009 and being featured on Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives in 2010. But at its heart, Jack and Rose Arnold’s kitchen will always be a low-key mom-and-pop shop, with various family members personally serving up meat-and-threes and sweet tea every weekday.
If you’re looking for casual fine dining—think perfectly prepared filets, sustainable seafood and locally grown produce—your search ends with Midtown Café. The popular spot for business meetings, romantic dinners and pre-symphony cocktails is currently offering $30 three-course meals for its 30th anniversary. Along with its sister restaurant Cabana, Midtown Café is in good hands: Owner Randy Rayburn is deeply involved in Nashville’s economic development and hunger-relief efforts.
401 Broadway has seen many iterations since its beginnings in 1892: a multi-use commercial space, a hotel that hosted musical legends like Hank Williams and Patsy Cline, a Prohibition-era speakeasy, a rowdy honky-tonk. It finally settled as a restaurant in 1988 and, after hitting rough times, was purchased and reimagined by Strategic Hospitality’s Ben and Max Goldberg in 2010. Today, Merchants houses a first-floor casual bistro and serves finer fare on the second floor.