Upscale New York restaurants are opening in Nashville. here’s why
Yann de Rochefort didn’t know if Nashville was the right place for the latest establishment of Boqueria, the group of Spanish tapas bars he launched in 2006 in New York.
Two years ago he walked down Broadway near the Fifth + Broadway development where he was considering a lease, and the partying crowds didn’t look like customers for his paella, croquettes and serrano ham accompanied by glasses of tempranillo wine or sherry dry.
Nashville, however, had the fundamentals Rochefort was looking for for the Boqueria.
“It’s growth. It’s interesting neighborhoods. It’s a certain level of affluence. A certain level of density,” he said.
The more he looked, the more he saw that Nashville was also a less tangible fit. He saw a downtown area with plenty of live music venues, but with room for other serious restaurants. He saw a city of sophisticated diners, who might want their Spanish food after work or before a show.
Last Monday, the Nashville Boqueria opened its doors, joining six locations in New York, two in DC and one in Chicago.
“It looks like we were right,” said de Rochefort, “as it already ranks as the second best restaurant in the portfolio.”
Boqueria is one of many high-end New York restaurants that recently opened in Nashville.
James Beard Award-winning chef Andrew Carmellini created local outposts of New York’s The Dutch and Carne Mare for W Nashville, which opened last October. And legendary French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten opened Drusie & Darr at the renovated Hermitage Hotel.
Open: Nashville’s Drusie & Darr restaurant celebrates the Hermitage Hotel
Nashville has joined the short list of US cities, including Las Vegas, DC and Miami, where prominent restaurateurs from New York and beyond want to expand.
“I think in Nashville they’re proud that there are people coming from LA, New York and other places to open restaurants,” de Rochefort said.
The robust economy, the constant flow of tourists and the growing number of luxury hotels are obvious strengths. But for top chefs and restaurateurs, the decision to open in a new city isn’t just about the money.
At La Boqueria, de Rochefort expects to see Nashville diners who know his New York restaurants firsthand. The pandemic has accelerated relocations from large, expensive coastal cities to growing midsize cities. Tennessee ranks among the top destinations. According to data from U-Haul, the state was the top destination for one-way moves in 2020.
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Diners who already know a restaurant are an important factor when restaurateurs look to a new city. But even more important are the diners who appreciate good food. This requires a base of well-established local restaurants.
“When exploring new opportunities, I love being in a city that has an established food scene, but also contributes to the evolving nature of the city’s food scene,” Vongerichten wrote in an email to About Drusie & Darr.
Frenchman Vongerichten, who like Cher or Prince is usually known by his first name alone, has been awarded two Michelin stars for his flagship restaurant Jean-Georges in New York. The map of his culinary empire goes around the world, with restaurants in Los Angeles, Tokyo, Paris, Marrakech and São Paulo. Drusie & Darr is his first restaurant in the South.
Chef Philip Krajeck, along with Rolf and Daughters and his second restaurant Folk, was one of those key local chefs who made Nashville one of the most talked about food towns in the South. When he arrived from the Gulf Coast to open Rolf and Daughters in 2012, Nashville already had some impressive restaurants, including City House and The Catbird Seat.
“These independent perspectives really got our consumers eating. It’s like real-time education,” he said.
Over the past decade, Krajeck has seen an explosion of local restaurants in Nashville that he said have their “own voice and opinion.” He said the nation is taking notice of the recent nomination of Peninsula’s Jake Howell and Lou’s Mailea Weger as semi-finalists for the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southeast. Krajeck was also a semi-finalist for the award for the second straight year.
A warm welcome
Brandon Bramhall, the managing partner of Attaboy in Nashville, admitted that the decision to open a second location of the famous New York bar was not born of careful analysis and analysis of spreadsheets . It happened over beers.
Bramhall and a few fellow bartenders stopped in Nashville on a road trip down south in 2014. It was his first time in the city, but he liked what he saw. At the time, The Patterson House was the only bar he could find doing cocktails with the ambitions of Attaboy, which is one of only four bars in the United States on the List of the 50 best bars in the world.
Bramhall, who was part of the original Attaboy’s opening crew, volunteered to move to Nashville. In 2017, he opened the East Nashville Attaboy. He’s committed to experimenting, where bartenders make drinks based on each customer’s preferences rather than from a menu, just like the original.
“The idea is that you could walk into Attaboy at six in New York, catch a flight to Nashville, and have the exact same drink later that night,” he said.
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Nashville welcomed the new bar early on, he said. And they also hosted Bramhall. After living his entire life in the New York metropolitan area, he was amazed by Southern hospitality. He told how, just after he moved to town, a couple he met in a bar offered to give him some furniture. And the next day, true to their word, they dropped off a coffee table.
When restaurants come to Nashville, they often bring staff from their home location to work and run their kitchens. And cooks want to live in a city with interesting restaurants.
“There’s a good foodie community (in Nashville), which I think is very important for restaurateurs. For chefs, on your day off, you’re going to go to that other restaurant. It’s part of the way of life,” said Carmellini of The Dutch and Carne Mare.
For Carne Mare, Carmellini recruited Levi Raines, a veteran of the Carmellini restaurant in Miami, to lead the kitchen. Several Carmellini employees in New York also moved to Nashville.
“It’s attractive to go to another city where you can still make the same money you made in New York,” Carmellini said.
Food Across America
Carmellini grew up in Ohio. He moved to New York in 1991 when he decided to cook.
“The only place in America back then where you wanted to be a serious chef was New York,” he said.
Now, many American cities have excellent restaurants. The expansion of New York restaurants in cities like Nashville is a sign of this transformation. But not everywhere, it’s Nashville. Carmellini is a huge music fan. He plans to coordinate his trips to check out Nashville’s The Dutch and Carne Mare with shows he wants to see in town.
For Carmellini, the city matters as much as the transaction when deciding to enter a new market.
“It’s more or less, do we like to go there,” he said.
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