The East Side food renaissance
One popular subject of conjecture on the East Side revolves around determining the watershed moment that marks the start of the area’s renaissance. Most of the “old-timers” would agree that the renovation boom began in the aftermath of the ’98 tornado. The local music scene started shifting eastward with the opening of Slow Bar and Radio Cafe. But when it comes to the cornerstone of all things cultural — food — the renaissance really began with the opening of Margot Café & Bar in 2001.
Margot McCormack proved that great restaurants inhabit a rarified sphere of being, one that exists outside of (or above) political winds and geography. East Nashville was a far different place in 2001, with a much-maligned reputation, but that didn’t deter seekers of fine dining from across Middle Tennessee from making the trek to 5 Points in their pursuit of a world-class dining experience. Rearranging perceptions while simultaneously shattering the misconceptions that had dogged the East Side for decades were byproducts of McCormack’s success. Her efforts also led to what would be the first of many nods by the national press about an area that has since become a cultural destination.
Indie restaurants have always tended to pop up where rents are cheap and the livin’ is easy. In the ’80s, areas like NYC’s SoHo and Nashville’s Hillsboro Village were the places for off-the-beaten-path dining experiences. Jody Faison and (current East Nashville resident) Randy Rayburn — with Faison’s and Sunset Grill, respectively — were early independent-restaurant pioneers in Music City. Their establishments, which sat across the street from one another on Belcourt Avenue in Hillsboro Village, set the tone for bistro-style eateries that would follow, including Margot.
It’s hard to imagine now, what with foursquares on Belmont Boulevard regularly fetching prices in the seven-figure range, but during the ’80s, the Hillsboro-Belmont area was fairly affordable. By the late ’90s the area was all but gentrified; it was time for the cultural trendsetters to move along.
Hiding in plain sight was an area that, prior to the tornado, had been in decline since the Interstate System effectively severed it from the rest of the city in the early ’60s: the decidedly not-sexy locale now known as 5 Points. Here McCormack staked her claim. Others soon followed; Matt Charette with Batter’d & Fried; the Alley Cat (now Drifters BBQ , also owned by Charette); and 3 Crow Bar. Elsewhere in 37206, places like Ernie Chaires’ Rosepepper Cantina (the marquee of which inspired the cover for this issue), The Family Wash, Sasso (now The Lipstick Lounge), Lockeland Table, and Holland House (now Lyra) continued building upon the idea that the East Side had become a destination.
All this deliciousness comes with a price, however. It seems that if there’s one thing developers love more than anything else, it’s jumping on the bandwagon and cashing in. They let local folks like March Egerton (the original developer of the former gas station that became Margot, among many others) and Dan Heller (the mastermind behind Riverside Village) take the early risk, and then hop on the gravy train once it looks like a sure bet. One could argue that a structural flaw of capitalism is to kill the goose that laid the golden egg: artists, musicians, and restaurateurs create a happening scene; it blows up; developers enter the fray and drive up the price of housing stock; artists, musicians, and indie restaurants are priced out of the area and go find somewhere else to play. Rinse, repeat.
East Nashville may still weather the most egregious long-term affects of the gentrification cycle. The scene is still thriving. The area differs, structurally and geographically, from Hillsboro Village and the greater Belmont-Hillsboro neighborhood. It’s more contiguous. Affordable housing stock remains, although it’s nothing like the days of old (the ’90s and before).
No matter what the future brings — or recent-past gentrification has wrought — we have plenty of fabulous food destinations in which we can grouse about the unfairness of it all over a great meal.