Special Correspondent Katie Pesznecker attended a conference in Nashville, TN last month. Still, she managed to sneak out and have a good time: enjoying great music and great food with great friends. This is her report.
It’s a classic conundrum for the conference-bound business traveler: you’re heading to some bucket-list city, selected to ensure enthusiastic event attendance, but the schedule is so packed that it leaves little time for exploration or immersion in your surroundings. Tacking a day on the front or backend of a business trip is sometimes a necessity if you have any hope of even leaving the venue.
So when I recently traveled to a conference in Nashville, Tenn., I flew in early, which allowed for participating in some pre-conference activities and exploring the hotel, the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center. This property was legitimately massive – I was told multiple times it’s the largest hotel in America that doesn’t contain a casino.
Upon check-in, staff advised I download a hotel app that literally gave you step-by-step directions how to find various places – such as one of the 14 restaurants, or the various shops, the boat ride that meandered around an interior river, or the “Splash Zone” mega-aquatic park. The hotel’s interior was a dazzling display of interconnected towering atriums and terrariums, exotic greenery, cascading waterfalls and gushing fountains, and spectacular nighttime light displays.
But the hotel was also nowhere near Nashville proper, and instead, basically adjacent to the Grand Ole Opry – about a five-minute walk away – and also the Opry Mills Mall, in itself a spectacle. This was a perfectly pleasing area for those pining for an Opry show and the ease of proximity. The massive hotel, the big mall, the iconic Opry – this was also all well and good. But I was in Nashville, and excited to see the city itself, so I took advantage of my aforementioned early arrival to explore Music City.
Nashville resident and friend Sarah played tour guide, scooping me up and sweeping me downtown. She moved to Nashville several years ago, is a music nut, a foodie, and was stoked to sketch out an evening itinerary packed with showstoppers. We started our night with cocktails at The Mockingbird.
Mockingbird’s interior was a swanky diner with a loungey Las Vegas feel, with lux upholsteries and moody lighting and hip staff who whipped up creative signature cocktails. This was a one-and-done stop before dinner but I would have happily ordered off this menu, which featured modern, upscale comfort food and bragged its head chef Brian Riggenbach won a “Chopped” episode.
For beverages, Sarah selected the “Punchin’ Bag,” a daily punch with choice of booze served in a clear small plastic bag, a whimsical curly straw twisting its way from out. It was basically a grownup Capri Sun. I ordered the “Jen and Juice,” a mixture of Uncle Val’s Botanical Gin, a strawberry pinot noir jam, and yellow chartreuse.
Next up, we walked a few doors down the same block for our reservation at Chauhan Ale and Masala House. This restaurant belongs to Executive Chef Maneet Chauhan, a regular on Food Network and culinary heavyweight, regularly bringing elevated Indian flavors to tables. Every moment of our evening at Chauhan delighted.
This was not Sarah’s first Chauhan rodeo, so on her advice and with enthusiastic support from our waitress, we started with the tandoori chicken poutine. A typical Canadian poutine is a gooey caloric mess with cheese curds, fries and gravy. Spinning off that, the Chauhan version had a base of crispy-outside and fluffy-inside fries, topped with smoky and spicy tandoori chicken, a savory makhani sauce, and chewy white curds.
For entrees, the restaurant’s concept allows you to pair proteins with curries. Sarah selected chicken tikka masala, while I went for a pork shank with korma curry. The giant chunk of meat looked straight out of the Flinstones and practically slid off the bone when nudged with my fork. On the side, of course, we enjoyed soft, warm garlic naan. The meal was accentuated by excellent seasonal cocktails.
After dinner, it was onward to Broadway, the artery of live music nightlife in Nashville. It was early and already the street teemed with activity – all ages, all styles, all walks of life, with notable showing from pretty-in-pink bachelorette party posses. It was a cacophony of neon, cowboy hats, and twanging tunes, with long lines snaking out of many bars and clubs, and country music flowing from every open doorway.
We headed for Robert’s Western World, a Broadway icon known for eschewing pop cover bans and sticking to its country roots, entertaining locals and tourists alike, and serving up a $6 “Recession Special” of chips, a PBR beer, and a no-frills fried bologna sandwich. We scored prime at-the-railing seating on the second floor bar and balcony and enjoyed music and people-watching, taking in all the activity of the busy floor below.
After enjoying Robert’s, it was time to head back toward my hotel – and to a local fav dive bar called Dee’s Country Cocktail Lounge. Dee’s has three house rules: 1. Be 21 or over; 2. Pay your tab; and 3. Don’t be a – well, check the website to enjoy their colorful language. Dee’s opens every day at 4 p.m. with live music on stage always. The décor and ambiance had a throwback 1970s feel. Outside, folks fed logs into crackling fire pits. This was a fun spot to enjoy cheaper beverages and conversation with locals, and end the night on a mellow vibe.
After Dee’s, it was back home, and then a deep dive into the conference. In fact, I only left the property’s vicinity twice more. The first was after day one, when friend/colleague Kate and I headed into town for dinner at Jasper’s. This bar, restaurant, and artisan food market managed a blend of lively and casual, with a neighborhood feel and great bar bites. We shared a spicy queso dip, a corn elote-inspired flatbread, and an incredible Nashville hot chicken sandwich. The venue also includes an onsite artisan food market that we browsed before our reservation.
The final time I left the big hotel was after the final full day of the conference. With an early-evening two-hour break between the end of workshops and a formal gathering, I hailed an Uber and headed for the Nashville Palace.
Since 1977, Nashville Palace has been the proper after-party locale for Opry performers, a hangout for established local musicians, and a debut venue for some of country music’s better-known performers, like Randy Travis and Alan Jackson. It’s only a mile off the Gaylord Opryland property but I was advised for both logistic and safety, not to walk.
The high-ceilinged bar’s walls were covered in album covers from country icons. In the early evening, the crowd was light, but friendly and deeply dialed in to the country classics crooned on stage by a highly capable resident band.
As different performers wandered by, lead singer Pam Miller of the Pam Miller Band beckoned them to stage, and they joined in lulling duets. Two former American Idol contestants were in the crowd, Alex Miller and Colby Swift. They also took the stage to belt out country favorites. I could have sat there for many leisurely hours and enjoyed the music and southern comradery.
All told, Nashville was an awesome backdrop for a conference. Our event featured cameos by local musicians, a welcome from the city’s vibrant mayor, delicious southern-inspired cuisine, and an energetic undercurrent fueled by the very setting, Music City. I’m glad a conference gave me an excuse to visit, and I definitely look forward to going back.
And just in case you didn’t get your fix while in Nashville, there’s a Hattie B’s Hot Chicken in the airport!
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