Fall is always hectic for me, travel-wise, but you’d be more likely to find me going cage-diving with great white sharks than to miss my favorite weekend of the year in Nashville: Music City Food & Wine, now in its fourth year.
The first year, when it was still Music City Eats, I attended solo. The second year, my good friends the NVR Guys came out for the fun, and the three of us and SVV palled around all weekend long. Last year, I only got to go Sunday because my sister had the nerve to get hitched the night before (speaking of—happy anniversary, Kari and Josh!). So I was not going to miss a minute of the fun this time around.
On day one, I failed miserably at eating a lot of things. First of all, I had already brunched with my pal Katy’s family, who was in for the weekend from Pennsylvania, so was stuffed by the time I got to the grounds. Secondly, it was raining cats and dogs by the time I arrived and just not conducive to trying a lot of things. Instead, I located my squad and we drank our way around the festival (yes, there is plenty of booze on hand: wine, beer, cocktails, shots, the works).
The first two years, MCFW took place in Public Square Park, also home to Live on the Green. It was very cramped, there was no place to park, and even taking a Lyft—my preferred method of transportation in Nashville and, psst, you can get $50 of credit via this link—there was challenging as many of the roads around it were blocked off.
Last year, the festival moved to Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park, and this was such a wise move. There’s plenty of (free!) parking, and the layout is a lot more conducive to moving freely throughout the grounds and finding friends and seeing what all there is to taste.
Is It Good for Vegetarians?
While there was a lot of meat hanging all around—if you get upset by that kind of thing, MCFW probably isn’t for you—there were a number of dishes that were meat-free.
That said, this is the South, and I’d say the meat dishes far outnumbered the veggie ones—Martin’s BBQ and The Farm House had a spectacular spread at the back of the grounds—so if you’re strapped for cash and don’t plan to drink $150 of alcohol, then I might not recommend it. However, if you are a closeted chef and love demonstrations and educational food panels, then you still might get your money’s worth. (Disclosure: I did not go to a single talk or panel this year because I’m more of the eating-and-drinking festival-goer variety.)
The festival brings together a bounty of the best chefs and restaurants in Nashville who set up shop for the weekend; there’s an entirely different batch on Saturday than there is Sunday, so do the research on who you want to try before you go.
I love the homegrown, local feel to MCFW, which is what sets it apart from other food fests of its kind that highlight “celebrity” chefs from all over (we’ve got enough in Nashville alone for this to be a big draw, so why bring in out-of-towners anyway?). And while I didn’t taste a lot on Saturday, I definitely made up for on Sunday. Here were a few of my favorites this year.
Williams Sonoma. My former roomie and long-time friend Megan Williams is the pastry chef extraordinaire behind Etch and now the sister restaurant Etc. She was over at the Williams Sonoma tent serving up a ridiculously decadent chocolate dessert, and it was possibly the best thing I put in my mouth all weekend long. Likewise, my pal Charles Hunter of The Salted Table was at the WS tent, and his smoked sweet potato pie was drool-worthy.
Chauhan Ale & Masala House. You cannot meet Food Network personality Maneet Chauhan and not fall madly in love (with both the human and her food). She’s a delight, so funny and charismatic, and I love that Nashville now has a choice for elevated Indian cuisine (with a Southern flair) thanks to her. She’s also opening up two new concepts, The Mockingbird and Tánsuŏ, this fall, and I cannot wait.
Bastion. This Stategic Hospitality-owned restaurant debuted in February as a bar and started serving food in May. Think: The Catbird Seat style, but at a lower price tag (and with the original Catbird chef at the helm, too). It’s an absolute must if you come to Nashville, and Chef Josh Habiger’s miniature peanut ice cream sandwich with chili and basil was so delicious, I had two (and wanted 10).
Goo Goo Cluster. C’mon, guys, you know my love for the Goo Goo. Did you honestly think I’d go to MCFW and not try all three of the special collaborations with local chefs? Absolutely not.
Le Sel. Another Strategic concept, Le Sel is Nashville’s first true French bistro, and the weekend brunch is one of my favorite in town. Whatever this ricotta, blueberry and whipped cream goodness was, I sure hope they’re serving for breakfast next time I drop in!
Holler & Dash. I miss Brandon Frohne’s pizzazz in the kitchen—he used to head up the food over at Mason in the Loew’s hotel—but he was back in town for the weekend debuting his biscuits for his new Holler & Dash concept (a small collection of Millenial-targeted restaurants backed by Cracker Barrel), and it was without a doubt the best savory dish (with a dash of sweet) that I ate all weekend.
Butcher & Bee. Watermelon usually isn’t my favorite fruit on the block but when paired with cilantro, red onion and peanut shavings (I think?) in a cubed salad format, it’s out of this world.
Biscuit Love. I can’t talk about Nashville food without professing my love for Karl Worley’s biscuits, and his Sunday morning creation did not disappoint.
Flyte. Confession: I’ve never been to Flyte for dinner, but I’ve long adored its chef, Chris Stallard, and after tasting his treats at MCFW the past two years, I’ve vowed for that to be my next dinner date spot with my girl Beth.
Bongo Java/Fido Cafe. Fido has been my go-to breakfast spot since before Nashville became such a hot food commodity (on weekdays at least; that weekend line is just too insane for me). And I adore their Pink Radio Cake, so I was not mad about it when I saw them serving it up on Sunday morning.
Unlike the food, which is all from Nashville restaurants, the booze comes from all over. There were major brands present from California, Texas and beyond, and tiny ones from the region, too. I’d say the number of spirits brands likely surpasses the quantity of food booths on hand.
This year, it seemed like the purveyors of alcohol really skimped on their pours; however, I heard they were only allowed to serve two ounces. Which is why I gravitated toward the Pinewood Social and Wild Turkey tiki tent that served up full cocktails, as well as the Tito’s Bloody Mary bar on Sunday morning.
But I did attempt to try a bit of everything (for the sake of research, of course).
Harvest Night—Is It Worth It?
Each year, Saturday night is a special shindig with 15 celebrity chefs from all over and a booze sponsor or two. It’s in a gorgeous setting just across from the Country Music Hall of Fame and capped off by an evening of entertainment.
This year, however, I wouldn’t say it was worth the extra fee. Two years ago, yes, it was. I tried nearly every celebrity chef on hand—Sean Brock, Michael Symon, Tim Love—and was not wowed by any of them except for Tony Mantuano, who whipped up this delicious polenta with a quail egg and truffles shavings.
In years past, they’ve also announced the music well in advance and had some great artists in store. This year, Hunter Hayes and Charles Kelley took the stage, but to be honest, no one was really paying attention to the music and I had no idea either of them had performed until we left Walk of Fame Park for the after-party at Martin’s!
The one cool thing about this year’s Harvest Night, though? Taylor Swift was there. Of course with my luck, I never did see her, but some friends did, and two of them even got their picture with her before security put an end to endless audience selfies. One day, TSwift; one day. I also saw Chace Crawford (Nate Archibald!), Lily Aldridge, Martha Hunt and, of course, the Kings of Leon, who co-produce the event with Jonathan Waxman and a couple other backers.
What to Wear
To be honest, I failed miserably at my attire on Saturday. That’s because I left home at 9am and had planned to come back at some point in the day to change. “Some point” wound up being 2am the following morning. So I wore an O’Neill halter dress—I’m all about the surf brands for comfort and ease—which was great for having stomach room to eat all the things, not so great in the respect that I had no pockets to store things when it rained. Besides, I wound up throwing the rain jacket I keep in the trunk of my car over top everything I was wearing anyway to keep my camera gear dry.
No matter the occasion, 90 percent of the time you will find me in flats, whether flip-flops, sandals or Tieks—particularly when the day comprises as much walking as a festival does. When I heard it might rain, I traded in my favorite Sam Edelman sandals for Havianas, and while this was good for not ruining my nice shoes, I was slipping and sliding all over the place. I was so muddy by the time I left the grounds at 5 that I went to my friend Matt’s to hose off (literally) in the backyard and wash my dress before going back for Harvest Night.
The second day, I was a bit wiser. I put on my favorite Loft romper of the year because it’s paper-thin and the day was boiling and muggy as Hell out. Plus, the pockets were perfect for storing my phone in as I sipped and tasted my way around the grounds.
I also wore my spare Hunter boots I keep in the condo because even though the sun came out, the grounds were still a muddy mess.
How to Do It
Y’all, I’m going to be upfront with you. MCFW is expensive. Full disclosure, I had a media pass—as did most friends I know (they’re generous with approving writers, bloggers and influencers alike if you do so by the mid-summer deadline)—but the price is the biggest prohibitive factor. Would I pay $500 (the price of the All-In Ticket) on my own for the whole shebang? Probably not. What I would do instead if you’re just a moderate food-lover but not super hard-core is buy a one-day pass ($150), which is worth it in my mind.
Which Day: Saturday or Sunday?
If you do decide to just go one day, make it Sunday. I love that there’s a mix of brunch food and lunch bites, and I always think Sunday two trumps day one in terms of food offered and all-around fun, and you’ll get your money’s worth by arriving at 11am and staying until last call (4pm, though sometimes the party usually lasts a little longer).
Plus! There’s the Gospel Brunch, and the music is killer. I loved hearing this band play as I mingled around and got my food baby on.
All That to Say…
If you are a die-hard foodie, you should plan on being in Nashville the third weekend of September next year (and every other year to come). MCFW truly is my favorite event in Tennessee, and I hope to share a cocktail or seven with you there next fall. Bottoms up!