A decade ago, visitors to Nashville rarely paid any attention to the Melrose neighborhood of 8th Ave South/Franklin Pike between Wedgewood and where the I-440/65 interchange soars over the edge of the neighborhood. This was more of a “blink-and-you’ll-miss it” stretch of road which didn’t really offer many opportunities for drinking and dining.
Nowadays, both tourists and locals have discovered what a vibrant neighborhood Melrose has turned into, and easy access to downtown via 8th means it’s a short rideshare or scooter ride from the neon highway of Lower Broad.
The area used to be popular as the home to an opulent old movie house and a fun bowling alley, but those went dormant years ago, and the strip that housed them lay basically empty until finally being developed as a new retail and residential complex. Five years ago, Sinema opened in the former theater space and was a major part of revitalizing Melrose. Paying homage to the old cinema, Sinema exudes an elegant vintage Hollywood cool vibe, with classic movies playing on large screens, a sexy upstairs lounge featuring crafty cocktails named after movie titles and one of the city’s deepest whiskey collections. The glamorous ladies bathroom has become one of the most popular selfie spots in town, spurring the hashtag #sinemaselfie. Chef Kyle Patterson has created a menu of elevated classic American cuisine, and the weekend brunch at Sinema is an excellent opportunity to try out his food.
At the other end of the complex is another reimagined locale, The Sutler Saloon which was for years a legendary music venue, casual restaurant and dive bar. New ownership managed to keep the old school vibe of the joint, but with a complete transformation of menu and decor. The kitchen still pumps out Southern food classics, but executed in a much more upscale fashion using premium ingredients. A lunch of their brisket-topped mac n’ cheese may require an afternoon nap, so consider yourself forewarned. The small stage at the back of the dining room still hosts musical performances with an emphasis on Americana, country and bluegrass, and their beloved bluegrass brunch on the weekends features bottomless mimosas, a Bloody Mary bar, hot biscuits, brisket hash, sweet potato pancakes and more.
Downstairs at The Sutler is a dramatic little hidden speakeasy called Rambler Cocktail Bar. This sultry upscale cocktail lounge offers a cozy getaway from the hustle and bustle of Nashvegas with a menu of classic cocktails and specialty drinks, a well-curated list of craft beers from around the world and a tight offering of fancy bar snacks. Rambler also hosts a fantastic happy hour Wednesday through Friday from 5:00 until 7:00.
For a more old-school bar experience, sneak through the back door of Rambler into its neighboring establishment Melrose Billiard Parlor. This subterranean refuge has been a place for neighborhood residents to disappear for a few hours of shooting pool and whiskey, table tennis, darts and cheap beers. First opened in 1944, Melrose Billiards survived the years when the strip mall above them was practically razed to the ground during renovations, still welcoming friends down the steep staircase from the sidewalk into an appropriately dark and dank pool hall. When the owners of the Sutler took over the property, they knew they didn’t want to mess too much with success. Instead, they gave the joint a fresh coat of paint and banned smoking inside until after 10:00 pm so that non-smokers could join in the fun. They also updated the menu to include decadent delights like a cheesy Frito pie, deep-fried Spam bites and one of the best double cheeseburgers in town.
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Between Sinema and The Sutler complex is Fenwick’s 300, a quaint restaurant from the team behind Bongo Java that describes itself as “breakfast, lunch and diner.” Indeed, Fenwick’s does close after lunch at 2:00, but during the hours it is open every day, they serve up a classic diner menu of egg dishes, sandwiches and salads. The staff is dedicated to the sort of friendly customer service that you’d expect from your neighborhood hang, and the retro decor even includes a long bar made from the wood from one of the original Melrose bowling alley lanes.
When M.L.Rose Craft Beer & Burgers first opened across the street from Melrose Billiards, it was called “Melrose Pub,” leading to a lot of confusion. Neighborhood residents differentiated between them by saying they were going to “Old Melrose” or “New Melrose.” Now that the burger bar has tweaked the name and both are under the same ownership, there’s little need for confusion, and both are worth checking out. M.L.Rose was early in the craft beer game, offering many Nashvillians their first taste of beer more interesting than the typical light lagers on tap at other beer bars. The vibe is still dark and cozy at M.L.Rose; they just have much better beer and burgers than at your typical dive bar. Their Nash Vegas Burger features a sweet potato bun, pimento cheese, crispy tobacco onions and BBQ sauce, making it a perfect pairing with a cold craft draft on their shaded back patio on a summer afternoon.
Holler & Dash is one of the better fast casual options in Melrose, concentrating on Southern hospitality and Southern fare, usually served atop a flaky biscuit as part of a breakfast sandwich. Serving breakfast, brunch and lunch, Holler & Dash’s menu also extends past just biscuit sandwiches to more traditional sandwiches, salads and bowls. They partner with local vendors whenever possible to supply their ingredients, and local honey and jam are important parts of their delicious desserts. Don’t fill up on just biscuits!
Mangia Nashville started out as a pop-up restaurant at a cafe in Franklin before moving into town off 8th Avenue at Craighead. Chef Nick Pellegrino is perhaps best known for his entertaining appearances doing cooking demos on local midday television shows and for his position as ringleader of the culinary circus that is his weekend Italian feasts at Mangia. Guests dine on family-style servings of classic Italian cuisine while listening to festive music and watching The Godfather.. projected on television screens ringing the dining room. Pellegrino keeps the party pumping, and oh yes, there will be dancing between courses! During the rest of the week, the vibe is slightly more sedate, but the menu of pizzas, pastas, snacks and sweets served during their casual dinner seatings Mon-Thu is worth a visit.
Hattie B’s had already earned a reputation for taking Nashville Hot Chicken into the 21st century with their streamlined approach to volume service, even in the face of huge lines stretching perpetually out the door at their original location in Midtown. Although their chicken doesn’t emerge one piece at a time from an ancient skillet like at some of the OG hot chicken joints, it is still admirably juicy and layered deeply with flavor and spice. With heat levels ranging from their mild Southern to the infernal Shut the Cluck Up, there is something for everyone at Hattie B’s. Proceed with caution! Be sure to order some of their bangin’ Southern sides like greens or pimento mac n’ cheese to help ease the burn.
Across the street from Hattie B’s is Bolton’s Spicy Chicken & Fish, one of the old school purveyors of fiery fowl for decades. Bolton’s chicken depends on a dry spice rub for much of its heat, so it’s a different experience than at other hot chicken spots, but no less enjoyable… Or painful. In addition to side dishes that rival the best at any meat-and-three in town, Bolton’s still serves that other more exotic spicy Nashville specialty, the hot fish sandwich. Huge slabs of catfish, whiting, grouper or tilapia are perfectly fried golden brown and then sprinkled with peppery spice. The filets are served on top of spongy white bread with yellow mustard, pickles and raw onions. It’s a church supper classic that absolutely must be experienced to be appreciated, and it’s also a nice change of pace from all the hot chicken in this town.
The Smiling Elephant is a tiny spot with a minuscule parking lot to match. Get there early if you want to eat quickly, because there are only a few woks in the small kitchen to pump out all that amazing Thai food. If a big table gets their order in before you, you’ll just have to wait your turn. But it’s totally worth it for the amazing depths of their flavors and the spice levels that can be pushed to insane heats if you’re willing and able. Smiling Elephant’s Tom Kha coconut soup is a fantastic way to start your journey, and their Pad Thai is among the best in town. Don’t be afraid to venture past that most popular Thai dish or you’ll miss out on some other winners like their Pad Kra Pao or Pad Kee Mao.
Craft Brewed has evolved into a sort of a clubhouse for craft beer lovers thanks to their multiple taps pouring local, regional and national brews by the pint or for you to take home in a growler. They have diversified over the years, adding a retail store stocked with rare beers and exotic wines and spirits. They also offer a short menu of snacks to accompany your session of drinking session beers, or you’re welcome to bring your own food in.
For caffeination in the neighborhood, look no further than 8th and Roast. They source their beans from a global network of fair-trade suppliers and then roast them in house, ensuring the freshest possible coffee. They even host a podcast where their roasters and baristas can get all nerdy about coffee and trends while they entertain and enlighten listeners at the same time. In addition to fantastic specialty coffee drinks prepared with care by expert baristas, 8th & Roast also serves breakfast and lunch menus that rise well above what you’d expect from a coffeehouse. The menu changes seasonally, and everything is made from scratch, so don’t be afraid if your favorite dish rolls off. It’ll be back and most probably be replaced by a new favorite in the meantime.