Printers Alley is a short strip tucked between the downtown office buildings between Third and Fourth Avenues, running from Union Street to Commerce Street. It earned its moniker back when Nashville was a regional center for printing and publishing back in the first half of the 20th century when print shops lined the narrow alley, and both local newspapers had their headquarters in the area. Over the course of years, the printers gave way to a bunch of bars and restaurants which were known for providing spirits to patrons before liquor by the drink was technically legal in town, usually asserting that the guests had “brown bagged” their own bottles in to accompany their meals.
During the 60’s and 70’s, Printers Alley became the entertainment hotbed of downtown with supper clubs and burlesque shows attracting music lovers and fans of the feminine form to the strip. Photos of celebrity visitors hung from the walls of the dark smoky clubs, and a young Army private named Jimi Hendrix used to play with jazz bands in Printers Alley during weekends on leave from his post at Ft. Campbell in nearby Clarksville. After its heyday as “The Men’s Quarter,” Printers Alley lost its shine as other spots for drinking, dining and live music sprung up all over town, and by the end of the century it was not really the sort of spot that locals or tourists sought out with regularity.
Recently, the alley has experienced a rebirth as new clubs have opened and several of the older buildings have been converted to luxury boutique hotels. Back in the spotlight, Printers Alley is again a cool destination for visitors looking for a taste of Nashville’s slightly seedy past. Here are some good bets if you want to experience the historic center of Music City entertainment:
Skull’s Rainbow Room was definitely one of the most (in)famous spots in Printers Alley, an exotic dance hall which converted into a country bar in the 90’s under the auspices of owner David “Skull” Schulman. In one of the city’s most notorious crimes, Schulman was murdered in 1998 by two assailants who knew the owner often carried the club’s cash receipts on his person. After his death, the club closed for almost twenty years before reopening in 2015 as a 140-seat bar and restaurant featuring an old school chophouse menu. Decorated with memorabilia from its prior glory days, Skull’s now serves craft cocktails from an ornate wooden bar and offers a modern PG-13 version of a classic burlesque show complete with a live band and lovely ladies dancing in alluring costumes.
Around the corner from Skull’s is Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie Bar, one of Nashville’s most dependable spots for live music for more than two decades. The New Orleans-themed bar presents blues bands including long-time stalwart Stacy Mitchhart who headlines several times a month. Grab a Hurricane from the bar and a plate of Big Easy-inspired vittles for a fantastic night of music and fun.
Beer drinkers love Alley Taps, a cozy bar in the home of a former gin mill. Cocktails and wine are both still on the menu, and bands play on a small stage in an intimate environment under low ceilings. A great 2-for-1 happy hour from 2:00 until 7:00 Monday through Friday makes Alley Taps a favorite spot for a little day drinking.
Tipplers also love Bobby’s Garage Bar, an automotive-themed tavern on the ground floor of the hip Bobby Hotel. Bobby’s takes their car obsession to the nth degree with bartenders attired in denim work shirts polishing the concrete bar with shop rags and a decor that revolves around spare parts like vintage headlights and bar stools crafted from antique oil cans. The drinks menu ranges from classic cocktails and craft beers to a cold PBR and a shot of whiskey. Bar snacks are also old school Southern including pimento cheese and potato chips and a good old fried bologna sammich.
The area around Printers Alley also offers plenty of options for finer dining as well. The term that printers use for the first few hundred sheets of paper that they run through the press to make sure all the settings are dialed in is “makeready,” and at Makeready in the Noelle Hotel, they strive to get their food right every time before they serve it. Located on the ground floor of the tony hotel, Makeready serves breakfast, lunch and dinner from an eclectic menu that includes both Southern and international influences. Whether you’re just looking for “a pint and a pie” featuring their roast chicken pot pie or the more exotic Double-Cut Elk Chop, Makeready has got you covered.
Sea Salt is a relatively new spot just outside of Printers Alley down the block from Skull’s. Offering a sophisticated spin on classic French fare and American comfort food, Sea Salt’s culinary team worked hard to source ingredients by visiting farms all over Middle Tennessee to find the best purveyors to work with. The result of their efforts is a menu of upscale cuisine served in the casual environment of a historic two-story building. Start your meal with apps like oysters or mussels and move on to more substantial mains like Springer Mountain Chicken Bouillabaisse or Sea Salt’s rich Whiskey Pork Shank.
Soccer fans head downstairs in the alley to the basement of Fleet Street Pub, Nashville’s best British bar. European football matches are played on multiple televisions with fans of each club wearing their team scarves as they cheer on their boys. The bar staff knows how to pull a proper draught of Guinness along with other popular British beers like the classic Fullers ESB. Scotch, of course, dominates the spirits offering, but there are plenty of other liquors to satisfy the desire for strong drink, and the kitchen serves some of the most legit Fish & Chips in town. Other popular British dishes on the menu include Bangers & Mash, Shepherd’s Pie and a delicious golden fried Scotch Egg.
Right across Third Avenue from Printers Alley is a short strip between buildings leading to Second Avenue between Union and Church. Traditionally known as “Bankers Alley,” it’s definitely worth the block walk thanks to two outstanding restaurant/bars. The first is Black Rabbit, the second project from chef Trey Cioccia and his team at The Farm House in SoBro. Housed in a historic building from the 1890’s that was once the office of Jimmy Hoffa’s attorney, Black Rabbit honors its history with an establishment that places equal weight on eating and drinking. There are almost more places to lean or stand to enjoy a fabulous cocktail as there are spots to sit and dig in to dishes from the menu of open fire-cooked small plates and main dishes. No matter where you settle, you can watch the flames tickle the food in open hearths or on a novel wood-fired grill that adds the perfect roasty, toasty touches to plates of Pork Steak or a delectable bone-in ribeye. Don’t miss out on an order of their famous Rabbit Rolls, the perfect snack to accompany an enjoyable impromptu happy hour.
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In the new season, gloom slumps into the avenues and down the cobbled alleys. High, cold panes line the city like empty mirrors, unspeaking, slapped wet and raw. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀But this place is different. Here is a place that glows and burns. It doesn’t look like a sanctuary in the traditional sense, but we’re not especially traditional in here. There are many kind hands: making bread, pouring wine. There is the deep cave of an oven, refined by flames that lick and spit and remember. There are faces that lean close to other faces, talking. Some don’t say anything, lost in wordless appreciation. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Good food brings people together. Maybe that’s why we build these spaces, celebrating food and each other—to wrestle a rich, calm moment from the storm that rages all around it.
Across the alley from Black Rabbit is Gray & Dudley, the restaurant at the ultra-cool 21C Museum Hotel. Tour multiple galleries filled with edgy art in their 24-hour museum before enjoying a drink at Gray & Dudley’s striking cocktail bar where you sit under the watchful eyes of grotesque statues of sheep and a wolf lurking from the corner of the ceiling. The food that chef Rob Newton is creating in the open kitchen is equally as artistic, but not at all grotesque. The talented chef has developed an inventive menu of dishes that combine his Arkansas roots with his fascination with Asian cuisine. If that sounds odd, here’s an easy tip: just order anything with rice because that’s a mainstay ingredient in both cultures. If that still sounds too wacky for you, just order their GD Burger, one of the absolute best in town.