New York restaurants are coming to Nashville. Here's why
Yann de Rochefort didn't know if Nashville was the right place for the latest location of Boqueria, the group of Spanish tapas bars he started in 2006 in New York.
Two years ago, he walked down Broadway near the Fifth + Broadway development where he was considering a lease, and the partying crowds did not look like customers for his paella, croquettes and serrano ham paired with glasses of tempranillo wine or dry sherry.
Nashville, however, had the fundamentals de Rochefort wanted for Boqueria.
"It's growth. It's interesting neighborhoods. It's some level of affluence. Some level of density," he said.
The more he looked, he saw Nashville was a fit in less tangible ways as well. He saw a downtown neighborhood with plenty of music venues, but with room for additional serious restaurants. He saw a city of sophisticated diners, who might want his Spanish food after work or before a show.
Last Monday, the Nashville Boqueria opened, joining six locations in New York, two in D.C. and one in Chicago.
"We seem to have been proven right," de Rochefort said, "because it's already performing as the second best restaurant in the portfolio."
Boqueria is one of several high-end New York restaurants that have opened recently in Nashville.
James Beard Award-winning chef Andrew Carmellini created local outposts of New York's The Dutch and Carne Mare for the W Nashville, which opened last October. And the legendary French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten opened Drusie & Darr at the renovated Hermitage Hotel.
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Nashville has joined the short list of American cities, including Las Vegas, D.C. and Miami, where prominent restaurateurs from New York and elsewhere want to expand.
"I think in Nashville they take pride that there are people coming from L.A. and New York and elsewhere to open restaurants," de Rochefort said.
The robust economy, the steady stream of tourists and the growing number of luxury hotels are obvious draws. But for top echelon chefs and restaurateurs the decision to open in a new city is about more than dollars.
At Boqueria, de Rochefort expects to see Nashville customers who know his New York restaurants firsthand. The pandemic accelerated relocations from large and expensive coastal cities to growing mid-sized cities. Tennessee ranks among the top destinations. According to data from U-Haul, the state was the number one destination for one-way moves in 2020.
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Diners who are already familiar with a restaurant are a factor when restauranteurs look at a new city. But even more important are diners who appreciate good food. That requires a bedrock of well-established local restaurants.
"When exploring new opportunities, I like to be present in a city that has an established dining scene but also contribute to the evolving nature of the city's dining scene," wrote Vongerichten in an email about Drusie & Darr.
The French-born Vongerichten, who like Cher or Prince is generally known by just his first name, was awarded two-Michelin stars for his flagship Jean-Georges restaurant in New York. The map of his culinary empire circles the globe, with restaurants in Los Angeles, Tokyo, Paris, Marrakesh and São Paulo. Drusie & Darr is his first restaurant in the South.
Chef Philip Krajeck, with Rolf and Daughters and his second restaurant Folk, has been one of those key local chefs that made Nashville one of the most talked about food cities in the South. When he arrived from the Gulf coast to open Rolf and Daughters in 2012, Nashville already had impressive restaurants including City House and The Catbird Seat.
"These independent perspectives really pushed our dining consumers. It's like real time education," he said.
During the last decade, Krajeck has seen an explosion of local Nashville restaurants that, he said, have their "own voice and opinion." He said the nation is taking notice in the recent naming of Jake Howell of Peninsula and Mailea Weger of Lou as semi-finalists for the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southeast. Krajeck was also a semi-finalist for the award for the second year in a row.
A warm welcome
Brandon Bramhall, the managing partner of Attaboy in Nashville, admitted the decision to open a second location of the celebrated New York bar was not born from careful analysis and poring over spreadsheets. It happened over beers.
Bramhall and some fellow bartenders stopped in Nashville on a Southern road trip in 2014. It was his first time in the city, but he liked what he saw. At the time, The Patterson House was the only bar he found making cocktails with the ambitions of Attaboy, which is one of only four bars in the United States on the World's 50 Best Bars list.
Bramhall, who was on the opening staff of the original Attaboy, volunteered to move to Nashville. In 2017, he opened the East Nashville Attaboy. He was committed to making the experience, where bartenders make drinks based on each customer's preferences rather than from a menu, exactly like the original.
"The idea is that you could walk into Attaboy at six o'clock in New York, hop on a flight to Nashville, and have the same, exact drink later that night," he said.
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Nashville welcomed the new bar from the start, he said. And they welcomed Bramhall as well. After living his entire life in the New York metropolitan area, he was surprised by Southern hospitality. He recounted how, just after he moved to town, a couple he met at a bar offered to give him some furniture. And the next day, true to their word, they dropped off a coffee table.
When restaurants come to Nashville, they often bring staff from their original locations to work and run their kitchens. And cooks want to live in a city with interesting restaurants.
"There is a good food community (in Nashville), which I think is very important for restaurant people. For chefs, on your day off, you're going to go check out this other restaurant. That's part of the lifestyle," said Carmellini of The Dutch and Carne Mare.
For Carne Mare, Carmellini recruited Levi Raines, a veteran of Carmellini's Miami restaurant, to run the kitchen. Several of Carmellini's New York employees also made the move to Nashville.
"It's appealing to go to another town where you can still make the same money you made in New York," Carmellini said.
Food across America
Carmellini grew up in Ohio. He moved to New York in 1991 when he decided to cook.
"The only place in America at the time if you wanted to be a serious chef was New York," he said.
Now, many American cities have excellent restaurants. The expansion of New York restaurants to cities like Nashville is a sign of that transformation. But not everywhere is Nashville. Carmellini is a serious music fan. He plans to coordinate his trips to check in on Nashville's The Dutch and Carne Mare with shows he wants to catch in town.
For Carmellini, the city matters as much as the deal when he decides to enter a new market.
"It's more or less, do we like going there," he said.
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