Some of the best places to eat in East Nashville are run by women. Let these ladies feed your soul as you explore the history and unique culture of their city.
Walking the streets of East Nashville with a hungry stomach, you’re bound to be fed by a woman.
East Nashville, from its regeneration in the early 2000s to its still rapid growth today, finds women at the forefront of the food scene. From Margot and Marche to Mas Tacos, from High Garden Tea to I Dream of Weenie, let’s take a walk and find the best places to eat in East Nashville.
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A Special Note on the Recent Disaster
In the early morning hours of March 3, 2020, a devastating tornado ripped through the heart of East Nashville, destroying businesses and homes alike.
Several of East Nashville’s beloved restaurants and cafes were lost.
Each of these women-owned businesses were affected, yet what has grown out of that space of loss to remain in service to the community speaks to the heart of East Nashville.
As Priestess Maryam Hasnaa said, “Women who love themselves, love other women.” In East Nashville, women supporting women is not something often discussed, rather felt deeply in the soul, a calm knowing of its existence.
History of East Nashville
Starting in the late 1800s, East Nashville began to see a series of events, both financially and weather related, that would mold how it sits in the minds of visitors today.
Fires and tornados have often swept through a growing East Nashville. This is a city that is constantly reinventing itself, from the late 1800s as the place to live for Nashville’s elite, to the 1950s when it became physically and financially cut-off from the rest of Nashville when a highway was built.
That single highway paved the way for the East side of the Cumberland River to become a place where zoning law changes allowed for the establishment of low-income housing and rehabilitation centers, all while tearing down historic homes to make space to accommodate more people.
East Nashville was held in this spot until the 1970s, when a preservation movement by artists and musicians began igniting the growth that continues today.
As East Nashville continues to grow and flourish — with new restaurants opening fueled by community support and older ones continuing with love — some of the old notions of East Nashville remain.
With that, let’s take a walk through the city today, where I can promise some of the best places to eat in East Nashville are owned by women who will inspire you and your foodie wanders.
Best Places to Eat in East Nashville
Walk Eat Nashville, Karen Lee Ryan
From a desire to feed the curiosity of people through East Nashville’s food and culture, Karen Lee Ryan created Walk Eat Nashville, Nashville’s original food walking tour company.
“I wanted to shine a light on East as a community,” Karen Lee mentioned as motivation for getting the feet moving of visitors and locals alike.
Her walking tours provide opportunities for guests to feel the spirit of community, from hearing stories from chefs to tasting dishes not found on menus during normal operating hours.
These experiences are unique, something not afforded to those who would choose to explore East Nashville on their own.
Of the five stops on the East Nashville tour route, all of them either have a woman at the helm or a woman in a partnership role.
When East Nashville eats, the hand of a woman helps fill your stomach. As a tour guide with Walk Eat Nashville, come join me to explore my favorite spots and stories along the way.
Margot & Marche, Margot McCormack
Standing outside Margot, the sweet little nook of a cafe built from a long-abandoned cafe in the Five Points area, one can see where East Nashville started its culinary resurgence in 2001.
Local Nashvillian, Chef/Owner Margot McCormack, began her culinary adventures working in the pantry at the Bennigan’s chain. It was a way to pay the bills while attending school for literature. Within months, she was running the kitchen.
When writing opportunities dried up, she returned to the kitchen. She gained deep restaurant knowledge and the encouragement to take her studies further, eventually attending the Culinary Institute of America in Upstate New York.
After being away for five years and experiencing the food culture of New York City, McCormack returned to Nashville in 1995. She felt uninspired, lamenting one day to a dishwasher about the lack of creativity in the Nashville food scene and her desire to return to New York.
As the story goes, the dishwasher shot back to McCormack that if she left Nashville, she would just be part of the problem.
From that moment on, McCormack altered her thinking and committed to staying in Nashville, finding a place to call her own that would serve her growing community.
Gathering inspiration from Tuscany, Provence, and her mama’s kitchen, she inspired her own community within the walls of Margot.
The menu changes nightly. Without a walk-in cooler, products are sourced as locally as possible and are served fresh with the utmost of creativity.
In 2006, McCormack opened Marche, the much-loved brunch eatery, around the corner. Tables are filled daily at Marche, with locals of the music community holding meetings and visitors coming to taste the offerings on the rotating menu of Nashville’s #1 brunch location.
Dealing with Devastation
Unfortunately, you can no longer see the patio roof that let diners of Margot dine al fresco. The tornado took care of that, along with blown out windows and power loss.
Two days after that tornado swept through East Nashville, Chef Margot hosted a community pot-luck, feeding anyone who simply needed a meal.
Local restaurants, who had something left to give, brought food for the growing masses.
In that space, Margot provided a place for the community to come together, to see each other, and to grieve.
The money raised was donated to people who lost their homes and jobs due to the tornado. In the small window of time between the tornado and the pandemic, Margot provided the last opportunity for the community to really connect in person with each other.
At the time of writing, both of McCormack’s locations can be enjoyed from takeout only, with enough work for less than one quarter of her staff. A GoFundMe has been set up in hopes of raising money to supplement staff income.
High Garden Tea and Apothecary, Leah Larabell
How do you capture the magical feel of a place simply with words? How the space feels like it holds you from the moment you walk in…
How your senses come alive, from the smell of brewing tea to the sight of dried herbs hanging from the ceiling, to the voices of people engaging with each other, face to face, lost in deep conversation…
Mason jars filled with herbs line the floor-to-ceiling shelves. The healing gifts of nature, mindfully brought inside. A healing energy that was encompassing. I had entered High Garden Tea & Apothecary and I didn’t know when I was ever going to want to leave.
The space felt like home. A place of comfort to so many.
All that remains of the magically curated space that once housed this beloved tea shop – a fairy-tale of a tea room that so beautifully highlighted community energy for East Nashville – is the floor.
The tornado uprooted and dismantled the rest: tea room, tonic and kombucha bar, and community gathering area.
The street sign stands intact out front, arching upwards as a testament that High Garden’s physical space may be gone, but their impact and calm presence of wellness for the community carries on.
High Garden Tea had found its most recent home in a space that owners Leah & Joel built and outfitted themselves. It took them months of gathering around their home property, the branches and sticks, dried herbs and flowers, that hung in twisted majesty from the walls and ceiling.
Their intention with the physical space of High Garden was to create a space where customers could have an experience, much more intricate than a simple store. Walk-in, learn, explore, smell, sit, sip, and let time slip away.
Wifi or computers were not allowed; in-person human connection was encouraged.
Joel, an avid and glorious spoon carver, built every inch of the indoor space. Joel and Leah are partners, in the deepest sense of the term.
Appalachian born, Leah began her path with plants after having a deep and moving conversation with a gathering of trees, when she was questioning and needing connection desperately. What these trees offered was a perspective shift.
As humans, we all want to be loved, yet typically we seek that love from one species, our own. What these trees revealed to her was that all species offer connection and these trees in particular shouted out, “We got you!”
With that, Leah noted, “I became a piece of nature, I belonged”. From there, she began collecting and creating teas at home.
One of their first restaurant collaborations was Marche, owned by Margot McCormack. And the love for Leah’s tea creations grew!
Adjusting to Upheaval
In the month after the tornado, Leah began posting videos on High Garden Tea’s Instagram, sweetly informing locals what they can harvest and enjoy, with gratitude, from their own yards. “The energy and kindness you place into gathering and respecting plants has much to do with what you will get out of the plant,” Leah notes.
With deep care and insight, at the onslaught of Covid-19, Leah created three herbal tea formulas for her family, then shared them with the tea community via email ordering. These tea blends, which aim to aid in physical and mental health during this time, are being offered as an additional piece to the overall wellness puzzle.
One of her unique gifts is blending tea creations specific to a customer’s ailments; consulting on their path to deeper health. When asked about the future of High Garden Tea as a physical space, Leah’s mind returns to the original dream she held for High Garden years ago. She dreamt of seeing High Garden as a non-profit space of education to help preserve woodland creatures and plants and the places they call home.
In the literal space that the tornado has created, a shifting is taking place. A grounding and returning to the earth. A space where deep listening is occurring. What blossoms fully out of this wreckage has yet to be seen, but creation is occurring, the community is connecting, and Leah is going to keep listening to the earth to help guide her into the space of knowing what is next for High Garden Tea.
Mas Tacos, Por Favor! & Wilburn Street Tavern, Teresa Mason
The Nashville area is not particularly known for its Mexican food, something I missed from growing up in Colorado. The first summer I spent in Nashville, I frequented the weekly farmer’s market, where produce vendors displayed their goods on tables under tents, laid out like prizes and proof of their hard work.
One food truck sat on the walkway, generator screaming, side window slid open, smells of cooked meat billowing out to meet the crowd. Inside, feeling the heat of the day, stood owner Teresa Mason.
The front of the truck, painted in freehand lettering, read Mas Tacos, Por Favor! I had found what would quickly become my favorite Mexican food experience in Nashville.
Mas Tacos started as a food truck in 2010, when food trucks were not a common scene outside the streets of New York City.
Mason, raised in Nashville, headed to New York after school, packed with a college degree and a mission of never having to work in a restaurant again. But she missed the energy of working in restaurants: meeting new people, the hospitality, the food and drink. She entered the service industry again while in New York.
With a deep passion for travel, it was a trip to Mexico that ignited her love of Mexican food and culture. Mason visited Mexico frequently, exploring different regions to discover what flavors she enjoyed most; what she could learn to bring back to feed her Nashville community.
To begin, it made financial sense to grow a following for Mas Tacos from the window of a food truck. Her popularity grew quickly and, within a few years, Mason was looking for four walls to serve from. She found her spot in East Nashville, in a neighborhood that was still being questioned regarding its appeal and safety.
Beautifully green, growing paddle cactuses flank the sidewalk. The arrow painted on the pavement marks where to stand when the line grows, bursting from the front door.
The space is dark, yet brightly lit with colors and art, an accumulation of goods from trips to Mexico taken over the years.
An open kitchen allows for smells to envelope the space.
The menu is simple and delicious. Quality is consistent. Six flavors of tacos. Three soups. Plantains. Elotè.
Homemade tamales on Wednesday and a Thursday taco special.
Mismatched tables and chairs litter the space, adding to the feel of being anywhere other than Nashville. A few years ago, when the hair salon next door closed its doors, Mason expanded her space, building a bar and additional seating space.
And when a much-loved neighborhood dive bar was closing, Mason stepped in. She took it over while keeping the name, Wilburn Street Tavern, and spirit true with what the community loved. But with the addition of nachos and Sonoran hot dogs!
I Dream of Weenie, Leslie Allen
One of the most photographed sites in Nashville and billed as “East Nashville’s “Only” Full Service Weenery”, I Dream of Weenie came to its artist creator in a dream.
Next to East Nashville’s much loved art space/gallery, Art & Invention, was the Weenie Hut. When the Hut came up for sale, gallery employee Leslie Allen thought, “Maybe I could do that, it’s on a small enough scale.”
Allen purchased the Hut and moved it to the next block, to the backyard of Fanny’s, a beloved female-owned local music store. It is from this space that Allen has been operating I Dream of Weenie for the past 13 years.
Leslie Allen is a southern lady. Once your eyes move past how cute and novel the Weenie Hut is, it’s Allen’s beautifully warm energy that greets you.
Growing up around food in her home kitchen, Allen notes being influenced from a very young age by her mother and the variety of cooking she found with both of her grandmothers.
“One was a little more traditional, country southern. One was a little more upscale, the ‘ladies who lunch’ type,” she says.
She remembers how her mother and she would daydream about a cafe they would one day own, maybe in retirement, something to do just for fun but never as a career path.
After working in nonprofits through economic collapses, Allen thought it was time for a shift. Taking a part-time job at Art & Invention after volunteering for the Tomato Arts Festival, she eased back into cooking, catering for art openings and events.
The Weenie menu consists of 11 mainstays, from traditional hot dog toppings to more southern influenced creations, like the Rebel Yelp: mustard, Tennessee hot chow-chow, jalapenos, chopped red onions (Chow-chow is a sweet & spicy pickled relish made from cabbage, onion, peppers, and love).
Along with these, Allen and her current staff of 2, come up with “Daily Dreams”.
One that made her giggle when we spoke, the Monty Python-Spam-a-Lot weenie: fried Spam, Grilled pineapple, pickled onions and jalapenos.
When talking about the menu, Allen’s joy rolls from her words.
She treats the hot dog as a canvas, on which then she can create and play. “My favorite day of the week is Sunday, when we do Weenie Brunch.” This much loved Sunday menu offers a hot dog, sausage link, or veggie dog smooshed between a french toasted hot dog bun, with a slew of brunch themed toppings!
All of this magic and creativity happens within a 72sq ft space with a charcoal grill and a small collection of kitchen appliances. High quality ingredients, small batch cooking, and food made with a lot of care and love is what Allen serves to the community.
It’s the kind words, Allen notes, that makes her feel deeply rooted to this community. “If you were to take this somewhere else, it would not work. The Weenie Hut works because it is in THIS community.”
Tourists may visit I Dream of Weenie after seeing it as a feature on a variety of TV shows, to photograph the famous VW bus. But what keeps people coming back is the genuine magic of the food; the love and care served on a bun.
And at this time, that’s what we all need.
The Heart of the Community
Although the heart of East Nashville will never look the same after the combination of the tornado and the pandemic, what will remain is the love and support this community has for each other.
Women who have lost their businesses will build anew; an alternate energy, growth rising from the rubble.
Restaurants will continue to nurture their community with offerings eaten from take-away containers.
And as spring rolls into summer, the women of East Nashville will continue to nurture their community with food, supporting each other while their community supports them.
Because when East Nashville eats, it’s a woman’s world.
Feature image by Tanner Boriack on Unsplash