The popularity and prominence of Nashville’s food scene has been picking up steam for many years.
New restaurants continue to roll out across Music City, squeezing long-standing eateries into an intensely competitive marketplace packed with trendy options.
When a restaurant that opened in 2005 can be considered a stalwart, how do Nashville eateries manage to stay relevant?
“We've continually changed and updated things here internally. For a long time, we tried to attract tourists from East Nashville and so on and so forth, and ultimately we are happy just being a neighborhood spot,” said Nick Jacobson, owner of Belle Meade’s 360 Bistro. “I've always preached here at the restaurant to keep things interesting and new. Whether that's a new menu item or a new light fixture, there's always something that needs to be evolving.”
Jacobson has been with the restaurant since it opened in 2005. Originally called The Grape, a wine bar franchise from an Atlanta-based group, 360 Bistro emerged when Jacobson took over ownership in 2007.
“We’ve done really well for ourselves. Not many restaurants in town can say they have been in business for 11 years,” Jacobson said.
And he’s right. Restaurants across Middle Tennessee are facing heightened competition.
In Belle Meade, Whitfield’s Restaurant & Bar closed its doors after 10 years in business just a few years ago. Noelle, the upscale restaurant that took its place, had a short run and was also shuttered.
Jacobson said he was confident the Belle Meade area craved a restaurant with an expansive and complete menu that reflects 360 Bistro's traditional roots. With 1,100 wine options, 360 Bistro also boasts the largest wine list in Tennessee outside of Blackberry Farm, Jacobson said.
Another key to success, Jacobson said, is embracing change. Eight or nine chefs have led 360 Bistro’s kitchen over its 11 years. The most recent change in chefs occurred in January.
Large-scale interior renovations are on the table as well, with new floors, walls and light fixtures giving the restaurant a more modern feel.
On the other end of town is Watermark, a Gulch staple since 2005.
When it opened 11 years ago, Watermark wasn’t breaking into a crowded food scene. There definitely wasn’t an upscale, farm-to-table restaurant in the neighborhood.
Now, The Gulch is one of Nashville’s hottest neighborhoods.
“We were fortunate and had a lot of great notoriety when we opened and rode that really for a number of years. We're still here, but those first couple of years you enjoy that honeymoon of the new ‘it’ restaurant,” Hughes Brown, Watermark’s director of operations, told Crain’s Nashville.
To stay relevant, Watermark’s approach is simple: keep serving top-quality food.
“We just come in everyday to make sure that the people who are coming in for dinner are going to get the best experience they can,” Brown said. “That's really how we keep pushing through when a new restaurant pops up around the corner. We don't have some big, calculated marketing scheme to counter that as much as to keep doing what we've been doing for 11 years.”
That doesn’t mean big changes are off the menu at Watermark.
The restaurant will move into new digs this fall, after its lease expires in The Gulch. The space is in the downtown headquarters of Bridgestone North America, next to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, and across the street from the Nashville Symphony.
“In a time where there are new restaurants opening constantly, there is definitely a positive side to being an older restaurant,” Brown said. “It's kind of almost like the customers know what they're going to get here. From a longevity and consistency standpoint, that is a positive in terms of staying relevant.”
Brown isn’t worried that Nashville’s restaurant boom will hurt Watermark.
“The boom has been great for us. People wouldn't be opening all these restaurants if there wasn't the business to do so. We reap the benefits of the city just like everyone else,” he said.