NASHVILLE, Tennessee — Mention “Nashville,” and visions of lively honky-tonks, big record deals, and hand-tooled cowboy boots appear. Storied music destinations like Ryman Auditorium, Grand Ole Opry, and Bluebird Café hold memorable pasts and vibrant presents. Nashville’s reverence for its music and musicians also lures a number of annual festivals. Like Tin Pan South Songwriters Festival, a weeklong show featuring more than 400 performing songwriters — who are often just as talented and charismatic as the (more) famous singers who record their songs — doing 98 shows in ten great venues. From packed three-story clubs to dark little listening rooms, every performance I saw was a sold-out treat.
But there's more to this town than music. Nashville is bursting at the seams with development. From my room at the Grand Hyatt Nashville, I counted eleven cranes, many working on new downtown hotels to satisfy all those music fans, among other visitors.
What impressed me most about Nashville (and what often impresses me about smaller cities and the people who make them hum) was the entrepreneurial vision behind three memorable businesses: Noko, a new, Asian-inspired restaurant in East Nashville; The Diskin Cider Tasting Room, the city’s first and only craft cidery that oozes with good vibes, superb cider, and strong principles; and Barista Parlor, a mini chain of coffee shops with true panache.
Noko: Wood-fired Specialties and a Work Environment That Breaks New Ground
When I visited Noko in April, it had been open less than a month. Pleasantly full, with a clearly appreciative crowd, it was hard to believe this was a new restaurant just finding its footing. Not only was the staff top-notch, but every dish we tried — from hamachi crudo and crab fried rice to wagyu brisket and tomahawk ribeye — was extremely fresh and delicious. Located in East Nashville at the end of a small strip of inviting little stores, their credo is, “Asian- inspired, wood-fired.”
In addition to the regular menu, executive chef Dung “Junior” Vo creates a rotating selection of tartares and crudos, along with seasonal, wood-fired seafood. Japanese whiskies add depth to cocktails such as the Wagyu-fat Washed Old Fashioned (yes, it does say "Wagyu fat-washed," and it did have that certain something). Refreshingly, non-alcoholic cocktails aren’t an afterthought: They’re as carefully constructed as everything else on the menu, many featuring tasty toasted garnishes.
The cozy interior design takes its cues from small Japanese farmhouses, and the host’s warm welcome was apparent from the moment we walked through the door. Once we were settled in, Noko founder Jon Murray stopped by to tell us what, besides passion, was behind his new venture. Having spent years working for a large restaurant group with responsibility for many establishments, Murray was ready to have just one place to nurture, grow, and focus on. His previous job totally lacked work/life balance, and he was determined to give Noko’s staff a better experience.
And he's doing it. His employee betterment program offers a four-day work week (if desired), along with health, dental, and vision insurances and a free gym or yoga studio membership. Everyone gets a two-week paid vacation and a paid day off on their birthday. As if that’s not enough, Murray designates one percent of sales help pay for employee vacations, and one percent of net profits go to the Nashville Children’s Alliance, an organization that provides support for physically and sexually abused children. If someone on staff feels the need for a therapist, virtual therapy is also free for the asking.
Diskin Cider: The Definition of Good Karma
As soon as we drove into Wedgewood-Houston, an industrial chic neighborhood known for its maker-focused businesses, it was clear where all the action was. On a relatively quiet afternoon, The Diskin Cider Tasting Room was alive and buzzing. Housed in an old semi-truck garage with a large area spilling outside, this was clearly the place to be. Life is fun here.
Couples, singles, groups of all ages, huge dogs, tiny dogs, babies, and kids all seemed equally at home. After passing through an outdoor patio filled with hammocks, firepits, copious seating, and yard games, we stepped into a big open space to find a huge bar in full swing. Food was available, and a bunch of pop-up vintage booths were drawing a good crowd.
This wonderful place is the brainchild of Adam Diskin and Todd Evans, two friends who set their minds to creating something new in a town famous for barbecue and beer. After Diskin moved to Nashville from the Pacific Northwest, he missed the cider he’d enjoyed in Washington State and Canada, so he and his equally passionate pal put in a good amount of schooling and time, learning everything they needed to know to bring their idea to life.
As Nashville’s first and only cidery, opened in 2018, Diskin continues to break new ground, serving frozen cider, cider cocktails, and tasting-room exclusives. As a blonde, I couldn’t resist L’il Blondie, billed as “semi-sweet Southern cider.” From the first sip it was pure apple-y pleasure.
“What’s in this?” I wondered.
Ingredients: apples. Just apples. There’s no added sugar in any of their ciders, and all are gluten-free.
We also tasted 615, named for Nashville’s area code, enjoying its pineapple-lemon punch — and Bourbon Tart Cherry with hints of caramel and oak. Diskin has an ever-evolving and seasonal roster of ciders. While the favorites remain, there’s always something new.
Once a month, the Diskin Divas Drag Brunch draws a big crowd for a two-hour drag show and family-style brunch. (A mere $25 a person.) Tennessee may be moving to ban such performances, but Diskin’s owners have held fast, fully supporting this popular event for those 18 and over.
I don’t usually report on bathrooms, but right before leaving, I noticed something in the restroom that really made an impression. On the back of the stall door, a sign read, “Do you feel unsafe, uncomfortable, or even just a bit weird? Here’s how to ask for help. Go to the bar and order an ANGEL CIDER, and one of our trained staff will assist you!” Wow. Just wow.
Barista Parlor: Art, Custom Sound, Merch You’d Actually Want (And Yes, Incredible Coffee)
Upon walking through the door, it was clear that something cool was going on. The music sounded better, the T-shirts were extra nice, the biscuits looked delectable, and the coffee aroma was transporting. The big, industrial space offered plenty of places to sit, talk, or work near compelling artwork that clearly came from imaginative minds.
Barista Parlor owner Andy Mumma grew up in a Mennonite family, loving music and adventure — and wanting more of both. After working in specialty coffee for 16 years, he combined his passion for art, design, and coffee and opened the first Barista Parlor in 2011. Today, he has outposts throughout Nashville and recently expanded to Louisville and Indianapolis.
Every Barista location has its own look and feel, as well as a hand-crafted sound system created for the space and a selection of curated vinyl. What they all have in common is a welcoming spirit, excellent coffee, high-quality food, and an elevated coffee experience that brings people back again and again.
House-made biscuits and seasonal jams can be ordered alone (I took mine with jam and butter because I don’t let anything get in the way of a good biscuit) or as various egg sandwiches. Bagels, burritos, and avocado toast round out the choices. The coffee is the best they can source from environmentally responsible farms around the world. And while not one for flavored coffees, my barista suggested I try bourbon vanilla latte made with their own syrup — and I never looked back. Before heading out the door, I picked up a shirt with their stylish anchor logo and a few Barista Parlor chocolate bars, including Black Lava Salt and what turned out to be a perfect combo: Corn Flakes & Maple.
While I knew about the downtown Nashville locations, I was pleasantly surprised to discover one more Barista Parlor at the airport, complete with funky, flight-inspired décor. So even my very last cup of coffee felt like Nashville through and through.