I'm Lindsay Ferrier, a Nashville writer with a passion for family travel, exploring Tennessee, and raising kids without losing my mind in the process. This is where I share my discoveries, along with occasional deep thoughts, pop culture tangents and a sprinkling of snark. Want to get in touch? Use the CONTACT form at the top of the page.
March 8, 2022
You can’t help but notice Hathorne if you’re heading down Charlotte Avenue on a nice evening. The restaurant’s cozy, tree-lined patio just across the street from Richland Park is likely to be filled with people, all eating and drinking and talking and laughing beneath strings of twinkling lights. The place is a vibe before you even walk through the door, and I’ve gazed longingly at it many times as we’ve passed by, swearing that some day soon, we’d eat there. Finally, a few nights ago, we did.
Spoiler alert? It was the best meal we’ve had this year.
I have to admit, I was nervous when we entered the restaurant. Nashville has become quite the food town over the last few years and some of its newer restaurants definitely subscribe to a hipper-than-thou model of operations. This attitude totally kills the experience for me, so any time we try a new place, I’m on high alert. Does the entire staff seem just this side of a sigh and an eye roll? Does the menu refer to ranch dressing as ‘buttermilk aioli’ and chicken as ‘cockerel’? Do we wait thirty minutes for our table with nary an apology or explanation, even though we have reservations? Then it’s a hard no for me, friends — food be damned.
Fortunately, the ambiance at Hathorne immediately put me at ease. The airy space once was the fellowship hall for the church next door (now an event space called Clementine) and owner John Stephenson kept that friendly feeling firmly intact in his renovations, using cushioned church pews as seating, the prayer rail as a room divider, and a hymn board advertising happy hour above the bar. Gazing serenely over the room is a Zelda Fitzgerald-esque portrait of Stephenson’s grandmother — the restaurant’s namesake, Mary Ruth Hathorn. Noting that her last name was a variation on hawthorn, a tree that represents luck and love, he included the tree in the Hathorne logo.
I believe Stephenson was able to execute a pitch-perfect atmosphere at Hathorne because he’s no stranger to old Nashville restaurant traditions. He discovered a passion for preparing food based on what’s fresh and local while working at the beloved Corner Market in Belle Meade, then made a name for himself as the chef at Fido and later at Family Wash, dreaming up imaginative yet accessible menu items that are still talked about to this day.
When he opened Hathorne at the end of 2018, Stephenson had no idea of the challenges Covid would present just one year later. As a result, the restaurant has pivoted often to maintain its footing in uncertain and highly competitive times. Executive chefs have come and gone. St. Vito took over the kitchen Sunday nights for a very successful residency, which just ended. Brunch was tried for a time, as well as live music. Recently, Hathorne’s latest executive chef moved on after updating the menu and Chris Gass was promoted into the role. And while so many changes could spell doom for another restaurant, in this case, I’m simply going to call Stephenson and his employees extremely nimble and open to change, because our experience Thursday night was incredible and the staff seemed upbeat, attentive, and invigorated by the new menu.
The restaurant was bustling when we arrived at 6:30 on a Thursday night. The bar and patio were full, as were most of the tables inside, and the crowd was relaxed and decidedly local. Throughout our meal, diners got up to greet one another, reminding me of the days when Tin Angel and The Bound’ry reigned as West Nashville’s official date night restaurants and you were pretty much guaranteed to run into several people you knew while you were there.
I miss those days.
I don’t, however, miss those menus. Until fairly recently, the food options at all the popular spots in town were pretty much the same. Nashville restaurants had a death grip on ‘innovative Southern cuisine’, which was wonderful if you were visiting from out of town but hella boring if you lived here. I never thought I’d say this, but I don’t care if I never have pork belly or Benton’s bacon again. I have Nashville restaurants to thank for that.
Thanks to the recent population explosion here though, the food scene has expanded to include all sorts of new and exciting ingredients and styles of cooking, and we’ve grown spoiled by all our choices. Hathorne may have a lock on that old Nashville ambience, but to truly hold its own among all the competition springing up around town, the menu would need to be bold and sophisticated and include dishes we simply couldn’t get anywhere else. It’s a tall order, and I honestly wasn’t sure if Hathorne could deliver.
Boy, was I in for a surprise.
Hayley Teague has been the beverage director at Hathorne since it opened in 2018 and may I just say she is doing a kickass job. We tried four of Hathorne’s signature cocktails and I can enthusiastically recommend all of them. Each was expertly blended so that I could actually taste all of the ingredients and nothing was overpowering.
My husband and I agreed that special mention has to go to a new drink at Hathorne known as the Maude. With scotch, rye, Montenegro, jasmine and lemon, it’s not a drink I’d ever ordinarily order, because I think scotch tastes like *small voice* ear wax. Thankfully, my husband ordered it on our server’s recommendation and we both agreed it was absolutely fantastic. Hayley made scotch not taste like ear wax at all, and that is a small miracle as far as I’m concerned. I hope this drink stays on the menu, because I will definitely be ordering it again.
As for the other drinks we tried, the Selena cocktail, made with reposado tequila, passionfruit, and smoked pineapple, was sweet and delicious, the Diego, with Mezcal, grapefruit, and apricot, was smoky, sweet, and sophisticated, and the Harry, made with rum, sherry, and falernum, was complex and delightful.
Hathorne also offers signature non-alcoholic cocktails, a thoughtfully curated wine list (Hayley is, after all, a level one sommelier), and a dozen craft beer options, most of which are local.
Looking over the menu, I started to get excited about the meal that was to come. Composed with an emphasis on shared plates, it wasn’t so small that I didn’t feel like I had enough choices, or so large that I was overwhelmed. I guess I’m more of a food adventurer at restaurants — I love unusual ingredients and flavor combinations I’ve never tried before — and on that front, the menu promised to deliver. At the same time, I deeply appreciated the fact that I recognized nearly all the ingredients and had a good grasp on what I was actually ordering. There would be no ridiculously pretentious names for ordinary foods on John Stephenson’s watch.
We started our feast with Hathorne’s version of crudo – raw sheepshead fish, citrus, sorrel, and white soy. The sheepshead was surprisingly flavorful and the citrus gave it a nice zing. “This is how you imagine sushi is going to taste when you’re craving it,” I told my husband. It was a lovely, light start to the meal.
We also tried the carrots, which are something I typically don’t order at a restaurant — but this particular dish is special. The carrots were perfectly crisp-tender and topped with the most wonderful pine-infused cane syrup and peanut and seed crumble. The pine really comes through in this dish, which is a nice surprise, and honestly, I think Hathorne should consider bottling this topping and selling it as a side hustle. I would put it on just about anything.
Hathorne’s salad was made memorable by the freshness and flavor of the greens, the yummy Earl Gray Vinaigrette (we could really taste the Earl Gray in it and it was very good — another delightful surprise), and the crispy breadcrumbs, which gave it a satisfying crunch.
Since we’re on the topic of salad, now’s as good a time as any to talk about something that really stood out to me at Hathorne. In addition to being delicious, each dish tasted healthy. I felt fantastic after finishing each course instead of bloated and blerghy, which is how I usually feel after dining out. I realize blerghy isn’t a word, but maybe it should be. At Hathorne, I never once felt blerghy and I think that might need to be a testimonial on their press page.
As good as these first few dishes were, though, the best was yet to come.
I’m going to try to keep my cool here, but we’ve reached the point where that might be impossible. I took one bite of this smoked scallop tortelloni and life changed for me forever. This stuffed pasta in beer bone broth with brown butter and seaweed was smoky and creamy and packed with so much flavor — And while the tortelloni was nothing short of fabulous, the broth was equally exquisite, all by itself.
“This is death row inmate last meal-worthy,” I murmured to my husband as we ate. It’s one of the best dishes I’ve ever had in Nashville and I can’t wait to have it again — Next time, we’ll ask for some charred sourdough on the side to dip in that delicious broth.
“Broccolini toast?” you might be thinking. “Why would I want broccolini on my toast?”
Trust me when I tell you that you need this broccolini toast in your life, STAT. It was another truly memorable dish, the likes of which I’ve never had before. The combination of crisp broccolini, creamy cashew ricotta, honeyed mandarin, and black garlic atop the most wonderful chewy charred sourdough was out of this world. It’s a perfect shared plate appetizer before a larger meal. My husband was a huge fan, which makes me laugh because this is not something he would have ordered on his own in a million years.
This main plate was another absolutely swoon-worthy dish and we scooped up every last bite. Trumpet, hedgehog, oyster and button mushrooms were smoked and drenched in a savory mushroom cream sauce atop a bed of barley. If you like wild mushrooms, you owe it to yourself to try this dish. It’s one of the best main courses I’ve had in Nashville and a big reason why Hathorne is my favorite meal of the year so far.
Accompanied by turnips and tarragon in a butter cream sauce, this grouper was so simply and perfectly done — What most impressed me was that I realized I’d never had perfectly cooked grouper until I tried this dish. It was as if someone had been standing at the oven, anxiously waiting to pull the grouper out the very second it was ready, resulting in the most moist, tender, flaky fillet I’ve ever tasted.
You’d think at this point we wouldn’t have room for dessert.
You’d be wrong.
For how can one possibly say no to brioche doughnuts?
One can’t say no to brioche doughnuts. And one shouldn’t say no to brioche doughnuts. Ours were served in a malted milk cream sauce and they were doughy yet fluffy and not too sweet and altogether heavenly. And in another moment of divine intervention (in this case, the angel appeared in the form of our server, who brought us one last surprise), we tried a second dessert as well.
It was bay leaf sorbet with Fernet Branca and it was extraordinary. The taste was sweet, light, and herbal and when I took a bite, I felt a lot like I imagine Maria Von Trapp felt when she twirled on top of a grassy hill in the Alps. It was a perfect end to a perfect meal.
In short, our dinner at Hathorne was an experience that we’ll never forget. Chris Gass is doing an excellent job in his new role as executive chef and Hathorne hereby now deserves a spot as West Nashville’s official date night restaurant — You really owe it to yourself to try it the next time you’re planning a special night out.
Hathorne is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 5-10pm; ‘Joyful Hour’ is from 5-6. And the restaurant just added burger night on Tuesdays, which we’re planning to try next. Each Tuesday, they’ll offer their popular Smash Burger, as well as a rotating special burger.