Nashville’s most sublime food experience is not to be found in a fine restaurant or even at a standard meat-and-three cafeteria. It is served on a plate with a slice of Wonder bread and a pickle chip. It is hot chicken, a very spicy panfried delicacy, made with bone-in breast and secret spices.

Legend goes that in the 1930s a woman made an extra spicy dish to punish her philandering boyfriend. But it turned out that he liked it extra hot, and Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack was born.

A number of shops specialize in this regional treat. If you want perks like indoor seating, air-conditioning, or other menu choices with your hot chicken, you have some options; several high-end restaurants offer modern takes on this old favorite. Each restaurant has its special spices, but the basic idea is the same. Order it as spicy as you can take it, but not so hot that you can’t enjoy the flavor. Panfrying takes time, so you’re likely to wait wherever you go.

Hot chicken, served on Wonder bread with a pickle, is a signature Nashville dish. Photo © Margaret Littman.

Hot chicken, served on Wonder bread with a pickle, is a signature Nashville dish. Photo © Margaret Littman.

Where to Find Hot Chicken

Downtown and Germantown

Whiskey Kitchen
This restaurant/bar is one of the Gulch’s many see-and-be-seen spots. Starting as soon as the office crowd shuts down their laptops, Whiskey Kitchen (118 12th Ave. S., 615/254-3029 11am-1am Sun.-Thurs., 11am-2am Fri.-Sat.) has a happening bar scene, with both indoor and outdoor space. The outdoor patios are heated so that they can corral the crowds even in cold-weather months. The menu is better than bar food, with good burgers, a variation of Nashville hot chicken, and lots of dishes made with—you guessed it—whiskey. The wine and cocktail list is creative.

SILO
Touted as a Southern-influenced neighborhood bistro SILO (1121 5th Ave. N., 615/750-2912, 4pm-11pm Tues.-Sat., 10:30am-2pm, 4pm-11pm Sun.) serves up sophisticated farm food in a lively, welcoming setting. Focused on regional food and talent, even the restaurant’s furnishings are locally made.

The Southern Steak and Oyster
When The Southern (150 3rd Ave. S., 615/724-1762, 7:30am-10pm Mon.-Thurs., 7:30am-midnight Fri., 9:30am-midnight Sat., 9:30am-10pm Sun.)–as locals call it–opened, it was as if a void was filled. A void perhaps few realized existed before. Nevertheless, locals and visitors alike flocked to this sleek welcoming downtown bar and restaurant to eat oysters the likes of which are not typically found outside of the coasts. In addition to the oysters, The Southern has a fun take on the classic Nashville hot chicken, gumbo, and an impressive cocktail list. Its location makes it a madhouse before the symphony or during conventions, but that buzz is part of its appeal. The Southernaire Market, around the corner, sells limited packaged grocery items, T-shirts, and other gift items perfect for bringing home to remember your trip.

The Southern Steak & Oyster.

The Southern Steak & Oyster. Photo © Rachel Chapdelaine, licensed CC-BY 2.0.

400 Degrees
400 Degrees (319 Peabody St., 615/244-4467, 11am-7pm Tues.-Fri., noon-5pm Sat.) offers a deep-fried version of this local specialty with a thick spice-loaded crust. You can also pick up owner Aqui Hines’s unique blend of spices to take home.

Midtown and 12 South

The Catbird Seat
To describe The Catbird Seat (1711 Division St., 615/810-8200, 5:45pm-9:15pm Wed.-Sat.) as a restaurant is a bit of a misnomer. It is a culinary performance that happens to include dinner. There are just 32 seats in this U-shaped space. Once you get a coveted reservation (available online only), you’ll be treated to three hours of wines paired with a seasonal meal, made before your eyes. Some of the ingredients don’t sound great—hay-infused yogurt, for example—but most of them will blow your mind. Reservations are opened 30 days in advance. The multicourse tasting menu is $115 without drinks. The nonalcoholic pairings are as inventive as the wines.

Hattie B’s Hot Chicken
For simple counter fare that doesn’t skimp on the flavor, try Hattie B’s Hot Chicken (112 19th Ave. S., 615/678-4794, 11am-10pm Mon.-Thurs., 11am-midnight Fri.-Sat., 11am-4pm Sun.). Pick from mild to very hot, add a Southern side and enjoy local brews.

East Nashville

Bolton’s Spicy Chicken & Fish
Hot chicken is one of Nashville’s true culinary specialties. Bolton’s Spicy Chicken & Fish (624 Main St., 615/254-8015 and 2309A Franklin Pike, 615/383-1421, 11am-9pm Mon.-Sat.) is one of the best places to try this local delicacy. In fact, it is a big debate whether it is Prince’s or Bolton’s that is the city’s best. Hot chicken is served bone-in, on a piece of white bread (soaking up the heat), with a pickle on top. And it is spicy. For real. It is made to order, and panfrying takes time, so plan a 20-minute wait into your visit. As its name suggests, Bolton’s also serves spicy fish. Bolton’s has a second location (2309A Franklin Pike, 615/383-1421).

Pepperfire
Pepperfire (1000 Gallatin Ave., Suite C, 615/582-4824, 11am-9pm Mon.-Wed., 11am-10pm Thurs.-Sat.) is an airy, easy-going joint specializing in spicy chicken with sides of crinkle-cut fries. Call in your order so it’s ready for pickup by the time you arrive.

Greater Nashville

Prince's Hot Chicken Shack.

Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack. Photo © Sean Russell, licensed CC BY-SA 2.0.

Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack
Out of all the food that you eat in Music City, you’ll likely still be dreaming about Prince’s Hot Chicken (123 Ewing Dr., 615/226-9442, noon-10:30pm Tues.-Thurs., noon-4am Fri., 2pm-4am Sat.) when you get home. The most famous hot chicken shack, you’ll find the the longest lines here. Prince’s serves three varieties: mild, hot, and extra hot. Most uninitiated will find the mild variety plenty spicy, so beware. It is served with slices of white bread—perfect for soaking up that spicy chicken juice—and a pickle slice. You can add a cup of creamy potato salad, coleslaw, or baked beans if you like. When you walk into Prince’s, head to the back, where you’ll place your order at the window, pay, and be given a number. Then take a seat, if you can find one, while you wait for your food. You can order to go or eat in. Your food is made to order, and Prince’s is very popular, so the wait often exceeds 30 minutes. Take heart, though—Prince’s chicken is worth the wait.

Music City Hot Chicken Festival

The temperature is almost always hot at the Music City Hot Chicken Festival on July 4, but so is the chicken. This east-side event is a feast of Nashville’s signature spicy panfried dish. Because hot chicken is made individually, the lines are long. But music, cooking contests, and other activities help pass the time. This is a great way to sample one of the classic Music City culinary delights.


Excerpted from the Second Edition of Moon Nashville.