No visit to New York City is complete without taking in a Broadway show and a stop into a Jewish deli, or getting a slice to go from Famous Original Ray’s Pizza. Visiting Philadelphia? You have to try a real cheesesteak sandwich and at least drive by the Liberty Bell. And Nashville, with its hot chicken, is no different.

Many of the hundreds of thousands of visitors who flock to the South’s new “It” city each year come for CMA Fest, a stroll through Broadway’s honky tonks and, of course, to find the best Nashville Hot Chicken.

You’ve certainly heard of Nashville Hot Chicken. You’ve probably even eaten Nashville Hot Chicken, and quite possibly not even in Nashville. The city’s namesake signature food dish has popped up on menus across the country and even beyond our nation’s borders in places as far away as Australia. There are dozens of restaurants in Music City offering hot chicken, there’s a Nashville Hot Chicken Coalition, a Hot Chicken Festival, and in true Nashville fashion, there’s even a Hot Chicken song.

The History Behind Nashville Hot Chicken

Give it to me hot!

But how in the world did hot chicken swoop in and overshadow more obvious Nashville edible stereotypes like barbecue or potato salad? Even pancakes have made a run at Nashville’s trademark food. (Which is evidenced by the lines that always wrap around the building at Hillsboro Village’s Pancake Pantry).

The legend behind the origination of Nashville’s Hot Chicken goes further back than you might think and is far spicier than the chicken itself. You can read the legend of how hot chicken came to be all over the internet, but we decided to go straight to the source. We chatted with André Prince Jeffries, the great-niece of Thornton Prince. And who is Thornton Prince? He’s the man who inspired the very first hot chicken recipe.

Ms. André now runs the family business, Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, which has two locations in Nashville and is widely known by the locals as the birthplace of the city’s namesake hot bird.

The History Behind Nashville Hot Chicken

Prince’s is where you can find hot chicken well into the wee hours of the morning. Image: Prince’s Hot Chicken

“This goes back some 80 odd years,” Ms. André shares. “They didn’t keep records back then, but my great uncle is the one we credit with starting the business. He was a very handsome man and quite the womanizer. He was married over five times, so we don’t even know which woman was the one who served up the first hot chicken. But he was the first to eat it.”

She goes on to say that after a late night of doing God only knows what, Thornton stumbled home late (or maybe even early the next morning). The woman who was at home waiting on him decided to get her revenge through his stomach.

She mixed up the hottest possible concoction of fried chicken spice she could dream up, hoping to set him on fire from the inside out. Legend has it her efforts backfired. Thornton dug into the chicken and loved it, so much so that somewhere around 1936 (Ms. André thinks it was earlier than that), Thornton opened a restaurant he called the BBQ Chicken Shack that served his specialty: hot chicken.

Originally, the restaurant was only open from 6 p.m. to midnight during the week and until 4 a.m. on the weekend. This is a tradition that Ms. André has maintained, even though she decided to change the name along the way to Prince’s Hot Chicken – since, she said, they never served barbecue.

“Why he chose to stay open until 4 a.m., I have no idea,” André muses. “We find that’s when the club crowd comes in. I have no idea why anyone would want to be out that late, but staying open to feed those who do is a tradition I have tried to maintain.”

RELATED: 12 Late-Night Nashville Spots That Feed You Well Past Midnight

So, Thornton Prince began feeding hordes of people really spicy chicken in the middle of the night some 80+ years ago from a recipe cooked up by a scorned lover. Not necessarily the makings for a history-making food that comes to completely define a Southern city. In fact, nobody is more surprised at the food’s popularity today than André herself.

Enter former Nashville Mayor, Bill Purcell. A longtime fan of Prince’s Hot Chicken, back in the late ’90s, Purcell decided to publicly declare his love for Prince’s and officially put hot chicken on the map with the big red push pin smack dab in the middle of Nashville.

In 1996, he drafted an official State of Tennessee House of Representatives declaration designating Prince’s Hot Chicken as The Best Restaurant in Tennessee. The weathered document still hangs framed in the Nashville location. In 2007, Purcell created the first Nashville Hot Chicken Festival, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Nate Karlin moved to Nashville from Kansas nearly a decade ago, and because he has always been a lover of hot sauces and spices, he found himself a big fan of Nashville’s take on hot chicken.

“I got into hot chicken at a time when it was just beginning to gain in popularity,” Nate shares. “I guess you could say I was borderline bandwagon. The secret was out, but it was way before national chains like KFC tried to exploit its mouth-watering, forehead-sweating deliciousness. But I always went out of my way to take out-of-town visitors to Hattie B’s. I loved how the line always wrapped around outside, but it always moved so quickly. To me, it made the experience seem more legit to an outsider because they were experiencing something unique to Nashville. When I was at the University of Kansas, standing in long lines for famous Kansas City barbecue was the thing to do. In Nashville, it’s hot chicken.”

Nate and his family recently relocated to Dallas, and after a Google search, he uncovered that Nashville-based Helen’s Hot Chicken has a location in Lewisville, Texas, which is about 30 minutes away from Dallas. “I haven’t made it out there yet, but it’s definitely on my to-do list. I’ve told my group of guy friends about it, so I hope to bring them with sometime,” he says.

Party Fowl is a relative newcomer to the Nashville market and serves up their own version of hot chicken. Executive Chef Bart Pickens says Nashville Hot Chicken was developed as a weapon that turned into an endorphin kick that is redefining Nashville’s culinary presence. He says his recipe is definitely a nod to those who came before him, with an effort to bring something original to Party Fowl to the table.

“You have to know the original song before you can change the lyrics,” Bart says. “I’m very familiar with the concept of spicy chicken, all the way back to the ’80s and Prince’s and Popeye’s chicken, but trial and error was a big part of the development of hot chicken for Party Fowl. I made sure to eat at all the good hot chicken restaurants and from there tried to discover a flavor profile that worked for us.”

As involved in the business as Ms. André has been throughout her life, she never imagined her family’s hot chicken recipe would become one of Nashville’s biggest tourist attractions. “For a long time, we were the only hot chicken place in Nashville,” she says. “But in the last 10 years it has gone wild! We see people from all over the world in this little shack.”

Next time you’re in Nashville and looking to satisfy your hot chicken curiosity, rest assured many of Music City’s popular restaurants have some version of hot chicken on their menu. But if you want to dine at a place that is largely devoted to the fiery bird and creatively incorporating the heat into their menu, here are some great places to get your Nashville Hot Chicken fix that even the locals swear by:

Prince’s Hot Chicken

Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack
123 Ewing Drive, #3, Nashville, TN 37207

Prince’s Hot Chicken South
5814 Nolensville Road, Ste. 110, Nashville, TN 37211

Bolton’s Spicy Chicken and Fish

624 Main St., Nashville, TN 37204
2309-A Franklin Pike, Nashville, TN 37204

Hattie B’s

112 19th Ave. S., Nashville, TN 37203
5209 Charlotte Ave., Nashville, TN 37209
2222 Eighth Ave. S., Nashville, TN 37204
(and when in Alabama, look for their Birmingham location at 2808 Seventh Ave. S., #101, Birmingham, AL 35233)

Party Fowl

719 Eighth Ave. S., Nashville, TN 37203
127 SE Broad St., Murfreesboro, TN 37130

Helen’s Hot Chicken

5 area locations (and one in Lewisville, TX!)

*********

Learn fascinating Southern stories — subscribe to StyleBlueprint for your best “me moment” of your day!