“What did this place used to be?” one of my companions asked as she looked around the swanky dining room of Union Common. As visionaries have transformed service stations, textile mills, corner markets, butcher shops, beauty salons, turn-of-the-century Victorians, 1960s office space and even car washes into quirky and creative food-and-beverage destinations in almost every part of town (sorry, Green Hills, you can’t have it all!), it has become an increasingly common question. But there is nothing common about this upscale, yet approachable, (and happy hour-affordable) restaurant that opened last August in Midtown, where the terminus of Broadway and Division forms a triangular plot of land.
There is an abundance of dark spirits, meriting their own impressive menu and even a Saturday night special from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. called Brown Water Revival with all whiskeys offered at half price. What I don’t know about brown waters could fill a barrel, but I know enough to recommend a great deal when I see one. On one of my visits, my companions took advantage of Friday’s Weekend Kickstarter from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., with $5 martinis and Manhattans. Monday through Thursday, signature cocktails, wines by the glass and small plates are half-off from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Nothing in the press material or website reveals the inspiration for the name Union Common, but the original conceptualizers behind the “social concept steakhouse” as it was introduced come to us via Louisville. Owner, master sommelier and principal with Falls City Hospitality Brett Davis remains; chef Bobby Benjamin went back to L-town in January, but many of the dishes he created will ring a culinary bell for those who enjoyed his playful inventiveness during his residence in the Flyte kitchen. Executive chef Benny Kaminski now helms the kitchen at Union Common.
The word “steakhouse” is a bit misleading and risks turning away diners like me suffering steakhouse ennui at this point in Nashville’s dining evolution. Yes, there are steaks on the menu—hanger, filet mignon, rib-eye and New York strip in several weights and ages, but you can (and we did) have a marvelous meal without ordering from the Steaks & Chops category.
“Social concept” alludes not to table-hopping (though there was plenty of that going on at both of my visits, which is how I personally witnessed the expanding tables), but to the recommendation to order with sharing in mind. Though everything on the menu—including the $150 cold seafood tower and the larger steaks—is brought to the table ready to pass from diner to diner, we primarily built our meals from the Small Plates menu. With more than 20 delectable options, it’s easy to never go any deeper.
But it does take a while to decide, so while pondering our choices and sipping a glass of wine, we eased in with a half dozen pristine oysters on the half shell, the bone marrow and a cheese plate.
It seems like every restaurant in Nashville these days has its version of hot chicken: hot chicken tacos at Urban Grub, Acme Feed & Seed’s hot chicken truck stop sandwich on Texas toast, hot chicken sliders at Silo’s Sunday brunch, hot chicken pizza special at Bella Nashville, hot chicken in a biscuit at Biscuit Love Brunch and, my personal favorite, hot chicken buns at POP. Union Common breeds two of my favorite things—hot chicken and sweetbreads—to spawn my number one guilty pleasure of 2015: Nashville hot sweetbreads. Bartender Davey Jones, keeping his hands at a safe distance from my fork, told me that their buttery tenderness is courtesy of a three-day preparation process. There is no photo, because I would not stop eating them long enough to snap a shot. But imagine the crab cake basket with a block of white bread in the bottom, then filled with ruddy, crispy orbs and topped with pickles. Foodgasmic!
Several of the small plates would make perfect sides to the steaks, such as the duck fat French fries, smashed fingerling potatoes with chorizo and Brussels sprouts with pork belly. Others could compose a meal for vegetarians, like the sautéed broccolini with raisins and capers, the roasted beets with sunflower seeds, the fried cauliflower with chick peas and the earthy foraged mushrooms with pearl onions, roasted garlic, fig jus and blue cheese. I’d love to have some of these small cast-iron skillets in my kitchen.
I would have been happy to have another order of sweetbreads for dessert, but my companions insisted on something more traditional. So from the Sweet Tooth section, we chose the Banana Foster Bread Pudding with Bourbon Whiskey Ice Cream. Bananas, bread and bourbon were the magic words.
The transformation that has taken place at the apex of Broadway and Division is magic, as well. It doesn’t matter what Union Common used to be. What it is now is one of Nashville’s best designed, most delicious and delightful new bars and restaurants. Make it a destination on your dining map.
Kay West has written for local, regional and national publications, as well as for the music industry. She continues to write locally, including covering restaurants for StyleBlueprint, and is the Nashville correspondent for People Weekly/People Country/People.com.