If you, like me, have poo-pooed the oft-repeated statistic that 75 to 100 people a day are moving to Nashville as overly exaggerated, hyped-up rah-rah, I invite you to try to make a reservation at one of our town’s hot new restaurants for a prime-time hour on a weekend night with less than a week’s notice.
Barcelona, for example, opened with relatively little fanfare the first week of November in the rapidly morphing Edgehill Village compound, but in just a few months, it ratcheted up from simmering to sizzling.
On a Tuesday afternoon, a couple hours before the Monday through Friday 4 p.m. opening (Saturday and Sunday service begins at 11:30 a.m. with brunch until 3 p.m., before segueing to the dinner menu), I overheard affable GM Steve Weaver’s side of a call looking for a Saturday reservation. “Great. I’d love to help. Saturday? … 7:30? … This Saturday? … ” I admire how Steve kept his composure, replying politely, “I’m sorry. The only openings we have closest to your time this Saturday are at 4 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Would you like one of those? … 9:30? We look forward to seeing you then.”
That was before the patio re-opened, adding 40 additional seats to the 240 that are distributed among tables in the casual front dining room, quieter back dining room and 12 booths in the bar between the two rooms.
You are officially Old Nashville if you remember when this rambling brick structure that is now home to Old Glory, Legato Gelato, Bella Napoli, Taco Mamacita and now Barcelona, was part of the White Way Laundry compound. Thanks to its dazzling design exalting the old brick building’s existing structural elements of steel, concrete, wood and glass, seamlessly blending modern with vintage, industrial with rustic, layering multiple textures, pouring in natural light, and showcasing big, bold art, all in a relaxed, breezy, sophisticated-yet-unpretentious style, Barcelona will have you at hello, love at first sight before a single bite.
The Nashville restaurant is one of 12 locations birthed from the original in Norwalk, Connecticut, by co-founders Sasa Mahr-Batuz and Andy Pforzheimer, but each is unique, the décor driven by Chief Creative Officer Mahr-Batuz.
(Here is a charming video of the partners talking about Barcelona, set to a bouncy soundtrack reminiscent of the ear worm “Zou Bisou Bisou” Megan Draper serenaded Dreamy Don with in a memorable “Mad Men” scene.)
Keeping it real is Chef Andy Hayes, whose path to Barcelona began in White House, TN, where he was born and raised.
He has fond memories of summers working on his grandmother’s blueberry farm in West Tennessee, where he received early lessons in real cooking. “She used to cook huge spreads of food every day, everything from scratch,” he says. His first industry job was in high school at the Rivergate Cooker. “To me, as a teenager, it was the best restaurant in the world.”
Cooking wasn’t Andy’s first passion; he dreamed of being a professional soccer player, and he played college ball at Carson-Newman in East Tennessee. He continued working part-time in restaurants, where he met a chef who recognized his raw talent and encouraged him to think about culinary school. A position in Charleston fell through, along with plans of going to Johnson & Wales, and he came back to Middle Tennessee and took some classes at Nashville Tech’s culinary school. When the pastry instructor there introduced him to the new, young executive chef at Capitol Grille, Sean Brock, it turned out to be a life-changing turning point. The time he spent at the esteemed hotel restaurant was as intense and hands-on an education as any culinary school. When Sean left for McCrady’s restaurant in Charleston, Andy flew north, landing in New York, first at Gramercy Tavern and then Union Square, both part of Danny Meyer’s restaurant group.
The birth of he and his wife’s second child and a job offer from Chef Tyler Brown brought a change of address from Brooklyn back to Nashville and a return to the Capitol Grille. He went on to positions at Moto, 404 Kitchen and 5th & Taylor before being contacted by the Barcelona group and offered the position of Executive Chef.
Barcelona chefs are given lots of creative autonomy in their own kitchen. They are also given a trip to Spain to explore, at the company’s expense, the culture, cuisine and products of the Iberian Peninsula. Among other things, Andy ate a lot of ham, and he was struck by Spain and the American South’s shared porcine reverence. At Barcelona, jamón has star billing on the menu and a place of honor on the ledge just outside the kitchen.
While it has been attempted in Nashville before — notably by Colleen and Michael DeGregory at their groundbreaking Mirror restaurant on 12th Avenue South in pre-12South days — the Spanish custom of building a meal from a menu of small-plate tapas has not always translated well to the large-portioned, meat n’ three South. I expect that a combination of right time, right place, all the people not-from-here now here, the restaurant’s sexy aesthetic, prime location, Andy’s mad skills and changes in local eating habits have punched Barcelona’s ticket for success. (For his sous chef, Andy snagged talented former Chauhan sous Vasisht Ramasubramanian, who, for obvious reasons, goes by “Chef V.”)
Not surprisingly, Barcelona’s core demographic is women. One night, there wasn’t a man to be found in the front dining room, though the bar had several, and the booths were more co-ed. The back dining room — which I peeked into on my way to the also-beautiful restroom — had family groups and couples.
Years of personal anthropologic observation of women’s groups and book clubs reveal that when asked to bring a dish for at-home meetings, women bring appetizers. Show me a spread of prosciutto wrapped melon, old-school rumaki, sriracha deviled eggs, spring rolls, gluten-free flatbread, marinated olives, crostini, stuffed grape leaves, bruschetta, bowls of chilled shrimp, spicy hummus and a basket of warm bread, and I’ll show you a room full of happy women with plates on their knees and glasses of wine at their feet.
Barcelona offers that experience with the multipliers of finely tuned professional skills, excellent product, multiple choices and on-point service. So much to love!
Company wine and spirits director Gretchen Thomas stocks each location with over 400 bottles of wine, 40 by the glass, with an inclination to Spanish and South American wines. Currently, I am wholly devoted to rosé — it’s the perfect transitional wine between the seasons, though I drink it all year.
Probably 75% of the Barcelona menu is composed of tapas, with 30 tantalizing options to tempt you into over-ordering. All are culled from the Mediterranean — whether that be Spain, Greece, North Africa, Italy or Portugal, as well as some South American influences. Here’s my advice: each member of your group choose two things. If you’re a party of two to four, that’s four to eight different things. If you’re a party of six or more, you might consider ordering two servings of dishes you really think you’ll love. In either case, the kitchen and your server will stagger the delivery of plates so you and your table space are not overwhelmed.
There are three columns of tapas on the menu — according to Chef Andy, the column on the right is known as the Barcelona Core, and these dishes will always be on the menu.
If it’s meat and potatoes you want, here are two to try:
Below the tapas section are three featured items in what is called the “Chef’s Box,” and below that, seven large plates for two or more. I confess I have never gotten that deep in the menu as I’m so happy with the tapas, but once — peer-pressured by a friend with a sweet tooth — I succumbed to dessert.
Though I’ve not yet been, my fantasy of Barcelona the city is that it’s lively, exuberant, passionate, generous, bold, vivacious, sexy, warm, sophisticated and, most of all, fun! Add bountiful choices of wine and an extraordinarily eclectic culinary palette, and you have Barcelona the restaurant, equally welcoming of old and new Nashville.
Barcelona Nashville is located at 1200 Villa Place, Nashville, TN 37212. Hours are Monday through Friday, 4 p.m. to late; Saturday and Sunday, brunch — 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., dinner — 3 p.m. to late
To learn more, call (615) 327-0600.
A special thanks to Ashley Hylbert for today’s gorgeous photos!
Read more about local restaurants and tasty dishes here!