One day, while standing on a street corner in Vienna in the late summer, designer Natalie Chanin realised suddenly that August should really mean sunshine and fresh tomatoes.The Alabama native was a successful, Paris-based stylist working on a film set in Austria at the time, living out of a suitcase and wondering if she had packed enough winter clothes.
That realisation led to an overhaul and reconfiguration of her life, culminating several years later when she returned to her hometown of Florence, Alabama, to launch her sustainable-clothing label, Project Alabama.
Now in its second evolution as Alabama Chanin, the award-winning line is still based in a warehouse just north of Florence. What about the South pulled her back and continues to do so for others? We flew down to find out.
See the top 10 reasons to love the Old South >
The South of the northern imagination—that memorialised by William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Harper Lee and Robert Penn Warren—is afflicted by its past and lost in the present. Ironic, then, that much of this decade’s Southern renaissance is built on the foundations of old traditions: quilting, work clothes, garden kitchens, comfort food. We once mistook this elegant clarity for oversimplification. But in today’s hyper-communicative, superfast, deeply insecure culture, tradition has been reanimated into a new worldly form.
Florence, with a population of 39,000, sits on the Tennessee River in Alabama’s northwestern corner, a two-hour drive from any of the nearest three airports. It calls itself “Alabama’s Renaissance City” and has more clothing labels than restaurants. (Visit one of Alabama Chanin’s monthly retreats and take a tour of the studio.) To fill that void, we flew into Nashville first—an old metropolis of the New South—for the food alone. The longtime music capital has always been home to the creative and the cosmopolitan, but the new two-feet-on-the-ground sophistication of the cooking has attracted the attention of a much wider audience, and the city is having a moment.
Areas outside the city centre, like 12th Avenue South and East Nashville, are being reengineered from the inside out. An old gas station has been converted into a store for tailored denim by the label Imogene + Willie; an 18th-century factory building houses City House, one of the best restaurants in town; and an old trailer is the mobile vintage-clothing store High Class Hillbilly.
We crave the locally made finds that have the simplicity of an heirloom tomato. And right now, it’s all about returning to roots—something the South most definitely provides. Here are 10 of our favourite things.
More articles from Departures:
- Touring The Southern Blues Trail
- Great BBQ Restaurants Of The South
- Following The Natchez Trail
- Top Golf Courses In Mississippi
- America’s Most Charming Inns
This story was originally published by Departures.
The peaches are more potent below the Mason-Dixon Line. Our first extraordinary fruit experience was at City House (1222 Fourth Ave. N.; 615-736-5838; cityhousenashville.com), considered Nashville's second-finest dining establishment (more on the first later). Located in Germantown, in an 18th-century brick house that was expanded into a factory, the eatery features a pizza oven, a pared-down bar and several tabletops.
The fish and pizzas are delicious, but the peaches--peppered and served with smoky, house-cured spec--steal the show. For dessert, try the peach shortcake served on a buttery biscuit with buttermilk sherbet. The fruit reappeared at breakfast, this time at the relaxed restaurant/café Marché Artisan Foods (1000 Main St.; 615-262-1111; marcheartisanfoods.com), served simply with honey and ricotta on just-baked bread. The flavour lingers even as you make your way through a superb sweet-potato-and-goat-cheese crêpe with pesto.
Perhaps one of the most delicious local delicacies in Nashville is the deeply flavorful stone-ground Southern artisan chocolate by Olive and Sinclair, which is nothing but a new big hit. Founded three years ago by classically trained chef Scott Witherow, Olive and Sinclair slow roasts its cacao beans and then grinds them with pure brown sugar more for taste than for sweetness.
The flavours are dark and strong, like those of good coffee. The Mexican-style bar with cinnamon is particularly delicious, though the sea-salt version is a close second. Consider stopping by the factory for a tour.
1404 McGavock Pike, Suite C
In a white repurposed gas station at the top of Nashville's 12th Avenue South, a handful of gentlemen with trimmed beards sell jeans, beautiful shoes, boots, cotton shirts and shorts, chambray dresses and canvas weekend bags with leather trim. This is Imogene + Willie, named for one of the owner's grandparents.
Paper-cutting patterns line the walls up by the ceiling, a boar's head hangs on the wall just above an Elizabethan portrait and a Brooklyn transplant named Jay will have you stand on an Oriental carpet as he tailors your new favourite jeans. Men and women work among the rows of sewing machines, looking at fabric samples and pinching wrinkles into new pairs of jeans on homemade contraptions. Be sure to walk over the worn cowhide floor rug in bare feet.
2601 12th Ave. S.
Wander up 12th Avenue South and you'll find energizing iced coffee at the Frothy Monkey Coffeehouse (2509 12th Ave. S.; 615-292-1808), but farther down at Las Paletas (2905 12th Ave. S.; 615-386-2101)--a Nashville must--there are incredibly delicious popsicles to be had. The flavours are potent.
Choose from cream-based pops in green tea or pistachio, or fruit popsicles like honeydew or the exquisite cucumber chile. Perfection on a hot summer day.
For a drink, head to Nashville's The Patterson House, where making a cocktail is an art form. (A machine in the back room freezes water into round ice spheres, one at a time, for concoctions that require ultradense ice with a slow melt factor.) The room is dimly lit and elegant, with reflective ceilings and low-glowing chandeliers, and the bar is an island at the centre of the room.
The cocktail menu is long and intriguing. But if you prefer, ignore it completely and ask your bartender to call up an old recipe from memory that will suit your mood. The whiskey drinks here are excellent, either fresh--with ice, citrus and one of the innumerable housemade bitters--or deliciously dark and brooding. Call ahead since there may be a wait.
1711 Division St.
The newly famous Catbird Seat restaurant is in the same building as The Patterson House bar, just next door and up the stairs. Here, though, the kitchen occupies the middle of the bare room instead of a bar, encircled by a counter for diners. There are no menus.
The several small courses on offer are often surprising, but chefs Josh Habiger and Erik Anderson know just what they're doing--be it a baba ghanoush sorbet, salmon poached in chorizo oil served with corn pudding and parsley sauce or something as simple and sublime as blueberries over yogurt purée and puffed rice. Diners are guests in the chefs' kitchen here, eager to eat what is served and drink what brilliant sommelier Jane Lopes recommends. Everyone leaves feeling grateful.
1711 Division St.
The 444-mile-long Natchez Trace Parkway begins off Highway 100 and McCrory Lane, just south of Nashville, before slipping southwest across the boarder into Alabama, on across the Tennessee River and into Mississippi, through Tupelo to Jackson, and finally to Natchez at the border of Louisiana.
It has been in use for thousands of years--the forested parts of the old Trace that are still preserved have sunk low under the collective weight of its travellers--and is now a winding, two-lane parkway through extraordinary landscapes, pocked with vistas, walks, historic houses and prehistoric mounds. The air is cooler; there are few cars. It is nearly holy.
One could argue that fashion is not native to the South. One season at Billy Reid, headquartered in Florence, Alabama, the looks were inspired by hunting clothes--waxed cottons, corduroy jackets--and it seemed appropriate to shoot the collection in the Alabama woods with hunting dogs. It was summer.
The woods were swampy, the dogs got lost and the models and crew spent the day chasing hounds and sweating through those waxed cottons and corduroy jackets. The photo shoot was a disaster, but the clothes are anything but, combining classic Southern ease with urban refinement in sharp jackets, knitwear, selvage denim and accessories.
114 N. Court St.
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