A foodie’s guide to Nashville, Tennessee

Sep 20, 2013 at 9:15 a.m. ET

Cowboy boots and hats not needed to eat like a local in Nashville, Tennessee!

Puckett's Grocery and Restaurant
Photo credit: derekbruff via Flickr

Best-kept secrets off the beaten path

When you think "great Italian meal," Nashville might not be the first place that leaps to mind. One visit to Mangia Nashville, however, and that thought will be forever changed. Mangia Nashville is the fabulous brainchild of chef Nick Pellegrino, offering "authentic New York-style" Italian dining at a fixed price. When you make reservations (which you must do, because Mangia Nashville is so popular, it is sold out every weekend!), block off four hours for dining. A five-course meal includes exquisite, multiple tastes (four antipasti, insalata, risotto and pasta, three entratas and two desserts), so eat light during the day and plan a long walk for the next. To chef Nick, everyone is family. He or his beautiful wife, Jeanine, or one of his staff come out to the floor to showcase their ballroom dancing skills halfway through the night. With the wine has been flowing, you may suddenly find yourself out on the dance floor with them, in the middle of a crowd singing and dancing to "Papa Loves Mambo"! It's an amazing experience that transports you to another place and time, all in the heart of Nashville.

Where the celebrities like to eat

Another place to eat like a local and be treated like a celebrity is in the heart of downtown Franklin, just 15 minutes south of Nashville, at Gray's On Main. Husband-and-wife duo Michael and Joni Cole had a vision to turn the historic three-story building from 1876 into a fabulous restaurant. Keeping as much of the history intact as possible, Michael Cole turned the old wood floors into beautiful, hand-crafted tables. Do take the time to ask the staff for a tour.

The only brandy bar in the United States, Gray's has a multitude of hand-crafted cocktails to please every beverage lover, with a house-made tonic that is to die for. Take some at the bar as you wait for your table to watch the developing works of cocktail art take shape.

For menu items, try the chicken and waffles or the pork and beans. Another great item is the lobster mac and cheese, and at just $9, you will be amazed at the generous portions of lobster! If you only have time for one thing on the menu, the prosciutto pizza is a must. Whether you are a tourist or a local, you will be greeted and treated as part of the family at Gray's.

Go where the songwriters go

If you really want to experience a local gem, then you have to try Puckett's Grocery and Restaurant in Leiper's Fork, a historic town just south of Nashville. Puckett's is a "meat n' three" establishment that was founded in the 1950s: From a country general store to a gas station to a restaurant, you can find anything and everything at Puckett's in Leiper's Fork. And every Thursday night is open-mike night, where you can find musicians hoping to be discovered, as well as major stars; musicians like Michael McDonald, Gary Talley and the Waylon Jennings band have been featured here, as have 12-year-old songwriters who have the courage and guts to perform on the stage where legends have stood before them.

Try anything on the menu, including their sweet tea! Owners Rob and Shanel Robinson offer the sincere, "down-home" feel that's been a hallmark since Puckett's opened. And who knows? The person who holds the door open for you might be the next voice who sings that kind of song that you have "never, ever, ever" been able to get out of your head!

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