In recent years, lots of folks have done a lot of telling about East Nashville’s vibrant and growing food scene. But it wasn’t until the autumn of 2014 that we earned a thorough, fun and easy way to show what our food scene’s made of.
In October, longtime journalist/digital media pro and returning East Nashvillian Karen-Lee Ryan launched Walk Eat Nashville, hosting guided walking food tours that give participants the chance to taste offerings at local restaurants and shops while learning about the community that surrounds them.
The first Walk Eat Nashville tour option focuses close to home, in East Nashville.
Over three hours, Walk Eat-ers make six different stops, starting in 5 Points and tasting their way through a mix of neighborhood favorites, from handmade confections at Chocolate F/X to tasty teas at High Garden and upscale eats at Lockeland Table. Along the way, Ryan offers insight into the whos, whats and hows that made up and make up East Nashville, and chefs, owners and artisans pop over to share their own behind-the-scenes insights.
The business on the whole, Ryan says, focuses on community as much as it does food.
“After spending much of the last few years tethered to digital devices, I wanted to start a business that brought people together for shared experiences,” she says. “Something that fostered conversation and a sense of place. It seems the more technology seeps into every part our lives, the more people crave human interaction. And, I wanted a business that somehow showcased the friendly creative people that drew me to Nashville a decade ago — and lured me back after a brief stint in Texas.”
We chatted with Ryan ahead of the week’s East Nashville tours — she takes groups out every Thursday and Friday — to get a sense of what she’s shared, and what she’s learned, over her first few months of showing off the tastes of our neighborhood.
The East Nashvillian: Is there a particular reason why you chose to start with an East Nashville tour?
Karen-Lee Ryan: “East Nashville is my home. It put Nashville on the culinary map and is one of the city's most walkable communities. It just made sense to start the tours here and to showcase the creative people and independent small businesses that flourish in this community. Plus, I enjoy eating at all of the places on my tours. Most of the owners at the local restaurants and specialty food shops knew me as a customer long before I approached them about my business.”
You give your tour teams a lot of East Side background info during the tours — did you learn a lot more about the neighborhood in prepping for that, or were you already pretty well-versed in East Nashville history?
“As a writer and lifelong explorer, I'm always stockpiling good stories and memorable details in my head. I also spent a week in the Nashville Room at the Downtown Library unearthing details about natural disasters, historic homes, influential residents and other things that shaped our neighborhoods over the years. And, I love to talk with folks about their experiences in East Nashville, so I'm always gathering new information to share.”
Have you gotten any interesting/surprising feedback from out-of-towners about the neighborhood and its food scene?
“Of course, everyone loves the food. And the chance to interact with a chef, owner or manager at every stop really connects them to a place. They don't expect the historical and architectural gems sprinkled throughout the tours. That adds more context and perspective, and they really seem to enjoy that.”
Do you find a lot of locals taking part, too, to get to know the neighborhood culinary scene better?
“So far, almost 60 percent of Walk Eat Nashville guests have been Nashville-area residents. Many say with all the new restaurant openings, it's hard to keep up. They appreciate the chance to try several of them in one afternoon — and often they're making plans to return to their favorites before the tour ends. And just about everyone is amazed at the volume of creative, entrepreneurial businesses flourishing in East Nashville.”
For you personally, what stands out/is unique about the East Nashville food scene?
“The variety, the quality and the creativity all stand out. But it's the pride and the passion of the people who own and manage the restaurants and specialty food shops that motivates me. They care so much about what they do, so it's always fun to share their stories and vision with others.”
Walk Eat Nashville East Nashville food tours run each Thursday from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. and Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and include tastings at six restaurants and artisan food shops. Tickets, at $49 per person, are available via the Walk Eat Nashville website, and tour groups are all limited to an intimate 10 guests.