It would be easy to assume that Benjamin and Max Goldberg, the brothers behind nine of Nashville’s most popular and innovative restaurants and bars, have a method (and graphs and spreadsheets) to their madness.
Not so much.
“It’s kind of embarrassing to say,” Benjamin explains. “In terms of market research, we just ask ourselves ‘Would we be the first people to go there?’ ”
In the decade since the brothers formed their company, Strategic Hospitality, they’ve been answering “yes” to that question for every project. Benjamin kicked things off when he opened a bar in a part of town so rundown that the streetlights didn’t work. (Hewould stand outside with a flashlight to show guests the way in.) They installed a rowdy burger-and-beer joint on the “wrong” side of Broadway, the main thoroughfare in downtown Nashville. In an industrial pocket of the city with few eating options, they opened the area’s first fine-dining restaurant.
“We typically have not gone for what people consider the hot area,” Max says. In nearly every case, however, that not-so-hot area turns out to be where locals—and condo developers and other restaurateurs and entrepreneurs—also want to be. The site of the bar (now closed) in the rundown part of town is now surrounded by some of the priciest real estate in the city. The boisterous burger joint enticed locals to the other side of Broadway. The restaurant in industrial Nashville feeds the area’s growing creative community. Like diviners with a stick, the Goldbergs feel the pull of the next buzzy neighborhood.
So how do they pick their spots? “We fall in love with buildings,” Benjamin says. “If we don't fall in love with the bones of a building, we’re definitely not interested in the project. If we love a space, we’ll fight tooth and nail to make it happen—whether other people think it makes sense or not.”
Beneath the brothers’ passion for architecture and food is a serious devotion to their home city, which has grown by nearly 100 people a day since they started working together in 2007. Having heeded the call back to the booming city after moving away for college, the Goldbergs are the third generation of their family to live and work in Nashville.
“We've never opened a business purely for the financial gain,” Benjamin says. “We opened it because we think it’s something that’s going to make the city of Nashville—the city we grew up in—better.”
Here are three neighborhoods they’ve helped to transform.
Today, the most German thing about Germantown—settled by immigrants from Deutschland in 1865—is the neighborhood’s annual Oktoberfest. Pop into the area and you might find fans of the Nashville Sounds minor league baseball team grabbing a pint before a game at the new First Tennessee Park, just a few blocks away, or foodies sharing plates at Henrietta Red, the Goldbergs’ latest restaurant.
“Germantown is really exploding,” Benjamin says. The brothers watched the neighborhood progress from historic relic to restaurant hot spot, as places such as Rolf & Daughters and City House, two of the restaurants that laid the foundation for the neighborhood’s eating and drinking scene, moved in. But the Goldbergs were busy with other projects, including building the Band Box and the Country Club at the Band Box, their bar and mini golf course at First Tennessee stadium. After the ballpark opened in 2015—which added momentum, and crowds, to Germantown—came the opportunity to create Henrietta Red, a bright space with a menu tending toward seafood with an Americana twist (fried oyster sandwiches, trout with fingerling potatoes and apples).
“We loved what was happening in Germantown, especially the food community that was building,” Benjamin says. “It’s so walkable—you can easily go from Henrietta Red to a game—and a lot of homes are being renovated and new ones are going up. It’s hard not to get excited about being here.”
“This leather goods shop is really important to the city,” Max says. “Peter Nappi learned how to make shoes in Italy, and then his grandson, Phillip, who lives in Nashville, revived the tradition in the U.S. They’ve got incredible leather goods—shoes, boots, belts. Benjamin wears one of his two pairs of Peter Nappi boots almost every day.”
Benjmain calls Barista Parlor “a first-class coffee shop.” Max says, “It has a really cool aesthetic. Bryce McCloud, who’s done some work for us, made a massive mural of a ship that hangs on one of the walls. Their food is great too. Many mornings when we were working on Henrietta Red, a Barista Parlor biscuit, egg, and sausage breakfast sandwich plus an iced coffee were the fuel that kept me going.”
“The restaurant, our newest, is named after the grandparents of the chef, Julia Sullivan. I’ve known her since the first grade,” Max says. “We wanted it to be a casual place where people can come in whatever they’re wearing and eat “poppy’s caviar” (paddlefish with spring onions) and trout with farro and plums. You walk into a vibrant bar area with patterned cement tile, and then beyond that is a quieter dining room with an open kitchen, a marble raw bar, and walls made from old white brick we salvaged from an old brickyard in the neighborhood.”
For years, downtown Nashville was the province of honky-tonk bars and tourists.
“When we opened Paradise Park, our beer and burger spot, 10 years ago, everyone said it was on the wrong side of Broadway,” Max says. “They said nobody would cross the street to get there.” Now Broadway is just Broadway. “The area has exploded around us,” Benjamin says, “and both sides of the road are completely full, all day and all night. It’s like people play Frogger across the street.”
Since the success of Paradise Park in 2007, the duo has acquired two other spaces along Lower Broadway: Aerial, a rooftop event space with views of the city, and Merchants, a three-story building with a bistro, a restaurant, and a private event space that they took over in 2010.
“This is going to sound cheesy, but I love downtown Nashville,” Benjamin says. “What's happening there is absolutely amazing. We have all the old-school honky-tonks, we've got historic buildings, and now, new places like Martin’s Bar-B-Que. People are moving downtown to live, there’s the convention center, and so there’s an intermingling of local folks and tourists. It’s a wonderful hodgepodge.”
“The one downtown is massive, and there’s a huge outdoor beer garden upstairs,” Benjamin says. “They do whole-hog cooking in covered pits. When the pit master lifts the hatch, you can see the entire hog being cooked.” Even though it’s known for pork, he adds, “I usually get the beef brisket. The cheeseburger is ridiculously good as well. Of course they have a strong side game: slaw, baked potatoes, fries. My daughter loves what she calls the ‘hot cheese’ ” (mac and cheese).
“It’s the best place in town to see live music,” says Benjamin. “Locals call it ‘The Church,’ because there are pews inside and the acoustics are amazing,” Max adds. “Tom Ryman, a steamboat captain, built it as a place of worship in 1885, and it’s where bluegrass was born. The space kept evolving, and in 1943, the Grand Ole Opry started hosting its radio show there. It’s still a concert venue where everyone from Bob Dylan to Vampire Weekend has played. It’s a magical place.”
“This is where you’ll find the best honky-tonk on Lower Broadway, in our opinion,” Max says. “Robert’s is one of those places where you can stumble in at any moment and hear some of the best music of your life. One random weekend night around 1:30 a.m., Benjamin and I went to Robert’s for fried baloney sandwiches and a cold Miller High Life and saw this 17-year-old guitar player, Daniel Donato, just melting faces. He was later featured in Guitar Player—and he was playing at a random honky-tonk on Lower Broadway.”
Once a heavily industrial area, Wedgewood Houston is arguably Nashville’s most up-and-coming neighborhood. Thanks to an influx of Nashville’s new creative class, the area has become a hub for creatives just a few minutes from downtown, with art galleries, creative spaces, and—after Benjamin, Max, and their chef-partner Josh Habinger opened Bastion in 2016—exactly one fine-dining restaurant.
The restaurant is in a pair of buildings, known as the Houston Station, and dates back to 1885, when it housed a hosiery mill and a syrup company. Abandoned in the 1980s, Houston Station sat empty until a local company bought the property and started restorations in 2005. Now the 98,500-square-foot space skews more creative: There’s a spa, an interior design firm, several tech companies, and an art gallery.
“A bunch of creative folks live, work, and hang out in the area,” Benjamin says. “But it’s a really quirky place that’s just starting to get developed in interesting ways.”
“You walk into this old garage and see workers welding metal. It’s awesome,” Benjamin says. “It’s not a retail shop, but you can stop and see what they’re working on. Ferrin does a lot of custom work for people in Nashville, including us. They built the whole kitchen area at Bastion. They made the brass bar tops and the back bar for Henrietta Red. We think the world of them.”
“This is one of the most innovative spirit makers in town,” Max says. “It has two locations; the Wedgewood Houston one is where the owner, Darek Bell, actually distills his spirits, so part of the space has beautiful distilling pots and a bottling area. You can do tastings, but it’s also just a cool spot to hang out. There’s a little bar, a retail shop with Nashville-made goods, and even a video game area with old-school stand-up cabinets. The Triple Smoke, a smoky, peaty whiskey, is next level. We like it so much, we’ve incorporated it into some of the drinks we serve at Bastion.”
“We opened Bastion in 2016,” Benjamin says. “It’s split up into a neighborhood hang where you can get beer and shots and cocktails and nachos—which we take very seriously—and the restaurant. The restaurant has a choose-your-own tasting menu: five courses with three choices for each course. Josh Habiger, one of the opening chefs at Catbird Seat"—another of the brothers’ Nashville eateries—“changes the menu all the time, but there’s an oyster with either a shaved-ice component or a mignonette. I still remember one of his desserts: sunchoke ice cream with foie gras caramel.”