Jan 28, 2018

Finding Phat Bites in Nashville’s Donelson neighborhood

If there ever was a place I’ve found in my travels that could be described as having a bohemian-style identity crisis – but in a very good way – it had to be Phat Bites.  Located behind an Ace Hardware of all things in Nashville’s suburb of Donelson near the airport and close to where I worked for a couple of months, Phat Bites is part deli, part coffee house, and – later in the evening – part dive bar and local music venue.  Somehow, though, it all blends wonderfully together.

It was that odd mishmash of identities that drew me – like so many of their regulars, I suppose – to Phat Bites repeatedly, whether it be for a lunch that was a little out of the ordinary or to serve as a watering hole close to my hotel.  Indeed, the main dining area, which quite literally was carved out of the service bays of an old garage, always seemed to stay busy. 

Just beyond the table seating, a small sampling of sofas and chairs provide more casual seating in front of a stage where bands perform later at night. 

And if the atmosphere of a graffiti-lined service station wasn’t enough of a statement already, Phat Bites has a deli menu that’s just as eccentric … and popular with its customer base.

Between the signature salads, build-your-own salad plates (a popular way for me to get creative yet stay healthy with my lunch) wraps, sandwiches, soups and flavored hummus, everyone from your hippie vegetarians to your meat-loving good ole boys can find something satisfying.  The creative – bordering on provocative – names of some of the menu items only add to the intrigue.

This winning combination of good eats and groovy surroundings also helped Phat Bites get noticed by the Food Network’s “Diners Drive-Ins and Dives” crew.  Apparently, Guy Fieri was very fond of the Big Jerk sandwich (yes, I’m fairly sure it was named long before Guy Fieri tried it), which is their take on Jamaican jerk pork.     

My favorite meal from Phat Bites turned out to be the morphine wrap.  It’s a food coma-inducing combination of sirloin beef, portabella mushrooms, Swiss cheese, lettuce and sun dried tomatoes, dressed with Dijon mustard, pesto mayonnaise and Italian dressing on varying layers.  It’s easy to understand why it’s a crowd pleaser. 

On the side, I added a cup of their chicken enchilada soup.  The broth was nice and savory, and it paired well with an ample portion of shredded chicken and big chunks of celery and carrots. 

Oddly enough, the most memorable part of the meal may have been the pickle.  I may be totally wrong, but I’d guess they’re mad on-site.  This serving had an almost fizzy aftertaste to each crunchy bite – very unusual but packing a nice, strong zing. 

As I ate, I couldn’t help but notice the steady stream of business at the coffee bar.  In fact, a lot of people seemed to be coming here just for the coffee, despite the later hours.  I took this (along with their reviews) as evidence that this must be a notch above your average Starbucks. 

If I had been there earlier in the day, I surely would have tried a cup; however, I was more interested in a different type of nightcap.  For that, I headed to the backroom bar (or side room, depending on your sense of direction). 

And I thought the deli and coffee area was funky … I’ve seen bars ceiling to floor with eclectic décor, but this one takes the cake.  Fortunately, it was still early for the bar crowd there, so I got my pick of where to sit at the bar to take it all in.  Before I knew it, the bartender had befriended me, and she was sharing her homemade ghost pepper dip with me.  I think she was amused that I wanted to take pictures of the place, and impressed that I could handle the dip.   

This seating area was at opposite ends from where I sat.  I think they were going for that 1970s stoner basement apartment look.   

I’m not sure if there’s a story behind the mannequin standing guard at the bar’s entranceway.  I did like her somewhat provocative dress, though.

Behind me was another transformed garage door entrance, no longer in use except to shine a little light into the place from the parking lot.  

The liquor selection wasn’t large, but all of the basics were represented.  That’s apparently not the real draw here anyway.

The limited yet intriguing selection of local and craft beers, however, is sure to get most hipsters’ attention.  I quickly realized this was not the place to casually order a Natty Light.   

Fortunately, the bartender quickly sized up my natural aversion toward most things hoppy and recommended a Basil Ryemen saison.  As the name implies, you can taste a lot of rye, which is complemented by hints locally grown basil.  Overall, a very impressive farmhouse-style ale! 

As I enjoyed my beer, I couldn’t help but be distracted by what appeared to be a fruit juice dispenser on the bar and what appeared to be a list of ingredients behind it.  Sure enough, Phat Bites blends their own fruit juice mixers using fresh locally grown ingredients for pairing with your favorite liquor.  Looking at the day’s blend, I asked for a glass mixed with rum.  It was even more impressive than the beer.  The honeydew and grapefruit flavors really stood out and balanced very well with the bartender’s rum of choice. 

As I complimented the bartender on the freshest rum drink I’d had in some time, she recommended I also try the bar’s own locally made Phat Beer on tap.  For $2, why not?  It was an easy drinking pilsner and easy on the wallet. 

Almost everything about Phat Bites is fun and funky, even a trip to their bathroom, although I have to agree with some of the online reviews that the counter service can be sketchy at times.  That said, you’ll be rewarded for your patience with quality food and drink.  It’s worth the trip out to Donelson if you’re hungry or thirsty in the Nashville area. 

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