When I moved to Nashville in the early 1990s, Charlotte Pike was one of the first places I found that had some of the bohemian funk I was looking for in my new home.
I discovered the New Life Record Shop and the vintage and thrift stores — where I found clothes and books and a table for my apartment. I became addicted to a Mexican restaurant that sold huge platters of chicken nachos smothered in queso for four bucks — just right for a new kid in town trying to get his bearings.
Charlotte Pike also boasts the prettiest name of all of Nashville's pikes. Its path runs through a fascinating cross section of the city between downtown and North Nashville, connecting the skyline to the still-rural locales in West Nashville.
Of course these varied places attract an array of people to the pike — from new condo dwellers to tire shop mechanics, hit songwriters, international communities and native Nashvillians, who can still tell you stories about when West Nashville was full of farms and fields.
Charlotte Pike was authentic Nashville before "authentic" became a marketing buzzword. If you really want to see Nashville, get on Charlotte Pike downtown and head West. That's what I did.
Here's what I saw.
In Saturday Night Fever, Tony Manero buys a black shirt and white suit. He gets some moves together and combs his hair just so before remaking himself into an Apollonian demigod on the dance floors of Manhattan. This disco ball for sale on Charlotte isn't just a retro bauble for the kitsch-crazed, this is a crystal ball in which you might find the alchemical transformation of your future self: Point one finger to the sky and one to the ground - as above, so below. Don't touch the hair.
During the early 18th century, in the last days of the Golden Age of Piracy, woe was unto the sailor who saw this fearsome smile grimacing from a flag on the rise. Jolly Rogers once delighted in cannon fire, swords and plunder, but this pair is just meeting for a cappuccino at Headquarters on Charlotte. All the pirates are in real estate now.
Kali, Arnis and Eskrima are three mostly-interchangeable, umbrella terms for the weapons-based martial arts techniques developed in the Philippines. These disciplines are known for their ever-changing evolution which finds traditional styles incorporating contemporary elements and borrowing freely from both Eastern and Western martial arts systems. I took this photo because these pictures hanging in the storefront window at KSA Martial Academy look like a collage of scenes on a martial arts movie poster. It's also a timely reflection of the resourcefulness, spirit and the mixture of old and new that makes Charlotte one of Nashville's most dynamic pikes.
My favorite Nashville restaurant has spruced up its spare storefront with a gorgeous little garden that reminds me of Southeast Asia nearly as much as their pho, vermicelli, dumplings and limeade. The city's best international eateries can make you forget you're still in Nashville, and Miss Saigon offers consistently transporting tastes.
Discount For A King / King Scale
Elvis is buried in Memphis, but the King lives on along Charlotte Pike. The Elvis statue displayed daily in front of the Cool Stuff Weird Things vintage store welcomes browsers to the heart of Charlotte's thrift store scene. Scanning the storefronts you might be surprised at the variety of Elvises (Elvi?) one can find. Don't be cruel.
This place has a 3.9 rating on Zomato.com. That feels so weird to type: Wendell Smith's is so old-school you might immediately forget the Internet exists when you walk through the door, and if your mobile device doesn't simply vanish into thin air you can count yourself fortunate. Wendell Smith's Corner opened in 1952, and the restaurant's meat-and-three options and no-frills breakfast classics still keep this place packed. People keep arguing about what the New Nashville should be, but Wendell Smith's is an enduring reminder of some of the things we hope we'll never lose.
That's one small step for man. One giant leap for your car's traction at Charlotte Used Tires. Like the previous pikes I've profiled — Gallatin and Nolensville — Charlotte Pike is home to lots of places to buy and sell new or used tires. Some might complain about grimy garages on their block, but many of these are mom-and-pop shops that make up that particular brand of entrepreneurial gumption that represents itself with bold, hand-painted signage, massive wall murals and even the occasional bald eagle driving its claws into a globe. For those about to roll: We salute you.
One of these stickers is for a skateboard brand. The other is for a zine-style website that offers comics, poetry and music reviews. There is a weird paint job on the wall behind them, and the grass is super green in that spot. But, you know what they say: The grass is always greener on the other side of that wall with the weird paint job.
I've done some research on this storefront, and all I've come up with is this might have been an early outpost of the Herman's World of Sporting Goods chain. That chain actually started out as a music store. Regardless, this old school tile work — gorgeous, by the way — is the kind of fancy front you'd find at many stores back in the original heyday of downtown Nashville, before everybody moved to the suburbs and the malls became the places to shop. Places like this have been under a long shadow but are now re-emerging on pikes like Charlotte. Whatever goes into this space next, I hope they call it "Herman's." And I hope they keep the tile.
The Taj Mahal is an architectural contradiction: The "crown of palaces" is actually a giant, gorgeous mausoleum. The original, located on the Yamuna River in the Indian city of Agra, was commissioned by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to house the corpse of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. This representation is on the Best of India restaurant — the place where my hunger goes to die, following a few trips to their spicy, savory lunch buffet.
Do you know what a Sunday car is? That's the nice car that you only take out on Sundays — you know, for your Sunday drive, day tripper. Some people say that a boat is the ultimate sign of making it. I think they're all wet. I'll take a Sunday car. I'll take this one parked in front of Lambert Auto, next to Wilkie's Safety Lane.
If you've driven past Thistlestop Cafe and Thistle Farms headquarters on Charlotte, you've probably seen Ben Caldwell's rain-catching thistle sculpture, but you might not have noticed the colorful, floral mural that decorates the building's north side. I love the way the actual Black-eyed Susans here are mirrored by their giant, painted selves on the wall in the background. Black-eyed Susans are medicinal flowers traditionally used to treat everything from flu to snakebite. The flower is also a symbol for justice, and it's an apt emblem of Thistle Farms' life-changing work.
Even the empty spaces on the pike are colorful. I love the texture here, the seemingly unintentional composition and the layered reflections. Simple things can become very complex very quickly, and you've only to look at the pace of change along the pike for the perfect example of that.
This tropical oasis in the middle of Charlotte Pike reminds me that the road is one of Nashville's most flavor-filled. Charlotte serves up Caribbean, Mediterranean, Chinese, Korean, Mexican and Indian eateries, and it's the number one place to go if you're craving Vietnamese food. West Nashville has been attracting its share of boutique eateries, cafes and fine dining spots, but it's these further-flung flavors that lure me to the neighborhood at lunchtime.
Lions and Lions For Cheap
While we're still mourning the loss of Cecil, it's good to see that these kings of Charlotte Pike are still roaming free and finding great bargains.
"Swan Song" is the title of a legendary four-part suite that Jimmy Page worked on, but Led Zeppelin never released. Bits and pieces of it can be heard in other songs by the band and by Page's other project, The Firm. While the phrase can imply an exit, the Zep story is more one about lost opportunity: If the band had continued, the music might have seen the light of day outside of rehearsal snippets you can find on YouTube. This Swan doesn't have to worry about that. This banged-up bird doesn't look like it's said "no" to many experiences, but it's still got its head held high down on the pike.
We Be Jammin'
I made my first trip to Charlotte Pike shortly after I moved to Nashville in the 1990s. I developed a co-dependent relationship with the chicken nachos at Las Palmas — $4 for a giant platter of chicken, cheese and chips — and I also got a huge crush on this weird little record store. New Life was a reason to travel across town and kill a little time. It was a place to find new music, buy a used guitar, get an incense burner or buy a glass pipe for use with tobacco only. That's still what it is. New Life's called Charlotte Pike home since 1976, and this duck says it all.
Just like the jalopy graphic that decorates the picnic patio at Bobbie's Dairy Dip, the burger and ice cream stand is a Charlotte Pike classic. Bobbie's has expanded with their location downtown on 4th Avenue, but for ice cream cone-isseurs, their original spot on Charlotte will always be the softest serve.