'The Gulch has become a lifestyle neighborhood'

M Street CEO Chris Hyndman is transforming the city’s hottest urban district with equally hot eateries

Chris Hyndman founded M Street Entertainment Group in 2009 and serves as its president and CEO. The company, which focuses its efforts primarily on The Gulch, owns and operates Virago, Whiskey Kitchen, Tavern, Kayne Prime and Citizen. It is planning to open The Rosewall (an event space and live music venue), Saint Anejo (Mexican cuisine), and Moto (Italian cuisine) this year. Hyndman sat down with Post Managing Editor William Williams to discuss his vision for elevating Nashville’s culinary community.

You are focusing on The Gulch and spaces in older buildings. What is your strategy behind this?

Being a newer developing neighborhood when I came over in 2009, The Gulch presented opportunities because its identity had yet to be fully defined. We were able to create M Street as a [mini] district within The Gulch on a relatively clean canvas, and define our own identity within The Gulch. The Gulch’s location on the doorstep of downtown, yet just blocks away from Vanderbilt, Music Row and the West End corridor is really ground zero for our focus, which is appealing to the savvy, local diner and entertainment seeker. With all the newly developing multi-family residential and retail, The Gulch has become a lifestyle neighborhood. And M Street is a lifestyle brand.

You are working closing with Jim Caden on your concepts. Please explain your business relationship with Jim?

Jim is an experienced and successful developer that had some real estate holdings in the area of what is now M Street (more formally called McGavock Street). We teamed up with Jim as the developer and myself as the restaurateur/operator, trading some of his equity in real estate in for some equity in the operating company. We’ve had the good fortune to experience success on both fronts.

Why is The Gulch primed for being a “restaurant hot spot”?

Its location centered in the mix of things, a built-in and growing residential demographic whose lifestyle includes a more discerning taste and a high frequency of dining out, and its interesting old warehouses that offer cool retrofit opportunities with an urban sensibility.

How key is quality space and a vibrant district for the success of a restaurant/bar?

It really depends on the concept. A vibrant district, like the one we have created here on M Street, really allows for synergy amongst the concepts. Our clientele dines out as a lifestyle choice more than a convenient necessity, so they appreciate the ability to easily hop around for a pre-dinner drink at one spot, then dinner at another, and perhaps another spot after dinner to make a complete night without ever getting in their car to relocate. Vibrant districts offer an attractive energy and a convenient multitude of experiences.

I believe that dining at its best is an experience that engages the guest. And although food and service are always paramount, an interesting, engaging atmosphere elevates and ties together the overall experience. Eating and drinking can be very social and sensual activities, and I believe that the space should stimulate those sensibilities. An enormous focus is placed on design and is baked into the core of our business model. Plus, I personally really enjoy the creative process, and tying all the elements of the experience together.

How significantly has Nashville’s restaurant/bar scene improved during the past, say, five years? And how critical has the emergence of cosmopolitan districts been in that improvement?

Nashville is light years ahead of where it was just five years ago. I, and fellow restaurateurs that have been around for a while, have always been attempting to do creative and innovative things within the restaurants — some things worked, others were attempted perhaps too soon or not executed effectively. We often had to pull back from being too progressive, perhaps because Nashville’s conservatism didn’t always respond well to newer, unfamiliar things. Really the biggest change is in the city itself as to its attitude and acceptance of new concepts and ideas. Perhaps with the emergence of the food culture nationally, the growing influence of larger city transplants and Nashville’s fundamental shift from apathy to optimism about the city’s growth and progress have all contributed to the restaurant boom.

Who are some locally based restaurateurs who have done a strong job?

As a local that has been around for a long time, homage must always be paid to the Randy Rayburns, Jody Faisons, Jay Penningtons etc. that were pioneering these markets with cool concepts when it was a chain dominated town. I’d like to think I have followed in their footsteps and been a bridge to what is happening now. There are many good restaurateurs in the city today. In particular, I respect the Goldbergs and the interesting things they are doing that push the envelope on what’s possible to pull off in the city.

Why did Nashville’s restaurant industry significantly lag the industries of other cities for so many years?

Apathy toward progress and lack of exposure. The majority of disposable income was possessed by the older demographic, which was pretty resistant to change. Today’s Nashville has more young professionals possessing greater disposable incomes that interact with enormous social connectivity capability (via social media). These young professionals can also hop onto inexpensive flights to Vegas, NYC, Chicago, etc., and are exposed to new and different dining experiences and return with that demand.

More dollars are allotted to dining and entertainment than ever before, which is certainly a welcome trend in my business. The younger generation of professionals seem more likely to spend money on experiences rather than material things more than ever before. All this additional demand and disposable income in the system allows for some of the more progressive concepts to survive and that wouldn’t have had a chance just five or 10 years ago.

Not very long ago, when we would try to do new or interesting things, we were often met with “This isn’t New York, you know.” I don’t hear that as much anymore.

Will Nashville get more “gourmet world cuisine” restaurants in the future? For example, is the city ready for a high-end Indian or Lebanese restaurant?

Of course. As Nashville continues to become more ethnically diverse — and as Nashvillians with growing disposable income and curiosity travel and discover global cuisine — the market will expand for such concepts. Thirteen years ago when I opened Virago, sushi and Asian cuisine were considered pretty exotic and very risky for Nashville. Now it’s a staple. If an adventurous concept is conceived with passion and experience, and executed effectively, Nashville can support it. Nashville is more than just the current “Southern fusion, farm-to-table” trend.