To understand why one of Nashville's nicknames is the Athens of the South, just head to Cabana in Hillsboro Village, on a Friday afternoon, when its stunning spaces are packed with well-heeled frat boys and sorority girls eager to put the week behind them. Thanks to its walking-distance proximity to Vanderbilt and Belmont, the chic watering hole is very popular with students.
Named for the posh private dining enclaves that line its dining rooms, the effortlessly chic venue is famous, first and foremost, for its culinary delights. During dinner hours (starting at 4 p.m.), the kitchen serves decadent Southern-style cuisine with a modern, upscale twist. After 10 p.m., however, the restaurant transforms to suit the distinctive tastes of the late-night cocktail crowd.
While libidinous undergrads often make up a large part of the well-dressed clientele, expect a more varied crowd as midnight approaches. Fashionable 20-somethings help mix things up a bit, not to mention the occasional appearance by A-list celebrities such as Jessica Simpson.
The main draw at Cabana is the massive space at the rear of the complex, visible from the busy intersection at Blakemore and 21st avenues. The room's high ceilings are enhanced by garage-door-style glass windows that extend from the top nearly to the floor. When the weather permits, the windows are rolled up to create a breathtaking patio vibe ideal for mingling and dancing.
On Friday and Saturday nights, a rotating cast of DJs kicks things up a notch, and tables and booths are often moved out of the way to create a makeshift dance floor. A lengthy bar stretches along one wall, allowing patrons to quench their thirst with minimal wait time. (Feisty cocktail servers are also on hand if you have trouble bellying up to the bar.) The quality of the drink varies -- it depends on which bartender is doing the pouring -- but for the most part the staff is accommodating and pleasant.
In stark contrast to the frenetic late-night environment, the vibe on Sundays is refreshingly low-key. In addition to daily happy hour bargains (featuring $1 off well liquors and $2 off house wine), the bar boasts two-for-one specials, including a moderate selection of draft beers and build-your-own 12-inch pizzas.
Where weekend nights are all about the big back room, the action on Sundays shifts to the front of the house. For most of the evening, a crowd of sports fans surrounds the sleek, rectangular bar, most of them fixated on one of the football games playing on the flat-screen televisions. Surprisingly, even when the weather's pretty, it's not uncommon for some of the tables on the spacious front patio to be unoccupied.
Whichever pace better suits your taste, Cabana will undoubtedly provide an enjoyable experience in an inviting, stylish setting. Just be ready to rub shoulders with an assortment of Nashville's freshest-faced scholars.