Golden Keys to the City: A Concierge's Guide to Nashville

Few people are better equipped to guide you through Nashville than Hutton Hotel Chief Concierge Laura Cunningham. Cunningham recently become one of only a few concierges in the Southeast to earn the prestigious Les Clefs d'Or designation.

Few people are better equipped to guide you through Nashville than Hutton Hotel Chief Concierge Laura Cunningham. Cunningham recently became one of only a few concierges in the Southeast to earn the prestigious Les Clefs d'Or (“Golden Keys”) designation. Concierges earn their golden keys through an arduous application process, which tests the concierge’s ability to answer any question and fulfill any (legal) request, no matter how outlandish or seemingly impossible. Where sat down with Cunningham to get her insight into her top recommendations and personal favorites for what to do, see and eat in Music City.

Laura Cunningham, Hutton Hotel, Nashville, Tenn.

What does your Les Clefs d'Or designation mean? How do you get this designation?

A Les Clefs d'Or Concierge wears gold crossed keys on the lapels of his or her uniform. When you see a concierge with this designation, it represents professional hotel lobby concierges with years of experience dedicated to providing guests with the best customer service available. Through our organization, Les Clefs d'Or, we have an almost endless network of contacts to help make the impossible possible. A concierge may become a member of Les Clefs d'Or USA through a detailed application process that includes letters of recommendations, observations, a written test and more.

Which Nashville neighborhood is best for shopping?

12 South is a wonderful neighborhood for shopping with a variety of high-end boutiques, vintage shops and unique gift stores. While you are visiting 12 South, stop in at The Label, where rock stars shop, and explore White’s Mercantile, a modern-day general store. Have jeans custom-fitted at Imogene + Willie or find new-old treasures at Savant Vintage. When you need a break, stop in at a local favorite for lunch; Flipside, Edley's Bar-B-Que, and Burger Up are just a few of your great options.

Imogene + Willie

What are some things unique to Nashville a visitor can experience?

While live music is not unique to Nashville, the hours you can enjoy music are. The music starts as early as 11 am almost every day and continues until 2 or 3 am. Many venues for live music are free or charge a minimal cover fee. In addition to live music, we also have some unique music stores for both instruments and recordings. Carter's Vintage Guitars has a fantastic selection, Gruhn Guitars has an amazing history, and record shops like Jack White's Third Man Records and Grimey’s have a little something for everyone.

What do you think most visitors find surprising about Nashville?

I think many visitors find it surprising Nashville has a sophisticated side. While country music is a big part of Nashville, the city has become so much more. With many universities in the area, as well as world-class art programming, the cultural offerings are rich. We have amazing food, an expanding art scene and a growing city population with many developing neighborhoods, each with a unique personality.

What is the most common question you receive at the concierge desk? What's usually your answer?

The most common question I receive is, “This is my first time in Nashville; what should I do?” While my response always covers city highlights, no two answers are the same because no two guests are the same. People come to Nashville for various reasons. One person might want a complete tourist experience, including spending time downtown at the music museums and honky-tonk bars. Others may want to eat and drink their way through the now-famous culinary scene. Another person may want to enjoy Nashville's fashion with visits to the studios of Manuel, Peter Nappi and Otis James. The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and the Ryman Auditorium appear most frequently on the top of the recommendation list because they combine music, history, art and culture.

Pancake Pantry, Nashville, Tenn.

What's your favorite neighborhood and why?

I really like Hillsboro Village, which is close to the Hutton. It’s on the edge of Vanderbilt University and not a very big neighborhood. It has a laid-back coffee shop scene and the famous Pancake Pantry, as well as unique gift shops, like Pangaea, and specialty stores including a kitchen store with a great knife selection and BookManBookWoman, a wonderful, cozy used bookstore. It is also home to the Belcourt Theatre, a historic art-house theater. 

Where do you like to shop, eat and relax?

I love to shop at Muse and Blush, both a quick jump from the hotel. Both boutiques feature fun, modern styles, and the stylists there are very creative, patient and help me match my selections.

Where I like to eat depends on what kind of mood I am in. For a casual experience, I love the coffee shop Fido for all-day breakfast. I love their sweet potatoes, which are always on the menu. For a quick, inexpensive bite, you cannot go wrong with the Caribbean food at Calypso Café. I really enjoy the greens, beans and rice meal. For a downtown mixture of locals and tourists, I am a big fan of Acme Feed and Seed. Acme has great casual-Southern fare, live music, and is housed in a very cool space—a former seed and feed store. If I want to get dressed up and experience a night on the town, the Gulch offers many great dining options like Moto, Virago or Watermark. And even if it weren’t located inside the Hutton I would love the 1808 Grille—whether for breakfast, lunch or dinner, I feel like you can’t go wrong there.

Belcourt Theatre, Nashville, Tenn.

I like to relax the Belcourt Theatre. It is a historic independent theater located in Hillsboro Village. I enjoy watching independent, documentary and foreign films in the beautiful renovated space. It reminds me of how my grandparents enjoyed cinema. I recently saw Oscar winners "The Grand Budapest Hotel" and "Birdman" there. I cannot imagine a better place to see those films.

What is a little-known fact about Nashville?

A little-known fact about Nashville is Maxwell House Coffee came from this city. The Maxwell House Hotel in downtown Nashville, which has since burned down, served the special blended coffee. Rumor has it the Maxwell House slogan, “Good to the last drop,” is a direct quote from President Theodore Roosevelt upon tasting the brew. In recent years, Nashville continued the trend of great coffee and was named one of Travel + Leisure’s “Best Cities for Coffee.” We have so many wonderful coffee shops, including Crema and Dose. Frothy Monkey Downtown has some of the best froth artists in the city.

What is your favorite part of your job?

My favorite part of my job is connecting with the hotel guests. I get to spend a little time with them, learn why they are in Nashville, what their interests are and what they expect while visiting. This gives me the opportunity to tailor their recommendations to fit what they are looking for while visiting. It is a lot of fun to suggest sights to see, music to hear, and food to eat that you hope they will enjoy. It is exciting to see their reactions when you are talking about aspects of Nashville they will enjoy. It is also really fun to be there for guidance during their stay, even for a simple request like what time should they leave to get to the show. I know their time is valuable and usually limited in Nashville. I like to help guests leave our city with lifelong memories! 

Michelle Khouri
About the author

Michelle serves as the Atlanta editor and Read Michelle's full bio