On its weekly Writers' Nights, the Nashville restaurant puts up-and-coming country music hopefuls in the spotlight

On Eighth Avenue South, an old Nashville street lined with antiques shops, the Douglas Corner Cafe hardly stands out. There’s no ”World Famous” on the window, as there is at Tootsies Orchid Lounge, nor big signs like the Wildhorse Saloon has. But the plain exterior belies the big dreams inside. When aspiring songwriters hit town these days, the brown metal door at Douglas Corner is as likely as not to be the first one knocked on.

Finishing up her set on a Tuesday night in April, Peggy Bertsch thanks the crowd and scoots back from her spot near the stage to her waiting companions. ”A lot of stars have to line up for you to have a successful career,” says Bertsch, a spunky, petite 35-year-old who moved to Nashville from San Francisco about a year ago. ”Every time I come here,” she says, ”I meet someone who’s been in town only a couple of days.”

Performers give the perfunctory ”This is a song I wrote,” then tell about loves won or lost, places they want to be or leave, or, as in Bertsch’s ”Changing of the Guard,” family gatherings that spark thoughts about growing older. The music may be cowboy-hat country or electric-keyboard jazz, but the ambiance feels as cozy as a friend’s basement.

The decade-old music-and-food joint was created as ”a place for up-and-coming acts to show their stuff, hone their skills,” says co-owner Mervin Louque, whose club helped launch the careers of superstars Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, and Trisha Yearwood.

”If you want to hear some great new songs, it’s really the place to go,” says Yearwood, one of country’s biggest celebs, a multiple Grammy nominee for her album Everybody Knows and a winner for her duet with Aaron Neville, ”I Fall to Pieces.” ”The whole atmosphere is made to hear music. It’s more like writers coming to listen to other writers.

”Songwriting is Nashville’s saving grace,” she continues. ”Douglas Corner is the only place that this kind of music will be heard — one of the few places to hear good songs that might never make it on the radio.”

Here’s where Nashville’s in-the-know are going:

CAFFE MILANO 174 THIRD AVENUE With seating for nearly 200, Nashville’s newest music room can accommodate a crowd without losing the intimacy of a small show. Chet Atkins held court Monday nights until surgery forced him to cancel for the next three months. Dishes like osso buco and chicken marsala are favorites.

328 PERFORMANCE HALL 328 FOURTH AVENUE SOUTH The official spot to hear alt-rock acts in Nashville, this onetime industrial building has a rich history, one that includes Stephen King getting sick during a Rock Bottom Remainders show. Wear jeans (or other clothes you don’t mind getting soaked with beer), eat before you come, and be prepared to stand for several hours.

NASHVILLE COUNTRY CLUB RESTAURANT 1811 BROADWAY This popular lunch spot for music bizzers is a short walk from Music Row but still gets all the buzz, since regulars include Chet Atkins and Hal Ketchum — and Reba McEntire, Garth Brooks, and George Strait have been known to stop in.