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VOL. 39 | NO. 6 | Friday, February 6, 2015

Can old favorites survive Nashville's ‘foodie’ revolution?

Owners, regulars explain how restaurants sustain decades of popularity

By Jennifer Justus

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A few years ago, Tandy Wilson, chef and owner of City House, offered this tip about earning his respect as a diner: Don’t tell me you’re a foodie, he said, tell me you’re a “regular.”

We were having a conversation about overuse of the term “foodie,” and how even though it can be a well-meaning label to show a person’s interest in a particular topic, it also can carry the snobbish weight of those who salivate over the trendiest dishes – and then salivate over their keypads to type a Yelp review after just one visit.

As Nashville grows, and the restaurant scene booms along with it, we’re no doubt gaining more “foodies” and fickle magpie diners drawn to the shiny new thing.

On the one hand, Nashville’s growth brings us new talent and their creative takes on cuisines, and our city has long been a place to welcome newcomers, encouraging those brave souls who throw open their doors and show us what they’ve got.

But on the other hand, the new restaurants and diners could contribute to the squeezing out of old favorites.

With Sunset Grill now closed after a 24-year run, the question has to be asked: Can our beloved landmark restaurants survive.

Randy Rayburn, owner of Midtown Cafe, serves a packed house during lunch.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

How do we balance supporting our favorite restaurants while being open to trying the new ones? And how can the “regulars” among us teach us a thing or two about loyalty and our roots?

On a recent Tuesday lunch at Midtown Cafe, only one open seat remained – a barstool perched between two men in suits talking business and two ladies lunching over lobster pasta and glasses of white wine.

Mayoral candidate Megan Barry joined a party in the main dining room helping fill the space with enthusiastic chatter. Even the valet attendant was breathless.

But Midtown Café is hardly the hot new spot. Randy Rayburn bought the restaurant in 1997 and continues to focus on the business and his Hillsboro Village Cabana after closing Sunset Grill.

Beneath the spotless wine glasses, the black paint worn from the bar’s edge shows the years of conversations and stories shared over propped elbows and resting wrists with forks ready to twirl voodoo pasta.

Steve Brumfield, a Midtown Cafe regular and Nashvillian since 1968, visits the restaurants about once a week.

Mad Platter

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

“If I was told I had only a month to live, I would eat breakfast at Pancake Pantry, lunch at Arnold’s, and dinner at Midtown,” he says. “I would die a happy man.”

He believes it’s important to support small, locally owned businesses because of their history with their community, and owners’ informed and personal decisions about which charities and causes to support.

“Randy and others are good examples of that,” he adds.

Stefanie Dean Brown of McCabe Pub, a Sylvan Park institution since 1982, says taking care of the regulars has been the key to the family restaurant’s longevity.

“One thing my mother and dad were really good at were making sure people came in more than one time,” she said.

And Marcia Jervis, who opened The Mad Platter in a Germantown Victorian with her husband Craig in 1989, echoed the sentiment.

“It’s all about taking care of your regulars, and the new folks will find you,” she says. “I’ve got people who we catered their rehearsal dinner and now their kids’ graduation parties.”

Norro Wilson has been a regular at McCabe Pub for decades. He often comes in for the soups or a bologna sandwich on sourdough with pepper jack cheese.

Jimmy Kelly's

-- Submitted

“The beautiful thing about McCabe is that it’s a place of home,” he explains. “The people are like family, you get to know them. It has that air of comfort … Once you eaten there you know what’s gonna happen. It’s consistent throughout.”

Indeed, consistency emerged as a theme in conversations with longtime restaurateurs and regulars in town, but it came along with striking a balance of creating an atmosphere that feels both comfortable and current.

“It’s a tight wire you walk where you don’t want to become stale but also stay familiar – comfortable without being complacent,” Jervis says.

Staying current also means knowing who you are and staying true to that identity.

“Our philosophy is to continue doing what we do well and keep doing what’s kept us alive for 30 years, and at the same time stay with the times,” Brown says. “But you can’t chase the trends or you’ll lose the race.”

Max and Benjamin Goldberg offer a good example of both.

While the brothers have helped put the Nashville dining scene on the national map with newer spots like The Catbird Seat and Pinewood Social, they also rescued a landmark in Merchants.

Margot

-- Lyle Graves | Ledger

“We got involved because it was going to close,” Benjamin says of the downtown landmark in an 1892 building that has served as pharmacy, brothel, casino and hotel with rumors of Jesse James and Johnny Cash as guests.

“We took the keys at midnight and opened the next day,” Max describes their swooping in to save the place. The restaurant desperately needed a makeover, though, so they started gradually with updates to the space and menu.

“We create spaces where we would want to go,” Benjamin notes.

As 30-somethings, that also means they tend to create hot restaurants with buzz, but they’re more about intuition than trends, and the Nashville natives haven’t lost a strong sense of their roots. After all, their grandparents went on dates at the old Merchants.

They also visit Sperry’s, a Nashville landmark that opened before they were born, every year for their grandmother’s birthday.

“I love the cold plates,” Benjamin says of the Sperry’s salad bar.

On a recent Saturday night at Sperry’s in Belle Meade, a fire roared in the stone fireplace with surrounding walls as cozy and dark as a burgundy mushroom.

But even 40 years after opening, the place still buzzed with jovial conversation peppered with a few belly laughs and the clang of those heavy plates printed with the Sperry’s logo filling bus tubs.

It has the neighborhood and see-and-be seen vibe of a more mature sort with the bar two people deep on any given weekend night.

Rayburn named Sperry’s as what he considers a landmark restaurant along with places like Varallo’s, Jimmy Kelley’s, Swett’s and Elliston Soda Shop – all businesses that have stayed open for 40 years or more.

Rayburn also remembers having conversations with Mario Ferrari about the new restaurants of the 90s spreading business thin.

And with Nashville businesses operating under even more pressure, he predicts only the best will survive with eight to 12 percent failing each year.

The rate of growth, Jervis says, feels out of balance even after struggling to put down – and keep – roots in a Germantown that was far rougher and more sparse than it is today.

“Unfortunately, you’d like to think that the burden of all that is all the consumer,” she says.

“But it’s really on the provider.”

But when the restaurants do their part, we ought to also do ours. And that’s why the regulars have so much to teach us.

Cindy Wall and husband Keith Miles having been going to Margot Café and Bar nearly every Saturday since 2005. While Margot Cafe, which opened in 2001, is a relative newcomer compared to some others restaurants mentioned here, it still holds landmark status since it helped establish a restaurant scene in East Nashville.

“I’m a fan of the notion of a ‘restaurant home,’ a place where you’re really comfortable, a place that’s familiar, and a place full of people who’ve become your friends,” Wall says.

“It’s a place that takes care of you, in the way only a good meal and some friendly faces can.”

She also makes a point of finding restaurant homes when traveling, noting that “restaurant” comes from the verb “to restore,” a concept far removed from chasing trends.

“Speculations on the first restaurant generally include stories of 17th century inns that sold restorative broths to exhausted travellers who’d bumped over dirt roads and cobbles via coach,” she explains.

So while restaurants strike a balance between consistency and staying current, perhaps we should keep our balance in a healthy curiosity that has us seeking out both old and new.

Wall explains her philosophy, and she doesn’t once mention the word “foodie.”

“I really love food. All kinds, all cuisines. I like to cook, read about food, talk about it. I’m curious about each and every spot in Nashville, even as our options explode, and I make it a point to check them out,” she adds.

“Just not on Saturday, because I’ll be at Margot.”

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