Sperry’s offers old charm, new touches

Friday, December 30, 2011, Vol. 35, No. 52
By Hollie Deese

The Thomas family originally had a garden store, The Garden Gate, at the Harding Road location where Sperry’s now stands. In early 1971, the family got out of the gardening business and opened The Brass Scales.

-- Submitted Photo

Years ago Frank and Julie Boehm carved their initials into the tabletop of their booth at Sperry’s Restaurant in Belle Meade. Married 25 years, you can’t see the etching anymore but you can still catch the couple in that same booth two or three nights a week at the Nashville institution. It’s their favorite spot, and has been since they first started dating.

“That is how much we felt it was our place,” Dr. Boehm says of marking their territory. “If other people want to sit in our booth they have to check with me, of course. I own the mortgage on it.”

Faithful, longtime customers feel strongly about Sperry’s and its menu, largely unchanged since 1974. And while those same customers aren’t coming in as much as they used to, owner Al Thomas is as committed to keeping them happy as he is about driving new business through the doors. And consistency, from beef quality to menu options, is key.

“If you walked into Sperry’s tomorrow and fired the cook or kitchen manager, it would still have the same food, recipes, everything would still go on,” he says. “But I’ll admit it is tough. In 1974 there was nothing in this town. Now everybody and their brother has a restaurant, so how do you keep yourself current? That has always been my biggest challenge, trying to stay current yet maintain the old charm and comfortable feel of Sperry’s.”

So Thomas has made steps to improve Sperry’s without changing it. Updated menu items like no-filler crab cakes join classics such as the Prince William filet topped with blue cheese and named such after the royal ordered it on a trip to Nashville a few years ago.

Wine lockers are available at both the Belle Meade and Cool Springs locations, with a number of wine dinners held throughout the year. He has even put in some new lighting and switched out paintings and music to keep things fresh.

Houston Thomas and his partner, Marion (Dick) Thomas in the mid 1970s.

-- Submitted Photo

“We changed our crab cakes for the first time in 20 years even though everyone loved the old one,” Thomas says. “You want to bring in the younger people and the younger people don’t always buy into what the older people ate. So, we still have the two-edge sword of the Olde English atmosphere when the trend is to go modern.”

Thomas’ father and uncle were the original owners of the Belle Meade steakhouse, previously the Brass Scales, which opened when he was about 13. His dad told him he was too young to work there, so he strung together a few part-time jobs elsewhere instead.

“I worked at a place called Bay Seafood, and the guy would get 200 pounds of shrimp from the Gulf and would tell me to de-head all of it. That is a hard job and tore up my hands. And then I would go over to Varallo’s, which is now West Meade Liquors. I used to climb into the smoke pit and clean the walls since I was small enough to do it. And then when I turned 14 I went and worked at Sperry’s.”

He was there until he turned 18 and began working at Cajun’s Wharf, then another of his parents’ restaurants, Maude’s Courtyard. He then went to school at UT-Knoxville and became the head waiter at the Cajun’s Wharf there, which is where he met his wife, then a hostess.

He ended up dropping out of school during the 1982 Knoxville World’s Fair when he was in charge of more than 70 staffers. “That was a big deal for a 20-year-old,” Thomas says. “Then my wife graduated and asked what the heck I was going to do with my life.”

So he went to the library and pulled out the big book of majors, looking for the best school he could find for hotel and restaurant management. He found four, applied to them all and got in to each one. He chose the University of Denver, where he worked hard and thought about the future.

He decided he wanted Sperry’s.

“It is not like I called my dad at that point and said ‘Hey, I want to have it.’ I just worked very hard to succeed in the industry,” he says. “I knew one point in time dad was going to call me up and say they were done and I wanted to have all my ducks in a row: My finances, my life, my wife and kids, everything was kind of set. I set the stage. I made my bed.”

Steaks have remained a staple on the menu at Sperry’s,
a legacy that goes back to its former life as The Brass
Scales (menu in foreground).

-- Submitted Photo

That time came in 2000 when he bought the business outright from his dad and uncle, who by then were tired of working with each other.

“They didn’t get along well, couldn’t communicate and had lost sight,” he says. “Sometimes people reach the point where they agree to disagree and that is a productive stance. They disagreed to disagree, so nothing would get done.”

So he went in, cleaned up the place and took the scraps of paper and old cocktail napkins holding all of the recipes and put them into a book. He created procedures about measuring properly and began making their famous salad dressings in smaller batches. Thomas has now been the owner of Sperry’s for 12 years and continues to make tweaks and changes as he sees they are needed.

Thomas also is part owner in Sam’s Sports Grill in Hillsboro Village, Hendersonville and Murfreesboro (opening soon), with commitments from the bank to open four more Sam’s in the next few years. His partner in that business is Sam Sanchez, whom he worked with at Houston’s years ago.

“Sam’s in the Village is incredible,” he says. “Sam’s Hendersonville came along a couple of years ago and that has been another gold mine.”

Both of his parents are deceased, as is a brother. His sister lives here, and his uncle is still around but rarely makes it into Sperry’s.

But the regulars who have lined the bar and booths at Sperry’s for almost 40 years have become just as close to him as family. And the regulars feel the same way.

“When something works, why change it?” Boehm asks. “I am old-fashioned and when I like something I like to stick with it. I like knowing exactly what I am going to get. I don’t think there is a better salad bar in town. If there is, I haven’t had it. I know I can go and have a glass of wine or a drink, a salad and a piece of fish, and I can go home very happy.”