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VOL. 39 | NO. 39 | Friday, September 25, 2015

Faithful bid farewell to Melrose Sylvan Park Restaurant

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The final countdown has begun on the Melrose Sylvan Park Restaurant, which will close Sept. 30.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

Anyone wishing to dine like Eddy Arnold or Jerry Reed has just a few days left to enjoy what for years was among their favorite spots.

“Eddy Arnold used to eat lunch here every day,” says Lisa Greer, sparing a few minutes toward the end of the workday to talk about the place on Franklin Pike that will close Sept. 30.

“We don’t know what’s going to be here,” says Lisa, 50, while scanning the Sylvan Park Restaurant in the Melrose area, where the crowd is thinning as the 3 p.m. closing hour draws near.

A partnership headed by Nick Spiva – who has land investments in several parts of Nashville – bought this restaurant last December for around $2 million, Metro records show. While Spiva didn’t return calls, his office confirmed that the parcel would still hold a dining establishment.

Just not this near-historic meat-and-three.

With property values skyrocketing and apartments and condos being built in just about any direction of this hilltop restaurant, it’s too expensive for Lisa and her mother, Eleanor Clay, 70, to afford to continue providing the rib-sticking Southern comfort food from this spot where you can hear the jackhammers of progress as soon as you step out the front door.

The mom and daughter team have other restaurants – one in the retired teachers’ tower in Green Hills and a relatively new one on Northwest Broad in Murfreesboro. “We just opened that one about eight weeks ago,” Lisa says.

But there is something special about this place, which has survived many changes but finally will succumb to progress.

“It began as Dennison’s in 1979, then for about three years it was MelPark, and then we bought it 13 years ago and called it Sylvan Park,” says Lisa, adding that before Bill Dennison turned it into a restaurant, the site held a car wash.

She notes the Sylvan Park Restaurant on Murphy Road that’s actually in Sylvan Park has been closed since the mother-and-daughter business duo’s lease ran out many, many months ago.

Here it’s not the lease so much as the property value and the fact this area is becoming home to upscale, trendy living, shopping and dining. “Mr. Spiva has been real nice about this. He’s been trying to help us. He even comes in here to eat. He’s a nice man,” Lisa explains.

It’s strictly good business for Spiva and his partners, and the old diner clearly was priced out of what is now one of Nashville’s swarm of gentrifying neighborhoods.

If they chose to stay the rent “was going to be double what we’re paying,” adds Lisa, declining to specify that figure.

So at the end of this month, the mother-and-daughter tandem will turn the keys over to Spiva and his partners.

“We may not have room for four or five of (the employees) at the other restaurants,” she says, when asked the future of her 15 workers. “We did it on seniority basis.”

Her mother adds that by the time that move comes about, they may have figured out how to keep all the employees. “Who knows?” she asks, eyes shining with hope as she looks around the restaurant where servers remove empty plates and wipe down tables.

Lisa nods over to the table next to where we’re sitting. “That’s where Eddy Arnold sat when he came here for lunch every day,” she says. “He was such a nice man. I think he liked our meat loaf, our turkey and dressing and… oh… our coconut pie.”

As she smiles at the memory of the long-deceased Tennessee Plowboy, I tell her that same table was used as “headquarters” when my pal, Rob Dollar, also a daily newspaper refugee, and I mapped out our books and met with the publisher.

It’s also near the table where I once met Abraham Lincoln.

I was just sitting there one Saturday morning, enjoying a short order of flapjacks with Rob, while talking about books, and in walks the man with the stovepipe hat. Honest Abe was accompanied by at least one, perhaps two Union soldiers, in full regalia.

Never shy around presidents who visit meat-and-threes, I introduced myself to Mr. Lincoln. Of course it wasn’t the real Abe, just Dennis Boggs, one of the best Lincoln impersonators around (and there are surprisingly a lot of them) who was taking a breakfast break from a battle reenactment at nearby Fort Negley. Can’t remember what the dead president ordered that morning.

Lisa points to another table, one by the window at the far right corner of the Franklin Pike side of the building. “Jerry Reed always sat there. He loved our fried chicken.”

She smiles through her sadness. Autographed pictures on the wall tell more of the history of this meatloaf mecca and pancake paradise.

Lisa Greer and her mother, Eleanor Clay, own the restaurant.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

The Statler Brothers, Stonewall Jackson, Hank Williams Jr., Randy Travis, Mac Davis, Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley, Dolly Parton, Whisperin’ Bill Anderson, Merle Haggard, Deana Carter and Blake Shelton are just a few of those who have enjoyed the food here and penned personal messages on publicity shots.

“Look there’s Mr. Ray now,” says Lisa, looking to her right to see the photo of Ray Stevens, the “Everything is Beautiful” and “Ahab, the Arab” (the latter written in long-deceased politically incorrect times) songwriter, hit-maker, piano wizard and nice guy.

“He still comes in here about every day,” she adds.

Course Eddy Arnold and Jerry Reed were the undisputed kings among the diners. Family really.

“We had Eddy Arnold’s 87th birthday party right here,” Lisa says. “Pushed a lot of tables together. We had some cake. It was just a good day.”

Arnold, also a friend of mine, died in May 2008, just a week shy of his 90th birthday. Natural causes, no doubt fueled by the loss of Miss Sally, his wife of 66 years, just two months prior.

Reed died of complications from emphysema just four months later.

Reed’s death left considerable vacancies at the Sylvan Park family’s Thanksgiving table. “Jerry Reed used to bring his family – 10-14 people – and eat Thanksgiving here with our family,” says Lisa, of the “When You’re, Hot You’re Hot” singer, fingerstyle guitar guru and “Smokey and the Bandit” sidekick.

The Reeds would join “50-75 members of our own family, some from Alabama, who all came here every year for Thanksgiving” to feast on the kind of food that made Sylvan Park synonymous with comfort food.

Two side notes on those turkey day festivities: First of all, more than one lonesome stranger joined those diners. “They’d be driving by on Thanksgiving, even though we were closed, and see all the cars. They’d come and say ‘Y’all Open?’

“We’d tell them ‘No,’ and invite them to join us,” Lisa explains.

Cashier and server Mickey Day gets ready to tally the day’s take as the restaurant closes.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

Mom Eleanor points out that they purposely made excess quantities of food for that celebration. “Every year, after it’s all over, we take what’s left down to the Rescue Mission. It got to be quite a tradition.”

Neither one is sure if that tradition will carry on in the two remaining Sylvan Park restaurants.

Lisa says the regulars, who stop here multiple times each week, or at least each month, are unhappy this restaurant is closing.

“They say they’re gonna picket,” says Lisa, who shushes all lamentations by telling the regulars to visit the other Sylvan Park restaurants. “Some of them already have begun coming to the one in Green Hills,” she says.

“It’s change. It’s everywhere. You can’t stop change,” she adds. This worn relic of pre-“It City” times simply doesn’t belong beneath the sparkling glass-and-steel Nashville Skyline that’s punctuated by massive cranes erecting condo towers, high-priced hotels and corporate HQs.

“Change is good to some people,” Lisa says. “It benefits them.’’

Turning eyes to the tan Formica tabletop, she adds: “Some people it doesn’t benefit.”

Like the diners who now must say goodbye to a place where, indeed, it seems everybody knows everybody’s name. “We like it. It’s a good value,” says Bethany Jackson, 74, as she crosses the parking lot where her patient husband waits. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for a lot of this, all these high rises, all these changes,” says the retired elementary school and pre-K teacher.

Inside, Larry Beaird, an acoustic guitar session player who has eaten here “100 maybe 200 times” waits for his open-faced roast beef sandwich, with squash on the side. “You can’t get (squash) everywhere,” he points out.

The acoustic guitarist, who politely declines to reveal his age, says he’ll miss the diner and what it represents.

“I understand it. It was bound to happen,” he says. “I understand the sentiment of not wanting to lose places like this. Everybody’s nice here,” he adds, as a server brings his steaming plates of food. “Oh, and their homemade chocolate pie is good.”

Travis Ford -- “I like to be called ‘chef’ -- has been cooking at Sylvan Park for five years.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

“It’s a great place to eat,” says an older gentleman, who sits with a buddy near the Franklin Pike side of the restaurant. His buddy agrees, but they decline to reveal their names. “Not with all this world gone crazy,” one of them explains.

Lisa, though, a self-described “people person,” smiles. She refuses to allow gloom and doom to permeate her restaurant.

“It’s not so much that I’m going to miss the business, but that I’m going to miss the customers who come here every day. The customers have been what have kept us going.”

Nashville is a town of meat-and-threes, and an increasing number of them succumb to the times, their days of future passed.

She admits prejudice when judging this soon-to-perish meat-and-three as Nashville’s best. “That’s because we own it. But it really has to be one of the best.”

Eleanor began in her meat-and-three career decades ago when she opened Ya Mama’s on Murfreesboro Road. From there, she and her daughter bought the historic Elliston Place Soda Shop, selling it after a few years, and also opened an Elliston Place South restaurant on Nolensville Pike.

“I met my husband at the Elliston Place South restaurant,” Lisa adds. “Jim was a customer and I was a waitress and we just got to talking. We’ve been married 15 years.”

She is able to look beyond her own business and to the progress of the city in general. “I’m sure it’s for the best. I’m sure all the changes will be making more job opportunities. But I work HERE.”

Our conversation is punctuated by the servers hollering orders through the kitchen pass-through.

“Cheeseburger with everything and a half-order of crispy fries….”

“Bacon-and-cheeseburger with everything on it,” says another to hard-toiling Travis Ford. In some blue-plate diners, he might be called “a fry cook,” but “I prefer ‘chef,’” he says when I visit him a few minutes later, just after he spoons a bowl of lima beans.

The “chef” comment draws laughter from dishwasher Ryan Wisdom, who attacks the spoils of another busy lunch hour.

Eleanor forces a smile. “I’m sure going to miss the customers. We know a lot of their names. Others, we know their faces. We have fallen in love with our customers. Make sure you write how much we appreciate them. They have been the backbone.

“I started Ya Mama’s, with a capacity of 22 or 23. Here there’s room for 168. We’ve seen it where every table in here is full and people are waiting in line at the door. Of course, there weren’t 168 people in here, because not every table was full.”

Samantha Roberts, the first server hired by the mom-and-daughter combo, will work at the other Sylvan Parks. Loosening her ponytail and shaking her hair into voluminous “after-serving-food” style, she admits to being “sad…. Our customers are pretty loyal.”

Cashier Mickey Day rings up what likely was A.F. Patton’s last meal here. “Just use my initials so they won’t know who I am,” says the Crieve Hall resident.

“I’ve been coming since 1979. Two or three times a month,” Patton says. “I love their corn and their pinto beans and their turnip greens, their ribs on Friday. I love the service and the coconut pie.”

Closing this restaurant will “really change the neighborhood. Nashville is on the move. Life is about change,” she tells herself and anyone who will listen. “But I’m going to miss this restaurant. “

Outside, leaning up against the brick wall facing the almost-empty parking lot, a longhaired cowboy – likely a country star wannabe of some sort – draws slowly on his cigarette. He’s lost in thought so I don’t disturb him. Perhaps he’s trying to figure out where he’ll eat lunch after September 30.

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