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VOL. 40 | NO. 6 | Friday, February 5, 2016

Romantic retreats tailor ambiance to diners

By Hollie Deese

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Striking just the right mood is the key at Fifty First and other romantic restaurants around Nashville. Restaurateurs have learned that lighting, music and decor can make good food even better.

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With Valentine’s Day on a Sunday this year, romance will enjoy a three-day weekend celebration of love, shared experience and excellent food.

Restaurants are going all out. Many that are never open on Sunday will be, and the entire Feb. 12-14 period will a chance for restauranteurs to show off the intimacy of their particular setting with special attention paid to music, lighting, drinks, food to share and service tailored to couples.

One of the city’s newest restaurants, Fifty First Kitchen and Bar, will open Valentine’s Day Sunday and serve a preset tasting menu, a first for the establishment.

Run by a team of three – Chef Tony Galzin, his wife Caroline as general manager and Christy Thurman as managing partner – it has been racking up accolades and reservations since opening in July with rustic, Italian-inspired food, small room and standout service.

“We’ve been very well-received from the neighborhood for the most part, and I’m always really flattered when I hear people driving over from East Nashville to our weird little house in the Nations to have dinner,” Caroline Galzin says. “It’s great.”

At just 35 seats and another 15 at the bar, Fifty First is inherently intimate. It’s a place where couples can come to connect over some shared plates. They play up the intimacy with almost-exclusively candle lighting, vinyl-only music and a menu meant for sharing.

“It’s definitely a great place to go with a date because you can share and try lots of different things,” Galzin says. “I think that experience of sharing and tasting different foods is a great way to get a spark going. We definitely have a really sexy vibe in the dining room.”

They even keep the music a little bit louder – but not too loud – so people can really engage in conversation without feeling like everybody else in the room can hear what they are saying.

“We’re always reading the room as far as the energy,” Galzin adds.

“If it seems a little more chill and mellow we might put on something a little more relaxing, but if it’s peak time on Saturday night, and the energy is really going, we’ll throw on some hip hop or some funk soul, something like that, that’s a little more of a groove.”

Reading the room

Sinema and other restaurants are trying to shake the ‘special occasion-only’ label.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

From Fifty First’s smattering of flickering candles to Prima’s 900-light fixture from artist Bruce Munro, lighting plays an important part in a restaurant’s ambiance. So does getting the music right and nailing the food.

But if the service is off, the whole experience can fall apart. Unobtrusive, attentive, energetic, reserved – each table seems to want something different, and today’s servers are expected to read each one and change their serving style to match.

“The trend seems to be less one style of service and more service that’s tailored to each guest’s individual experience,” Galzin says. “You can tell if somebody wants to hear you talk or not. If they don’t want to hear you talk, then don’t make them listen to you give the whole full menu spiel.

“If people seem excited and engaged and want to be your buddy and hear you talk about every item on the menu, be prepared to do that.”

Kara Lacko, general manager of Midtown’s sleek and sophisticated Prima from Community Hospitality, says tailored service also is a top priority at the contemporary American restaurant.

“We really spend a lot of time on training to read our guests,” Lacko explains.

“If they really want to be engaged and talk about Nashville and talk about having the chef come out, or if they want to just have an intimate moment, we have booths to the side that we offer.

“We have a table upstairs called The Vista that overlooks the whole dining room that’s really fun. We just really try and listen to what our guests want and really tailor that experience for them.”

Q-Juan Taylor, general manager of Sinema, says he and his staff ask themselves before each shift how they plan on making people feel.

The goal is to almost blend in with the table, and Taylor says it is like a collaboration between the guest and server.

“What are the elements that we can provide from a service perspective that gives a guest a good feeling about being at the restaurant?” Taylor asks.

“That goes with having a great dining experience – what the place feels like, what kind of music you’re playing, how the lighting feels, how the place smells.

“It’s kind of like you’re becoming one with them by providing them with a great dining experience.”

From the cocktail program to the diverse collection of music, Taylor says the mood created is what people will remember, and come back to Sinema for.

“I think people want that upscale service, but in a casual mindset, which is really interesting,” Taylor says. “Technically, you can have fine dining in any environment, but the personality has to be individual.”

Elevated atmosphere

Getting all the elements right makes for an exceptional evening, but some restaurants are hoping in 2016 to convince diners that all that excellence isn’t confined to special occasions only.

“Between the music and the lighting and the food and the service, we just really want to make it an experience that you feel really good about,” Lacko says.

“Not everybody has a million dollars to go out, so we really want everybody to feel that we took that time seriously, that we wanted to provide value for you.

“What makes it so much more special is it is just not an every night occurrence, and we try to not take that for granted.”

Taylor says Sinema is in the same situation, aiming on shaking the idea they are only meant for a big night out.

“It’s a place for special occasions, but what people are also learning is that Sinema is a place where you can come back all the time,” Taylor says. “It doesn’t need to just be a special occasion to come and eat at this place.

“You don’t need to be dressed up. You can come in your jeans and your casual shoes and a T-shirt and hang out in the lounge, and it doesn’t have to be a birthday or anniversary or engagement or a holiday.

“It’s a place where you can just come and have a drink and hang out.”

Valentine’s Day celebrations

Diners at Prima can expect tried and true romantic dishes with a twist for the entire weekend of Valentine’s Day, with an $85 tasting menu available Feb. 12-14 in addition to the a la carte menu. On the 14th, only the tasting menu will be available.

“Whether it be lobster, whether it be something that’s shareable amongst two people, Chef Sal (Avila) just ties that into whatever that occasion is,” Lacko says.

While the Galzins will be too busy working to go on a date together this Valentine’s weekend, they do like to make time to try a few favorite places in town whenever they can.

“Tony and I are together constantly, but we don’t get a ton of date nights,” she says. “We go to City House for Sunday Supper a lot. It is a great place for a double date, or to get a group of folks together, just the way that their menu is laid out with sharing and so many special unique dishes. It’s just such a comfortable, cool place.”

The Galzins also had a fun night together recently getting their ramen fix at Otaku South, and when they want to really have a special evening, they tap into their Chicago roots and find a swanky steakhouse.

“That’s probably our favorite thing, and we hit up a different one every time we go out,” she adds.

“Recently we went to Bob’s Steak and Chop House, and we had a really great time. We just love the old school formality of the steakhouse.

“It’s a place you can go on a Wednesday night, but you can still drink a martini and eat a steak and have a fancy time.”

Taylor says the staff at Sinema will be taking things to another level on Valentine’s Day, their second since opening, and plan on paying even more attention to the little touches.

And maybe they can even add a few more on-site proposals to their ever-growing list of engagements.

“I think we probably get someone proposing at least once a week,” Taylor says. “Either they pop the question here or they come in and get some champagne after they pop the question.

“Sinema has good vibes.”

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