In 1976, country radio DJ Johnny Potts opened The Sutler Saloon, which felt like a throwback to the Wild West. It evoked images of swinging doors, shoot-outs, poker games, the town drunk passed out on the corner table, the proverbial town whore with the heart of gold and the gruff sheriff who falls for her. It boasted a solid, classic saloon-style bar where many an elbow was propped over the years.
The Sutler immediately established itself as a favored watering hole for music bizzers—a much scruffier bunch back then—who swilled cold beer and chowed down on humble comfort food like corn bread and beans. In the intimate room and on the small, up-close-and-personal stage, acts famous and infamous performed killer sets of aching, yearning and unbridled bravura that were often the talk of The Row the next day—at least among those who could remember.
Fast forward several decades, and the strip known as The Melrose that once housed The Sutler, as well as other memorable tenants like Melrose Lanes, Chandler’s Billiards and the Melrose Theatre-turned-Scene 3, has been brought back to life with a sensitive re-invention and renovation by Nashville-based Fulcher Investment and Parkes Development. And while it was too late for the beloved bowling alley, the theater was restored and now houses the stunning Sinema restaurant. As for The Sutler, well, hometown guys Joe Parkes Jr., and Austin Ray (the visionary behind M.L. Rose across the street), who both logged some belly-up-to-the-bar time at the original Sutler, have made the saloon doors swing open once more.
The exterior is a lot spiffier now, but so is the neighborhood and the music business, which helped kick things off last fall with a couple of high profile #1 parties. Inside, design elements harken back to the good old days. The bar is not the original (no one seems to know where that one is), but it’s handsome and paired with solid stools, perfectly positioned to watch the evolving world of The Melrose and Eighth Avenue through the plate glass window, keep an eye on arrivals or catch the game on one of the discretely positioned televisions thoughtfully out of view of the dining room.
When The Sutler staff is asked, “Are you a restaurant, bar or music club?” the answer—as it was back in the ’70s—is “Yes.” To that trio of functions, I would add cocktail lounge, which is what guests will find behind the doors on the subterranean level. More sophisticated in décor than the upstairs venue, The Cellar is a speakeasy with a dash of risqué bordello. Wall-mounted fire cases cast a flattering glow on guests at community tables and a mix of leather man-cave and Victorian furnishings provide salon-style conversation areas. Two antique barber chairs set into a rear corner allow cautious types to keep their eye on the room and their backs to the wall. We couldn’t resist peeking into the green room, a cozy pre- and post-show dressing room and hideaway for performers and VIPs.
The L-shaped bar serves a limited food menu of snacks, but a swankier selection of Cellar Cocktails—nine in all at $12 each. We didn’t get a chance to test-drink these, but when I go back, Forever Young has my name all over it. It features Campari, which was my go-to spirit when I was a young girl freshly moved to New York City in the ’70s and thought it sounded ever-so-worldly.
We did drink our way through the six Saloon Cocktails upstairs ($10). I always say yes to any cocktail that begins with Corsair Gin, so Thyme Marches On with the locally made spirit, yellow Chartreuse, thyme simple and orange bitters on ice with a sprig of thyme was my beverage of choice. My drinking buddies bet their hand on The Gambler, a basil julep that Kenny Rogers would have bet on, too.
There are a dozen craft brews on tap—local and out-of-state, and 20 more by the bottle.
The Sutler happy hour is among the best in town, taking place Monday through Friday from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. All draft beers, Saloon and Cellar cocktails are half price. Fancy cocktails for $5 and $6 make me very happy!
Though Parks and Ray were committed to the saloon style, they knew New Nashville offers countless dining choices and demands a lot from the kitchen, so they made yet another wise decision and put Chef Nick Seabergh in charge of creating what they describe as a “pan-Southern menu, covering the low country to Texas, with a focus on Nashville.” Prior to the Sutler, Seabergh cooked for John Currence at City Grocery. His most recent post was executive chef at Alchemy in Memphis, before being lured back east. At The Sutler, he lays the foundation of his menu on a hickory smoker and wood-fired grill.
Writing on the third day of Frozen Nashville 2015, I am longing for an encore of a hearty, all-in-one, towering pile of so-bad-for-you goodness. This hunka hunka burnin’ love food, my ravenous friends, is a Horseshoe. There are three to choose from, but we went Lone Star State with the brisket rendition. Slices of smoked tender brisket are stacked atop a thick slice of grilled Texas toast, piled with crispy duck fat fries, smothered in cheddar ale (from Yazoo) gravy, then topped with a glistening fried egg. Just half of this and, as God is my witness, I felt like I would never be hungry again.
Thankfully (and thanks to the oversized sweater I had presciently worn), I had a wee bit of wiggle room left for tastes of two of the uber-comfort food side dishes, delivered to the table family-style in sizzling hot cast-iron: the Brussels Sprouts Hash fries up the leaves and strews them with a crunchy cheese crumble atop a bed of creamy, buttery whipped Yukons.
There is no “Diet Plate” at today’s Sutler as there was on a framed menu from 1991, but there are a couple of delectable options for daintier eaters. The hickory-grilled whole trout is divinely different … skin rubbed with spicy mustard, then cooked to a crisp cover of a flaky interior, plated with cold black-eyed pea salad.
Well, hello gorgeous! As pretty as this colorful composition of shaved, chilled, raw, seasonal vegetables is, it’s the exquisitely simple taste that will linger in your sensory memory bank. I spy fennel, purple carrot, radish, orange sections and candy stripe beets. A lifelong beet hater, but always willing to give it one more go, I tentatively put one thin round of beet in my mouth. Then another, and another, until an entire herd of pigs was surely flying down Franklin Pike. Eureka, I’ve found the one beet in the world I can eat! I love you Nick Seabergh … in a purely food-like way, of course.
There’s even more love to go around on Sunday nights, when The Sutler presents Grass Fed Sundays. Seabergh creates a different, good old Southern supper every Sunday night, with a main dish and sides served family style (for four) starting at 4:30 p.m. A lively bluegrass string band performs live on stage from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Three-quarters of a century ago, a 63-foot Art Deco obelisk proudly emblazoned with the word MELROSE marked the spot on Franklin Pike where Nashvillians flocked to be entertained. At some point, as one tenant after another closed their doors or was driven off, that beckoning symbol of commerce disappeared. Thanks to the commitment of developers Melrose Partners, the obelisk has been recreated and installed in the same corner of 2600 Franklin Pike where it rose in 1941. Thanks to Joe Parkes Jr. and Austin Ray, The Sutler has been resurrected as well.
Special thanks to Ashley Hylbert for the beautiful photos today.
Kay West has written for local, regional and national publications, as well as for the music industry. She continues to write locally, including covering restaurants for StyleBlueprint, and is the Nashville correspondent for People Weekly/People Country/People.com.