This past November, we featured City House and promised to show you the inside story on several more of Nashville’s favorite restaurants. Many have paved the path to make the Nashville food scene what it is today, and this is our little way of saying, “Thanks.” Kay West joins us today, and next month, to tell us about two of her favorites. Now, let’s fall in love with Germantown Cafe, all over again.
Even before GPS made it easy, outsiders found their way to Germantown, thanks to urban pioneers Marcia and Craig Jervis, who opened Nashville’s first chef-owned restaurant in a restored brick building at the corner of 6th & Monroe, The Mad Platter, in 1987. It’s just that many of their diners didn’t know their beloved restaurant was in a named neighborhood. Back then, the area was unfamiliar to almost everyone but residents—many of whom had roots there reaching back a century or more.
It was not unlike East Nashville, which before it became Historic East Nashville and developed Five Points, was just that unknown area ‘across the river.’ Or The Gulch, which used to be that desolate stretch of industrial road that ran beside the rail tracks and best viewed from the Demonbreun Street viaduct. Or 12South, which until about 2000, was known as The Bad Side of Belmont.
When Chris Lowry and his partner, the late Jay Luther, told friends and acquaintances in 2003 that they were opening a restaurant called Germantown Café, the conversation often went like this:
“You’re opening a restaurant in Memphis?”
“No. The Germantown here.”
“Where is that?”
“On the far side of the Farmer’s Market, just past Jefferson Street.”
“Are you guys crazy?”
Ten years later, Germantown Café is not only doing better than ever, a persuasive argument could be made that it helped kick-start the growth of what is now one of Nashville’s most desirable, livable and walkable urban neighborhoods.
“We knew when we opened that this neighborhood, at that time, could not support this restaurant,” Chris told me one afternoon sitting in the dining room between lunch and dinner. “So we coined the tag line, ‘A neighborhood cafe worth leaving your neighborhood for.’ And people did.”
Almost immediately, Germantown Café became known—and won awards—for the view through the glass on the Madison Street length of the dining room. Over the years, it has perfectly framed a rapidly changing Nashville skyline, from the top level of LP Field to the Capitol Building. At the street level, the view has also changed. Across the three French doors at the corner of the dining room, what was once a parking lot and produce warehouse is now the 4-story Vista Germantown apartment building. Across 5th, a formerly vacant cinderblock eyesore is now a fully-leased commercial-residential building. These days, the sidewalks outside the Café are busy day and night with pedestrian traffic.
The restaurant itself has also grown from one room to three—where the bar originally was is a raised platform with more seating. The bar moved to its own space, and a private dining room was added several years ago.
What has remained consistent and reliable is the food, value and service. GM Greg Hilbourn has been greeting folks at the door since 2004, and bartender Michael Mack has been mixing cocktails and pouring wine since opening day.
The menu in January 2014 is probably 75% the same as it was in January 2004. And that, according to Germantown’s loyal following, is a good thing. Nashville chef Kim Totzke, now COO of Provence Breads, says, “I never get tired of the food. It really is the epitome of comfort food. And it’s the best place to go with a group with a wide range of tastes. From conservative to adventurous diners, there is something for everyone.”
The menu was created by Luther and is faithfully cooked by his close friend and executive chef Jeff Martin, who has also added several spins and dishes of his own.
The basket of warm yeast rolls (rolled in sugar and cinnamon for Saturday and Sunday brunch) with a ramekin of softened butter are the perfect welcome to the table. If you’ve cut out carbs for the New Year, I advise you to send them to the table across the room.
As rare as bread baskets are in Nashville’s groovy new restaurants, complimentary side salads are practically extinct. I love that Germantown offers that green gift with every entrée. The House and Caesar are the perfect size and give me something to whet my appetite while waiting on my main without having to invest in an appetizer.
When I do order a starter, it’s often Germantown’s deservedly locally-famous crab cakes, fried green tomatoes or squash fritters. If I’m sharing, the Goat Cheese and Red Onion Tart is my choice—tangy and buttery, it’s so rich even just a quarter slice makes me feel indulged.
French Onion Soup is not easy to eat what with that thick crusty cap of cheese, but so worth it in the cold winter months, and Germantown’s is among the best in town. It is definitely not first date or business lunch fare!
The two most popular and original dishes on Germantown’s dinner menu are the Plum Pork and the Coconut Curry Salmon, the ying and yang of the evening meal (though smaller portion sizes are available at lunch).
The Plum Pork is earthy, meat and potato-y, with thick dark plum sauce ladled over tender pork medallions and a mound of mashed spuds.
On the light side, the plank of salmon is delicately dressed with that creamy coconut-curry rendezvous of opposite but complementary flavors.
My son the carnivore always orders the Hanger Steak, marinated in a country mustard vinaigrette before grilling, and always has to fight off his sister’s and mother’s invasive forks trying to spear just a bite.
Desserts—always one of Jay’s favorite things to make—vary by day, and still pull from his recipe box.
Germantown Café’s Brunch—thoughtfully served on Saturday and Sunday—sets the standard for what that lazy, sometimes hazy meal should be: a filling, hearty, two-meals-in-one hangover helper, if need be.
At lunch, Germantown’s dining room is a who’s who of downtown and Capitol Hill movers, shakers and decision makers. Vegans can chow down on the corn-avocado relish topped Black Bean-Quinoa Burger, which can also be gluten-free without the bun.
Chris Lowry and Jay Luther weren’t the first to take a chance in the then-uncharted territory of Germantown, but their warm and delightful Café helped put it on Nashville’s neighborhood dining map. No matter which neighborhood you call home, you’ll always feel at home here.
For the last 26 years, Kay has been a freelance, professional writer for local, regional and national publications, as well as doing significant writing for the music industry. She continues to write features for the Scene (where she was the weekly restaurant critic from 1992-2007), as well as The City Paper, she writes the monthly restaurant column for Nashville Lifestyles and is Nashville correspondent for People Weekly/People Country/People.com. She has written for TV Guide, InStyle, Glamor and USA Weekend. She has also written five books: How To Raise a Gentleman; How To Raise a Lady and 50 Things Every Young Lady Should Know, part of the Gentle Manners series for Thomas Nelson; Around The Opry Table: A Feast of Recipes and Stories from the Grand Ole Opry; and Dani’s Story: A Journey From Neglect to Love.