Staying relevant in the competitive hospitality industry is always a bit of an arms race, with new hotel properties opening in Nashville seemingly every month and raising the ante in terms of amenities, luxury, food and beverage. As part of a company-wide initiative, Loews Hotels made the conscious choice to focus more on the individual local cultures of their properties, evident in the new, sophisticated Southern cuisine and vibe at the dining and drinking destinations at their Midtown property. Another major part of Loews Vanderbilt’s effort to distinguish themselves in Nashville’s crowded hospitality market has been the hiring of new executive chef Gavin Pera.
The management at Loews has recently extended their dedication to showing off their Music City connection through their “Flavor Nashville by Loews Hotels” program, which offers guests the opportunity to experience tastes of Nashville without ever leaving the property. Specifically at Loews Vanderbilt, visitors can enjoy coffee from local favorite Frothy Monkey at their POD Organic Market in the lobby, where Frothy Monkey provides the roasted beans to the talented employees working the espresso machine. The Loews Vanderbilt staff have gone through extensive barista training at Frothy Monkey headquarters to ensure they are brewing a proper cuppa Joe. Guests can also pick up organic snacks and healthy grab-and-go options from the market for breakfast and lunch.
On the beverage side of the menu, the Flavors by Loews Hotel program also encourages Loews properties to partner with local breweries and distilleries, and at Mason Bar, staff mixologists feature products from two Nashville favorites. You can always expect to find several selections of craft drafts from Yazoo Brewing Co., the brewery that went a long way toward putting Nashville on the radar of beer lovers across the nation. The specific selections rotate seasonally, and the kitchen at Loews even incorporates Yazoo beer into several of their dishes.
Pennington Distilling Co. shows up all over the drink menu, particularly with their popular Whisper Creek Tennessee Sipping Cream and Pickers Vodka products. Completing the local circle, the locally owned distillery actually donates their used grain at the end of the distilling process to Middle Tennessee farmers to feed their livestock. In addition to appearing on the regular cocktail menu, Pennington spirits are always available as special cocktails on tap made with recipes and fresh ingredients provided by Freddy Schwenk and Matt Buttel of Nashville Ice Lab. Utilizing seasonal flavors and fresh-squeezed juices, these pre-batched cocktails mean you’re never more than a few seconds away from another drink at Mason Bar.
Chef Pera arrived at Loews Vanderbilt in March after previously helming kitchens in South Florida, including most recently the Ritz-Carlton Fort Lauderdale. Most diners don’t appreciate the fact that hotel chefs have to serve multiple constituencies. It’s the rare restaurant anymore that serves fine dining for breakfast, lunch, dinner and weekend brunches like hotels do, but hospitality Food & Beverage departments are also responsible for providing VIP guest amenities to their rooms, preparing meals for banquet services and standing on-call for room service orders at any hour of day or night. Even beyond hotel guests, Mason’s also strives to attract locals — Nashvillians who have an ever-growing selection of restaurants to choose from, which is no small task!
Loews Vanderbilt’s Director of Food & Beverage Charles Phillips believes strongly that Chef Pera is exactly the right person to take Mason’s to the next level. In the face of a tight culinary labor market, Charles is enthusiastic about the crew he has assembled. “It’s challenging to build a team,” he notes. “We’re in a good place, though. The skill set for a hotel chef is elevated. You have to be a great cook and also a savvy business person because you have P & L responsibility over a kitchen that is open 24 hours. You have to make sure that you have each shift staffed with talented and dedicated people, and we definitely have that here at Loews Vanderbilt.”
Chef Pera is excited about leading that staff and introducing both locals and Loews Hotels guests to some new flavors. “We’re always asking what we can do to stay relevant and stand out. I’ve really enjoyed developing relationships with new farmers and suppliers to provide high-quality products. Coming here from South Florida, I’m not used to having real seasons. Now driving in from my home in Ashland City, I pass by farms almost the whole drive into town. There’s agriculture everywhere, and I’m enjoying discovering what Middle Tennessee farms have to offer.”
While Chef Pera seeks out new local ingredients and flavors (“Hot chicken is my new favorite thing!” he gushes,) Charles manages the overall partner relationships at the highest level. “The Flavor Nashville by Loews Hotels program drives us to focus on featuring local whenever possible,” he explains. “We’ll evolve and try and find opportunities to change the menu more often whenever it makes sense, but most importantly we want to team up with locals who match up with our values.”
So how does this dedication to fresh, local and seasonal products manifest itself on the menu at Mason’s? Fantastically, it turns out. A great way to try out the fare at Loews Vanderbilt is at their “615” happy hour with six items, including food and drink items on sale for one low price starting at 5 p.m. every day. The bar menu is extensive and features a lot more than just small bites for nibbling while you enjoy a beer, cocktail or glass of wine.
In addition to the expected bar snacks like house-made pretzels, pork rinds and fried green tomatoes, the staff at Mason Bar will be happy to serve you their lauded Mason’s burger, a beefy patty served on a fresh-baked brioche topped with bacon and bourbon jam, a spicy chipotle aioli and pepper jack from Kenny’s Farmhouse Cheese in Kentucky. Two flatbread pizzas are wonderful accompaniments to an affordable glass of the house red.
Chef Pera’s background cooking in Florida means he has a particular talent for preparing seafood, and he’s committed to seeking out the freshest fish he can find. “I love seafood!” he exclaims. “If I could get more people in Nashville to eat more fish, I’ll be a happy man! It’s a passion of mine.” That passion shows up on the bar menu in a dish of mussels steamed in a tomato broth made with Yazoo beer, garlic and herbs, all served with some crispy bread to mop up that delicious elixir after all the shellfish are gone.
Chef Pera’s focus on seafood continues on the menu across the lobby in the restaurant at Mason’s, where his lunch and dinner menu showcase some exemplary fish dishes. For a secret off-menu surprise, ask for the crispy fried catfish po’ boy to be dusted with Mason’s hot chicken spice for a novel take on Nashville’s iconic hot fish sandwich. Rather than depend on one particular species for Mason’s fish n’ chips platter, Chef Pera leaves himself the flexibility to choose the freshest catch of the day to serve alongside a set-up of crushed potatoes with remoulade and beer vinegar. Diners can also enjoy a rotating variety of different fishes topped with a ginger-mandarin sauce and plated with cauliflower, heirloom tomatoes and chard.
While pescatarians will revel in the Mason’s menu, both vegetarians and avowed carnivores have plenty of great options as well. A whole section of the menu is dedicated to bowls featuring vegetables, lettuces and ancient grains. The beefy NY Strip is served with rich bone marrow and a cabernet jus, but the highlight of the whole menu might just be the luxurious short rib, served atop an earthy swath of sunchoke purée and collard greens and topped with crispy shallots.
It’s hard to please everyone, but Loews Vanderbilt Hotel is surely making a great effort at it by featuring local products whenever possible and a menu of delicious dishes at both Mason’s and Mason Bar that rivals the fare at any fine dining destination in town. Best of all, if you happen to overindulge on food or drink, they’ll be happy to offer to rent you a room to spend the night. Then you can have breakfast there, too!
Loews Vanderbilt Hotel is located at 2100 West End Ave., Nashville, TN 37203. Learn more about Flavor Nashville by Loews Hotels, Mason’s and Mason Bar on their website. Click HERE.
This article is sponsored by Loews Vanderbilt Hotel. Photography by Leila Grossman of Grannis Photography.