There has definitely been a spate of restaurant closings in Nashville lately, including both old stalwarts and newer ventures that apparently didn’t create enough passion among local diners to cover their operating expenses. In actuality, this isn’t anything new. The opening and closing of eating establishments is part of a circle of life in the restaurant biz. While we always hate to see an old favorite like Provence or the Gerst Haus fall by the wayside, there are plenty of other restaurants that we still miss from long ago.
Ask a group of Nashvillians who grew up here in the past century what restaurants are still etched in their memories, and the list will be long, often revolving around one particular dish or quirky design element. Locals still yearn for the steak n’ biscuits from Ireland’s, “Tiger Food” from Slice of Life, conch fritters from Rainbow Key, biscuits and gravy from Mack’s Country Kitchen, Houston’s French dip, a malt from the soda counter at Moon Drugs or the Pasta Ya-Ya at 12th & Porter*. They miss dining in the casbah room at the Sailmaker and being waited on by costumed servers. Standing in line for stewed apples at iconic meat & three Hap Townes was a weekly tradition, while prom night called for visits to Mario’s, Julian’s or Arthur’s.
Singles looking to mingle headed out to Third Coast, the Heart Throb Cafe, the Cockeyed Camel or the infamous “Vodka Triangle” of Sunset Grill, Faison’s and The Iguana, where the Cosmopolitans flowed like a river down Belcourt Avenue. Casual dinners with Grandma meant a trip down the steam table at Belle Meade Cafeteria or a pleasant meal at Maude’s Courtyard. If Dad was paying, maybe you’d get to go to the Stockyard for a good steak and some live entertainment from Tommy Riggs in the Bull Pen Lounge.
We asked longtime restaurant insiders to share their perspectives on the restaurants they worked at, the ones they still long for and what they think about the new dining scene in Nashville. Randy Rayburn and Jody Faison were the proprietors behind Belcourt hotspots and are at the very top of the Nashville restaurant family tree. In addition to opening their own restaurants like Sunset, Midtown Cafe and Cabana for Rayburn and Faison’s Iguana, Joe D’s Hot Chicken Club, 12th & Porter, Pub of Love and Café 123, the pair also trained some of the city’s best chefs and restaurateurs. Steve Lapiska is the general manager at Union Common in Midtown, and he grew up in the industry working at two of Nashville’s most notable bygone restaurants. F. Scott’s set the standard for upscale casual dining in Green Hills for years, while The Wild Boar was Nashville’s first five-star, five-diamond fine-dining establishment.
While most folks recognize Laura Wilson for her work at the Nashville Farmers’ Market or at Citizen Kitchens, Wilson was the final chef at The Wild Boar before it closed, not at all due to her participation in the kitchen. Along with her front-of-house partner at The Wild Boar, Kim Totzke, the two ladies opened the beloved Ombi on Elliston Place where they introduced many Nashvillians to craft cocktails and taught diners about the concept of a proper gastropub.
Wilson herself benefited from being part of a strong team. “Kim Totzke took me under her wing soon after I came to Nashville from New Orleans, and the beginning of that restaurant for us was an expression of the deep friendship and professional respect that we had. I will be forever grateful to her for that. Mostly, though, I am proud of what everyone there has done since. Terry Raley (who, to be honest, was at the helm of that ship long before we arrived) has opened beautiful and successful restaurants (like Butchertown Hall, Pharmacy Burger, and the recently departed Holland House), with another stunner on the drawing board. Molly Martin started a wildly creative catering company, Juniper Green. So, while I miss the regulars, the thrill of the line and the long after-work wind-down, I wouldn’t trade moving on for anything. That would have cheated me of the chance to see all of those ladies and gentlemen grow and succeed.”
Another revolutionary favorite is Chef Deb Paquette, who still runs the kitchens at Etch and etc. Several of her past stops are among the best kitchens of their time in Nashville, including Cakewalk Cafe, Zola’s and Bound’ry.
Between places they worked and spots they frequented, the institutional knowledge of this quintet of restaurant professionals is invaluable. Now working as an attorney, Faison is also writing a book about his tumultuous career in the industry, due out hopefully in 2019. The project is bittersweet for him. “The book is a story of a now extinct, as far as I can tell, 20th-century civilization. Nashville, as I and many of the patrons of my places, knew it, dissolved into the new millennium, for better or worse; one’s perspective on ‘better or worse’ depends on personal and present financial goals,” Faison says.
He continues, “This is not meant bitterly, in the sense that the town’s gone to hell. Nashville’s just different and, happily enough, I have no motive to sort it out. My places — Faison’s, 12th & Porter, The Iguana, The Pub of Love, etc. — in the ’80s, ’90s and first of the 2000s, provided like-minded Nashvillians with a place to drink and dine. This group has since dispersed, and the faces I see now in bars and restaurants are mostly strangers — fresh to town or adulthood and not part of my experience of Nashville, or me, theirs.”
Rayburn entered the industry a little earlier than Faison and still owns Midtown Cafe. His creation story tracks along with the growth of fine dining in the city. “In 1978, I left my state government job to go to work with my friend and housemate, Chef Jack D. Whalley, who had just graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, to help open Cafe Ritz for Mary Douglas Holt and Chef Mary Walton Caldwell at what was later Mario’s last location before it burned down, now the Kimpton Aertson Hotel.”
Rayburn’s training continued. “Mary Walton taught me how to make good stocks, sauces and a better martini. She had opened the original Ritz Cafe, now The Gold Rush, in the summer of ‘71 and introduced me to the art form prerequisites of fine dining and serving to Nashville’s social and business elites. I fell in love with the restaurant biz working there – as it was about nourishing people, rather than the adversarial nature of law school and politics I had engaged in previously. The camaraderie of the team members during and after work was a welcome change as well.”
Lapiska remembers the interesting contradictions of working at The Wild Boar. “It was the only restaurant, up to that time, to have received Wine Spectator’s Grand Award in the first year it opened and one of only three restaurants in the United States pouring Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame by the glass at $45 a pop, and guests were drinking it up like it was water. This was fine dining at its finest, dining as spectacle … dining that had a sense of occasion about it. There was a dress code that was tightly enforced, and Château d’Yquem served by the ounce with dessert. But it was still Nashville, so on any given weekend night you could hear ‘Rocky Top’ wafting through the dining room from the lounge, where the live piano bar was always full.”
But even the pinnacle of fine dining didn’t last forever in Midtown. Lapiska wonders, “I’m not sure it could survive today. At that time, Nashville hadn’t quite figured out its true identity. We were a country mouse trying hard to emulate the city mouse. I think we have more of an understanding of who we are now, and that comfortable easy-going, genuine brand of hospitality, with a bit of sly understated Southern knowledge of the world, is appreciated and admired by much of the world. I love this business. It’s been fascinating and challenging to work within the ins and outs of dining in Nashville. What I love more than anything is seeing us develop an identity of who and what Nashville is and being proud to show that to the rest of the world.”
Wilson has also seen the scene develop in Nashville’s restaurant industry. “In my mind, restaurants are just vessels for the people who work there and the people who dine there. Different crews affect the mood of the place, and each group gives the restaurant a singular personality.”
Paquette worked in the industry for years before jumping in as a chef/owner. “My husband and I bought into the Cakewalk Corp. and became the working partners for 13 years. It was life-changing! I had a restaurant, a husband, two kids plus lots more work kids, so Zola’s became our new living room. The love of food ran through my blood, and I was able to project that more effectively than in the years prior to Zola’s. It was a dream within a dream. There were so many people who made a great contribution to helping our restaurant to survive. We shared a lot of food knowledge and created some cool stuff. These are the things I miss most. I miss a lower rent, less expensive foods and fewer hours, but I do not miss ownership. I love the fact I can concentrate on food 100%, and there are other fine folks who take care of the rest.”
So which restaurants do these experienced industry insiders miss as guests? Lapiska’s list includes The Cooker. “That was my regular lunch place. They had that Asian Chicken Salad and the best fruit tea I’ve ever had.” He also fondly recalls a pioneer on the other side of the Cumberland River. “Sasso was where the phenomenon that is East Nashville began. Anita Hartell and Corey Griffith had the vision and the guts to open up in the barren hinterlands. Very few brave souls wandered across the river back then. I will never forget the lobster spring roll appetizer.”
Paquette recalls some of her favorite haunts: “I miss the old Blue Moon, the headquarters for restaurant folks after work. It had no hype; it was great for the kids to fish, served decent food, had character, and it was on the water.” She reminds us about Basante’s: “Who didn’t love Louie’s gnocchi? The best I ever had!” She was also a fan of Wilson’s work at Ombi (“great food from two great ladies”) and of East Nashville vegetarian restaurant The Silly Goose. “Roderick Bailey was a pioneer in providing us with his true talent – cooking shrubberhead food.”
Rayburn’s list is long. “Here are some of the important restaurants in my opinion since my arrival in ‘71: Jimmy Kelly’s, Mario’s, Ritz Cafe/Cafe Ritz, Ciraco’s, Julian’s, La Auberge, Maude’s Courtyard, Faison’s, Third Coast, F. Scott’s, Arthur’s, Chef Sigi’s, The Wild Boar, Cakewalk, Zola and Belle Meade Brasserie.”
Nashville diners should take solace that even though we’ve lost some favorites recently, this sort of cycle of birth, death and rebirth has been a part of the restaurant industry for decades. Each generation learns from its progenitors, and the dining scene in Nashville continues to grow and improve. It’s important, though, that we don’t let the institutional experience of the past disappear as these changes occur. Go visit an old stalwart for a meal soon. You never know when it will go away.
*12th & Porter is still open as a music venue, under new ownership.
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