When I moved to Nashville from Manhattan 35 years ago this month, I quickly discovered that a) unlike my previous home, Nashville was not laid out on a grid. And b) minus a grid, I have no sense of direction. Why does 21st Avenue run in one direction, then intersect with itself to run in another before turning into Hillsboro Road? Why does Woodmont Boulevard become Thompson Lane on one side and White Bridge Road on another?
In the olden days before Garmins and smartphones, my car was strewn with paper maps, which did not prevent me from driving one wrong way after another. Someone told me that Old Hickory Boulevard, which popped up everywhere, made a loop around the whole county. One Sunday afternoon, I thought I’d test it out but after about 10 miles, I became so disoriented I made a U-turn and drove back to where I started.
Recently, I was lured out of my comfort zone by news of a new restaurant in an old school. The challenge for me was overcoming my ongoing state of misdirection to find Scottsboro-Bells Bend. It turned out to be a snap and less than 15 minutes from the inner loop. Drive Woodmont Boulevard until it becomes White Bridge Road until it becomes Briley Parkway, take exit 24, turn left onto Ashland City Highway, drive 2.88 miles and turn left onto, what do you know, Old Hickory Boulevard, where about 100 feet down the road is this warning sign shown below! Clearly, my plan to circle the entire county via OHB would never have worked.
Just a few feet after this sign, turn right onto Old Hydes Ferry Pike and here you are, at what was the Ward School, built in 1930, shuttered in 1998, and purchased by Rowan Millar, Susan Richardson and Jimmy Mechan in 2012. Impeccably restored and renamed The Old School Nashville, it houses the operations of MillarRich, dedicated to making meaningful differences in the lives of individuals with intellectual disabilities.
As part of that mission — and in the centuries-old rural nature of this community — in January of 2013, ground was broken on the nine-acre property for Old School Farm with the purpose of providing jobs and growing good food; along the way it also became a casual gathering place.
After some success as an event space and bountiful crops, the natural next step was a restaurant. They threw out some feelers to Nashville’s chef grapevine and landed executive chef Brittany Kane and sous chef Andrea Leray, who first met at Riff’s Café and were most recently at Music City Center together. The two started in September 2015, writing the menu for the opening of Old School Farm to Table Restaurant, which opened in October 2015.
At the hostess stand, manager Cynthia Harris made the excellent suggestion we start with cocktails in the lounge, once the school’s auditorium. The stand-out on the Old School summer ’16 cocktail repertoire is the Abuela Mojito — bartender Kate Workman kicks up the classic Cuban cocktail with Ancho chile liqueur and a pinch of cayenne. The Birds & Bees is a silky, citrus-drenched concoction of gin, honey syrup, lemon, yellow chartreuse, chinotto soda and orange bitters. Craft beer on draft, seven whites, seven reds, three pinks and two bubblies are more adult libations.
An old classroom is now the welcoming dining room — light pouring in through the tall windows, retired church pews making banquettes on two walls and a lively community table taking center stage. Glass bottles and white china pitchers hold cheerful zinnia and sunflowers from the garden. Photos by Tina VonHagel capture fascinating ghostly images of the school post-abandonment and pre-renovation.
You can’t get much more farm to table than via a kitchen back door that opens out to the fields. Chefs Brittany and Andrea say that 60 to 70 percent of what they cook on any given day comes from the property, including the eggs — but not the chicken. “Our chickens are layers, not fryers!” Brittany reassures. They supplement most of what they don’t grow from nearby farms like Bells Bend Farm and Stolen Acres; the eating chickens are from Sulfur Creek Farm, and beef and pork from KLD Farms.
Because the fresh-picked and foraged produce varies every day, “We get to come in and say, ‘What do we want to make today?'” says Brittany. Most of the tweaking occurs on the sides — paired with entrees and available a la carte — and the local veggie plate changes daily. “We’re both vegetarians, so it’s really fun for us,” adds Andrea.
Admirably, Brittany and Andrea don’t feel the need to gild the lily but, instead, trust and honor the quality of their products, celebrating simplicity.
Stalks of asparagus wrapped in thick-sliced prosciutto are grilled; dip into the bright yellow yolk center of soft-boiled eggs or scoop from the shell and smear on toast points. Fat Brussels sprouts are pan fried and topped with pickled red onion and shavings of aged cheddar, with a smear of garlic aioli for swiping.
Salads invite some flashier friends to the green party: roasted beets and bleu cheese focaccia sticks on mixed field greens on Turnip the Beet; and golf-ball sized goat cheese croquettes on the Farm Stand Salad.
The Old School BLT was a special the night we visited and that, my friends, is an understatement. Vegetarians can skip the bacon, ask for extra tomatoes (several varieties are stacked here), and still revel in this revered summer sandwich, done here as just as well as anywhere in town.
Four burgers — including lamb and veggie — are on the menu, plus a burger of the week. I was sold by the promise of pimento cheese on this one — not to mention the Irish potatoes, but also was sorely tempted by the exuberant excess of the Old School Burger with bacon, cheddar, fried farm egg and tomato jam. All burgers come on house-made brioche buns.
Steak Frites bring French flair to America’s love affair with meat and potatoes. Old School Farmhouse nails its fried chicken bonafides — crispy, crunchy coat and moist meat — with your choice of Nashville Hot or Not. Pictured here is the Not. Not that I’m timid; just taking a break from the heat. This bowl of piping hot, perfectly salted fried okra was gone before it had a chance to cool.
Just two desserts the night we visited: a cantaloupe granita and fresh-baked, warm and chewy chocolate cookies served with ice-cold milk.
To the perennial where-to-brunch question, I can confidently recommend Old School, especially for city slickers craving a respite from the hustle and bustle. You can’t help but relax in this beautiful setting and the food beats any in town. Served Sunday and Saturday (10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.), the menu has the usual brunch subjects but these two bowls of delicious heartiness had everyone at an adjoining table wishing they could trade their waffle and quiche for the sweet potato hash with fried egg, and the outstanding pork belly and grits with red-eye gravy and braised turnip greens. Brittany and Andrea work magic with their greens and if they don’t come with your dish, be sure to order them on the side.
The Old School Farm to Table Restaurant is one of the most delightful dining discoveries I have made in years. Far from being an inconvenience, the drive is integral to the rewarding experience of what is truly a trip to bountiful.
The Old School is located at 5022 Old Hydes Ferry Pike, Nashville, TN 37218. Hours are Wednesday through Friday, 4 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Happy hour is 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Dinner is served from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Brunch is served Saturday and Sunday, 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. To learn more, call (629) 888-9284.
Special thanks to Ashley Hylbert for today’s beautiful photos. See more of her work at ashleyhylbert.com.
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