When Rick and Vicki Bolsom announced in mid-March that they would be closing their venerable and beloved West End restaurant Tin Angel after dinner service on March 23, the jarring news seemed to come out of nowhere. The truth is that the couple had made very deliberate plans to retire and set about the process to make the transition in a way that would be as comfortable and humane for everyone involved, most of all their staff and long-time customers.
Tin Angel’s combination of cozy and warm ambiance with an affordable menu of creative seasonal cuisine made the restaurant a reliable date night destination for more than 25 years. The small bar was a favorite gathering spot for an impromptu happy hour between friends while flames crackled in the fireplace that offered warmth and soft light to the main dining room. The same way that the Bolsoms fed the Nashville community with grace for more than 32 years at four different restaurants, they are leaving the industry just as thoughtfully, although not without some surprises.
“We figured our last two weeks would be busy,” shares Rick. “But we’ve been so overwhelmed by the sentiments expressed by our guests. Forget the numbers, which have been crazy since we first made the announcement. We’re measuring this in the attachment that people have to this place. People are hugging me and crying, and everybody is mad at me! I’m not usually a big emotions guy, but I have left every night for the past two weeks drained. And I love it!”
Rick and Vicki met in Nashville years ago when both were working as freelancers in the earliest manifestation of what we now call “the gig economy.” Rick was a journalist with experience in music business PR, and Vicki was toiling away as a script editor on a film project. Rick recalls, “We decided we wanted to have a business. Vicki had managed and waitressed at restaurants, and I’d spent time cooking and waiting tables. I’ve always loved restaurants and had a passion for the business, so we decided to try to put some money together to open a restaurant.”
In 1987, they opened Cakewalk Cafe on West End across from Centennial Park. Cakewalk wasn’t like any other restaurant in the area, and they ended up changing concepts a couple of times during those first lean months. Then they met a partner who would influence much of their career in the restaurant business, Chef Deb Paquette, currently of Etch and etc. “We knew Deb from Third Coast,” Rick says. “When you wanted to have a business lunch in the music industry, that’s where you went. Her food knocked me out! She was hands-down the most talented chef I’d ever experienced and had such huge talent and personality.”
Deb was looking for some place to express her creativity in the kitchen, and Cakewalk Cafe was just starting to find its way as a popular spot for Nashville diners, so the Bolsoms convinced her to join them in their young venture. Soon, the restaurant took off under Deb’s direction in the kitchen and the Bolsoms running the front of house. By 1993, the team was ready for a new adventure.
“Cakewalk was really doing great,” explains Rick. “We had become a success at lunch and dinner when 32nd Avenue Restaurant came on the market. I was really attached to the space because it used to be Bishop’s Pub, which was my hangout. It was very ‘Greenwich Village-y.’ So Deb, Vicki and I developed the concept and the menu, and we opened really big and then tailed off. The food was fabulous, and the people who got it really loved it and would eat there three times a week. But other folks said that the food didn’t fit the space.”
Tin Angel, named after a Greenwich Village restaurant mentioned in a Joni Mitchell song, initially served a menu of creative meat-and-three food. Rick realized that was the problem: “Our point was to be an upscale casual spot with great food. What people really wanted was what we were doing at Cakewalk, but for less money. So we redesigned the menu to be more contemporary and still creative, but not as expensive. Instead of serving veal schnitzel, you might get chicken instead. And it worked!”
That menu sustained Tin Angel and their patrons for more than two decades, including after Deb turned over the reins in the kitchen to Donald Main, who had started out cooking lunches at Cakewalk. Along the way, Deb moved to help open Bound’ry, where she had access to a much larger restaurant to play with a bigger creative palette. After three years there, she approached the Bolsoms about returning. Rick explains, “Deb wanted to get back into a smaller environment where she could be more connected with everything. Cakewalk had turned into a dinner-only restaurant because traffic and parking issues had made lunch difficult. We decided to partner with Deb and her husband Ernie to remake Cakewalk as Zola while Vicki and I focused on Tin Angel.”
The Bolsoms also teamed up with another husband and wife duo to open Mirror, a pioneering restaurant in 12South. Michael and Colleen DeGregory had moved to Nashville from Miami Beach and brought with them a talent for international flavors and a menu that focused on tapas, the first opportunity many Nashvillians even had to experience those Spanish specialties. The casual, laid-back vibe of the tiny one-room restaurant also created an ambiance that was unfamiliar to many local diners, especially in the slowly gentrifying urban neighborhood. Rick admits they might have been a little ahead of their time.
“Back then,” he recalls, “people would drive through the neighborhood as a cut-through to downtown during the day, because it was Granny White, but many people had a level of negative feelings about the neighborhood. When we opened Mirror, diners who knew us would say they wanted to come back, but they didn’t want to park their car there at night. Nowadays, you can’t find a place to park your damned car in 12South, so be careful what you wish for!”
Even though Mirror had a relatively short run, it is still remembered fondly and represented another success for the Bolsoms as restaurateurs. “The model we developed was to partner with chefs, especially couples,” explains Rick. “Vicki and I offered our experience without having to establish a corporate structure, and the chefs could concentrate in the kitchen. There are outstanding restaurants that don’t make it, and it could be because of the location or a cultural change or the fact that they are run strictly from an artistic perspective. So many restaurants fail not because they’re not good, but because they don’t have the business sense. The numbers can keep you up at night, and you can’t function.”
It wasn’t the numbers that finally convinced the Bolsoms to sell Tin Angel and the prime property it occupies to a real estate developer. Rick says, “We’ve been in the restaurant business for 32 years. If you count that we were running multiple places at the same time, I say we’ve been working for 62 ‘restaurant years.’ Since we never had a corporate culture with all sorts of levels of managers, Vicki and I have always handled most of the day-to-day responsibilities. Retirement means that those responsibilities will be removed, which releases that pressure.”
Tin Angel had actually seen some healthy growth of late, and not just because of the fact that the final two weeks of reservations filled up almost immediately after announcing their impending retirement. Rick was very intentional about how they released the news: “We never went public with the thought of selling the restaurant because we didn’t have to sell it. It was doing fine, and we were seeing business come back after the 300 new restaurants that have opened recently were no longer enjoying their ‘honeymoon phase.’ We spoke confidentially to very few people about potentially selling, but we had no time factor. Most importantly, we didn’t want to panic the staff because if nothing happened, nothing had to happen.”
The long-time Tin Angel staff members were definitely the primary concern for the Bolsoms. “The closing impacts everyone’s life, from us to our staff and our customers,” shares Rick. “I’m proud to say that everyone hung in there. We wanted to do things in an orderly way to make sure that our employees could get new jobs. In this market, if you’re breathing when you walk through the door, you’re hired, but we have really talented people both in the front and the back of the house.”
In the end, the Bolsoms sold the property and the restaurant to Nashville-based Grace Development, a group that also owns the Westboro Apartments next door to Tin Angel. Rick doesn’t want to speak for the new owners, but he’s confident he sold to good stewards: “How it will ultimately turn out is up to them, but they really love the restaurant and the building. I think their intent is to keep a quality neighborhood restaurant here, so philosophically we’re on the same page. I’ll still be available as a resource to them, but not in a formal sense. More like if they want to know where the switch is for that damned light!” jokes Rick.
As for their next steps, Rick and Vicki aren’t sure yet. Rick speculates, “We’re going to walk up and down a couple of beaches, that’s for sure! I don’t play golf, but I might do a little fishing. I’ve gotten some good advice that during the first year of retirement, don’t make any plans. Just do. I can promise that we’re not going to open another restaurant! It’s a business of labor and love, and all of us have a certain element of crazy in us. It’s time for Vicki and me to turn the page”
Rick has some definite opinions about the current state of the restaurant industry in Nashville that he is leaving behind. “The explosion of restaurants has tripled or quadrupled the capacity in Nashville. That’s had a huge impact that has yet to be realized. This has hugely extended the variety of choices for consumers, and we thankfully have many more ethnic food options. But I hope that independent restaurants that are family-owned and chef-driven never stop existing. To me, those have always been the best overall experience. Not everyone is a creative risk-taker, but if you’ve done your homework and do what you do well, you’ve got a chance.”
As part of their brief farewell tour, the Bolsoms have heard the same thing from many of their fans. Rick says, “People tell us, ‘You know why we come here? Because the food is great, the people are nice, and it’s so comfortable and casual.’ Then they ask where they’ll be able to go in town to have the same experience. I say, ‘You tell me! I eat here all the time.’ Vicki and I are really looking forward to visiting old friends and new places around town and finally getting to dine as civilians.”
We look forward to seeing you at a table near us sometime soon, Rick and Vicki. Bon voyage!
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