The site of student lunch counter sit-ins in the 1960s, Woolworth on 5th serves as a historical reminder of the injustice of segregation. Sitting in protest of these injustices, students changed the discourse of civil rights in Nashville. “In the South, a lot of history is hidden — especially uncomfortable history,” says Tom Morales, restaurateur and owner of TomKats Hospitality, of which Woolworth on 5th is a part. “The Woolworth is a piece of black history; it’s a piece of Nashville history and U.S. history.” The building, too, is an important piece of architecture. Built in the 1890s, Woolworth opened there in 1913 as a “five and dime” store. Today, Woolworth, located at 221 Fifth Ave. N. and since fashioned into a restaurant, is meant to educate, excite and inspire conversation. “This is not a museum,” Tom reminds us. “We made the decision to transition the space into a dining establishment. The sit-ins took place so everyone could sit at the dinner table. Today, here, they can. It is a place of history, but it is also an excellent restaurant,” Tom says of Woolworth.
The story of the South is, in many ways, a story of food. And at Woolworth, this story is told in and out of the kitchen. Woolworth’s menu showcases staples of the Southern table, from fried chicken to gumbo. Serving three meals a day, plus brunch on weekends, Woolworth explores the culinary roots of Southern cuisine. “We studied old cookbooks and explored the history of soul food,” Tom tells us.
The day starts with breakfast, which features everything from corn cakes to corned beef hash to a barbecue breakfast to sweet potato pancakes. The lunch and dinner menus share similarities such as the seafood gumbo, fried cheese curds, roasted Brussels sprouts, deviled eggs and fried chicken and sides. We can speak directly to the aforementioned items as being delicious and comforting. The gumbo packs a touch of spice, namely in the spoonfuls carrying chorizo. The fried cheese curds served with ranchero sauce and dijon cream are a staff favorite. The roasted Brussels sprouts are made delicious by Alabama white sauce. The deviled eggs come topped with a cold slice of chorizo, and the filling is mixed with smoked trout, resulting in a smokey, salty treat. The fried chicken is crispy and juicy — two things fried chicken should always be. The sides don’t play second fiddle to the entrees but rather stand on their own. At the top of our must-recommend list are the black eye peas with chow chow, bird pepper mac and cheese, green beans, whipped potatoes and watermelon and cucumber salad. These dishes reveal the roots of Southern food, as well as modern approaches to traditional cuisine.
“It’s an amazing experience to walk through the building and to relive the memories and stories that have been told,” says Chris Hope, a former Tennessee Titan and Woolworth investor, tells us. “Now, I can sit in any part of the restaurant, break bread with any color person, and I don’t have to be ashamed of who I am.”
Chris believed in the vision of the building from day one, explaining, “I had an uncle involved in the sit-ins in Rockhill, South Carolina, and I didn’t put the two together until I heard about the Woolworth experience in Nashville. Woolworth is a role model of what the world should try to focus on, especially in this day and time. It’s a place where it doesn’t matter what color skin you have, it’s about us loving and enjoying and celebrating each other. Tom gets it. He doesn’t look at color, but at the integrity and character of a person, and that is what people were fighting for during the sit-ins. He is bringing the community back together.”
Community gathers in the main dining hall, with booths, tables and a lunch counter. Folks of all ages, colors and backgrounds mingle as chatter, music and noise from the kitchen merge into a cascade of sound that is not overwhelming, but comforting. Old movies are projected on the wall above the kitchen, making it feel like you are stepping back in time — but this go ’round, there is a seat for everyone.
Most recently occupied by Dollar General, the 30,000-square-foot building maintains much of its original character and Art Deco design. “We started pulling down the walls and the ceilings and found the original architecture — crown molding, terrazzo floors, tiles reading ‘White Only’ and ‘Colored Only,'” Tom shares. “We went about saving everything we could save in the building.” It was with the help of Tuck-Hinton Architects the building was preserved.
On the restaurant’s mezzanine level, you will find a bar, lounge area and additional seating. Downstairs, The New Era Ballroom is a spot for live music and entertainment. Hosted in The New Era Ballroom on the bottom level, The Big Idea, an interactive theatrical experience produced by Barry Scott, sparks conversation. “Growing up, our dinner table was always a place we could discuss what happened during our days, but also politics and what was going on in the world,” Tom tells us. “It was a place where everyone had their turn to talk and express their opinions, which came with arguments and disagreements. The Big Idea is meant to spark conversation — modeled after dinner table conversation. Barry’s work inspires you and makes you think. Then, he lets you be part of the conversation.” The Big Idea takes place on Thursday nights at Woolworth on 5th. The culturally relevant performances tell stories of our country’s past and have focused on influential characters such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks.
In addition to the Thursday night performances, The New Era Ballroom hosts musical acts, meant to inspire dancing. “One of the most vibrant music scenes was happening on Jefferson Street. After Interstate 40 was built, 200 businesses went out of business,” Tom reminds us. “We tip our hats to those businesses and that music scene in The New Era Ballroom, which is named after The New Era Club that operated in that corridor. We want to give unique programming and play the music of the 1960s era.”
Whether going for an evening of history and important conversation or for a plate of fried chicken and dancing, your visit to Woolworth promises to be worthwhile.
Woolworth on 5th is located at 221 Fifth Ave. N,, Nashville, TN 37219. Hours are Monday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday, 8 a.m. to midnight; Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to midnight; Sunday, 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.
A big thank you to Molly Peach Photography for providing the beautiful photos.
Take a look at more local restaurants here.