Monday, June 30, 2014

When is Funky…

way too funky? When it doesn’t appear to be clean, that’s when.

I had pinpointed a restaurant in downtown Nashville that seemed to break a number of rules regarding restaurant ambience. But when we walked in and I took a look around, I turned to Chuck and said “I don’t think so.” I can’t say that it looked dirty—it was too dark to tell—but it certainly looked grungy or—to use one of my favorite descriptors—skeevy.

Fortunately, I had looked through the windows of another restaurant about a block or so down the street that had large windows, marble topped tables, and a huge central bar. While knowing nothing about this place, it seemed to be a better alternative. So we headed back down the street to Merchant’s Restaurant.
“Housed in the former Merchants Hotel, dating back to 1892, the restaurant retains many of the hotel's original fireplaces, wainscoting, and custom sconces. On the first floor, there's a casual bar–grill atmosphere and menu on the first floor, while the second floor features formal dining in a room with hardwood floors, brick walls, and ceiling fans. The upstairs menu includes traditional meats: roasted chicken and pork loin, blackened tilefish, steak and short ribs” (

“Merchant’s Restaurant opened in 1988…. The original structure was a three-story building built circa 1870 which housed a pharmacy on the 1st floor, a hardware manufacturing company on the 2nd floor, and a wholesale drug company on the 3rd floor that was famous for producing the alcohol and opium based ‘Blood Medicine’ which can still be seen advertised on the brick walls today. The Merchant’s Hotel in 1892 offered the European Plan which was 25 cents a day for lodging and another 25 cents for a meal. Each room had a bed and a fireplace, and privacy was not guaranteed” (merchantsrestaurant. com).
“…Over the years with its close proximity to the Ryman Auditorium and the honkytonks up and down Broadway, the Merchants Hotel became the place for country music's elite to stay when they were in town. Once the Grand Ole Opry moved out to Opryland in the 70's, the area…became rather seedy with strip bars replacing the old honky tonks. The Merchants Hotel became just as seedy, becoming a flop house hotel and a front for downtown prostitution. When the city of Nashville moved to shut down the adult clubs and take back Broadway as a tourist destination in the mid-80's, Merchants reopened as a restaurant. As Nashville began to grow again in the 90's and professional sports began to come to town, more upscale restaurants came into town pushing Merchants into the afterthought category for fine dining in town. After floundering for nearly a decade, two brothers who grew up in Nashville, Max and Ben Goldberg, bought the Merchants Restaurant in April of 2010 and gave it a clear vision path of what it is today.
A few outdoor dining tables

“…The first floor of Merchants Restaurant is more of a bistro with black and white tiled floors, waiters in bow-ties and suspenders (Ed. Note: Like our server Tom shown here with some unknown woman.)
and sort of a quasi-art deco theme to the place…. It's a little more rowdy and loud in the main floor part…sort of like the people that are walking by… The second floor is the fine dining area where there's dark green wall paper, dark wood paneling, subdued lighting and the waiters are all in suspenders and long ties. The downstairs menu is different from the upstairs menu. Downstairs in the bistro, Merchants features sandwiches, burgers, appetizers, salads and basic entrees…. Upstairs, it gets more eclectic with sockeye salmon, a low country shrimp platter, a rack of pork and various types of aged steaks” (
The restaurant was rather busy when we arrived, and there was a short wait that we spent studying the menu. Of particular interest to me was the list of interesting appetizers that included duck fat tater tots, deviled eggs, fried green tomatoes with spicy pepper jam and house pimento cheese, baked cheese (“ooey gooey cheesey yumminess”), salmon spread with duck fat crostini, and the Southern Fry.

And it was from this list that I constructed my meal, starting with a half-order of the Duck Fat Tater Tots that came with chipotle mayo, béarnaise sauce, and ketchup.
“There are a few black and white, cut and dry, universal cooking truths. You must salt your pasta water. Yeasted doughs need warm, still places to rise. Duck fat loves potatoes…. If your fries aren't quite crispy enough, your breakfast potatoes a little pale and limp, your roasted potatoes oily or dry, it's probably because they're missing one thing—duck fat. We know it sounds kind of crazy, and incredibly indulgent, but once you taste your first duck fat fry, you will become a believer. What makes duck fat so special? It has a high smoke point, so it's perfect for high-heat cooking techniques like frying and roasting. Its texture is very smooth and its flavor is very mild, which means that it enhances, rather than overwhelms whatever it touches” (
I don’t know if these tasty little nuggets came into the kitchen frozen and in a bag, but I can attest that using the duck fat produced a crispy goodness that frying in mere oil could never accomplish.

To go with the tots, I ordered the Southern Fry—a giant plate of fried catfish, fried shrimp, fried okra, and fried dill pickles.
Eying the size of this plate, along with the tots, I knew that I would never be able to eat this in one sitting. And I knew that our day in downtown Nashville would continue after lunch. So I concluded that the tots, okra, and pickles would better survive—without poisoning me—the delay in refrigeration and directed most of my eating attention on the shrimp and fish.

The shrimp were a little small and were rather overcooked. But then I have been spoiled by the shrimp we ate while in Lafayette (LA) and then on the Gulf Coast. On the other hand, the fish were moist and flakey. The okra still retained a bit of crunch, and I suspect that these were unfrozen and coated in-house. And the pickles were interesting, but I do have a limited appetite for fried pickles.

Chuck had a craving for deviled eggs so ordered the appetizer portion to go with his meal.
I had one and must admit that they were almost—I repeat almost—as good as mine. My concern was that the yolk mixture would contain vinegar, but using Southern cole slaw as an example, vinegar is not the essential ingredient that it is in the Midwest.

And now for his main course. I wish you could have seen the expression on his face when this plate was set before him. The best I can describe it was a mix of awe and glee.
The base was a large portion of smashed Yukon Gold potatoes. On top of the potatoes was a layer of garlic studded spinach. (If you look closely you will see a couple of slivers of garlic.) And sitting on top like a crown was a huge piece of chicken fried chicken.

The boneless breast had been flattened to about one-third of an inch thick to speed cooking and was encased in a beautifully crisp coating. Did he manage to eat all of this? What do you think?
What’s that old saying about life giving you lemons and your making lemonade? Well, our (OK, my) first choice was a lemon, but we ended up with 5.0 Addie lemonade.

To review the role of Adler, Kitty Humbug, and the Addie rating system, read the November 14, 2011 blog.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

From Tabernacle to Mother Church

Although barely literate, Captain Thomas Ryman was a shrewd and industrious businessman, building the Ryman Line, a fleet of 35 riverboats, by 1885. “That same year, legend has it that he had become fed up with the immensely popular Reverend Sam Jones preaching against the evils of alcohol and gambling—two of the very things that made him money in his saloons and on his riverboats. So on May 10, at age 44, Ryman and some friends went to one of Rev. Jones’ famous tent revivals to ‘raise a ruckus’. But something in Jones’ sermon spoke to Ryman, and he was so deeply affected that his life was changed forever. He pledged to construct a building large enough to hold all who wanted to hear Sam Jones and others preach. He wanted to ensure the citizens of Nashville would never have to attend a revival under a tent again.

“The Union Gospel Tabernacle took seven years and approximately $100,000 to complete. On June 1, 1892, Rev. Jones preached in the newly completed building he inspired.
“It was at Ryman's funeral on Christmas Day 1904 that Rev. Jones proposed to 5000 mourners that the building be renamed the Ryman Auditorium in his honor" (
It would be another 39 years before the Auditorium would become associated with the Grand Ole Opry. During that time, it was the location for plays (see the posters below), operas, symphonies, bands, ballets and theatrical productions. It was during these early years the Ryman became known as the “Carnegie Hall of the South.”
While the Ryman was gaining recognition as an entertainment site, George D. Hay was creating a radio show that would become an international phenomenon—the Grand Ole Opry.

In 1925, the National Life and Accident Insurance Company built a radio station as a public service to the local community. Crowds soon clogged fifth floor hallways within the National Life building in downtown Nashville where the WSM studios were located. As more and more people showed up to watch the broadcasts, National Life built an auditorium capable of holding 500 fans. Three more moves would follow before the Opry moved in 1943 to its most famous former home, the Ryman Auditorium where it stayed for the next 31 years.
Just a few of the notable events over the years:
The Ryman is also known as the Birthplace of Bluegrass, thanks to the night in December 1945 when twenty-one year old Earl Scruggs joined Bill Monroe and Lester Flatt on stage for the first time.

In the summer of 1949, a 25-year old Hank Williams took the stage for the first time to perform “Lovesick Blues.” The crowd gave him such an enthusiastic reception; he was called back for six encores--a house record.
Johnny Cash met future wife June Carter for the first time backstage at the Ryman. Upon their meeting he told her he’d marry her someday--he kept his word and they were wed 12 years later.

Honky-tonk angel, Patsy Cline, became an Opry member at the Ryman 1960. Cline’s biggest hit “Crazy” was written by a young up and coming songwriter, Willie Nelson.
When the Opry moved to its new location in 1974, considerable debate ensued about what to do with the Ryman. Theatrical designer-consultant Jo Mielziner pronounced the Ryman "absolutely not an item of true value," but New York Times' architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable blasted the idea to build a "Little Church" from the Ryman bricks as "...taking first prize for the pious misuse of a landmark."
A writer from The New Yorker wrote a story about the transition of the Opry from the Ryman to its new home. In a bittersweet and wry style, he mourned the departure from the Ryman. The writer was Garrison Keillor, and he attributes the inspiration for his national radio hit, A Prairie Home Companion, to his Ryman experience.

"The Ryman’s 120-year history, as Ryman/Grand Ole Opry curator Brenda Colladay pointed out, has been filled with its share of changes. 'Even things like the stained-glass windows that people think are so integral to the building, because it used to be a tabernacle--those were installed in 1966,' Colladay said" (
Display cases show articles of clothing worn by performers at the Ryman over the years. Below is Marty Robbins' contribution.
The Ryman Auditorium is certainly deserving of the reputation as "The Mother Church of Country Music."

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Intro to Nashville...and Tootsie

Our first drive into Nashville took us down Broadway past the U.S. Customs House (right, below) and the First Baptist Church (right center, below).
Looking toward the Cumberland River and Riverfront Park, the historic downtown buildings on Broadway highlight the city's architectural past.

A short walk away is the Visitor Center (right, below),
which is part of the very modern Bridgestone Arena, home of the NHL Predators.
It is a short walk to the home of the Nashville Symphony, the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Its design, similar to late 19th century great concert halls, led me to believe it was much older than its actual age. The building opened to the public on September 9, 2006. The Laura Turner Concert Hall features an automated system of movable banners and panels located around the hall which can adjust the acoustics to accommodate a variety of musical genres.

The orchestra level seating can be transformed from rows of theater-style seating to a 5,700-square-foot hardwood ballroom floor, typically used for cabaret-style events such as pops and jazz concerts. A unique motorized system lowers rows of seats into a special storage space below the surface of the ballroom floor.

"The Birth of Apollo", Harmony Fountain

The Box Office and public garden enclosed by a colonnade

Angel Statue

This statue represents an expression of the Nashville Symphony's gratitude to the citizens of Nashville for the Center.

Nearby is the Music City Walk of Fame.
This is a landmark tribute to those from all genres of music who have contributed to the world through song or other industry collaboration and made a significant contribution to the music industry with connection to Music City. Among the stars recognizing Reba McEntire, Roy Orbison, The Crickets, Emmylou Harris, Wynonna Judd, Barbara Mandrell, and Vince Gill, among others, is the name

Tootsie Bess.

We headed up 5th Avenue toward the Ryman Auditorium (center, photo below) to learn more about Tootsie.
Back in the day (the early '60s), "...the Grand Old Opry was still at the Ryman. Between and after shows, drinking and carrying-on would commence across the alley, in the narrow little joint run by Big Jeff Bess and his wife Hattie Louise--also known as 'Tootsie.'

"Since Tootsie and Big Jeff already knew plenty of folks in the business from their performing and bartending, and their then-teenage son Steve was playing drums in Ray Price's band, it took no time at all for musicians to start showing up at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge.

"That some of the Opry performers used to duck out the Ryman's backstage door between shows, slip across the alley and have a few beers in Tootsie's industry-only back room would've been enough to earn the bar a place in country music lore.

"But catering to the likes of Faron Young, Webb Pierce and Patsy Cline was only part of the story. The Orchid Lounge made the biggest difference to a group who weren't stars, at least not yet--the songwriters.
Tootsie's Orchid Lounge (center, right)

"'She loved songwriters more than she loved the stars,] (Bobby) Bare says. 'The stars got the huge egos and they'd throw it around a lot. She had a soft spot for songwriters. And musicians. There's no telling how much money she loaned Roger [Miller] and people, you know, who would come in broke. And feed them.'

"Professional break or no, what could always be counted on at Tootsie's was the motherly generosity of Tootsie herself. She ran (and ran and ran) tabs for those who weren't having much luck getting cuts or gigs. She made sure they got fed too. Almost as much fried chicken, biscuits and chili went on those tabs as beer.
Willie Nelson, Roger Miller, Kris Kristofferson, Mel Tillis and Tom T. Hall are in that group of songwriters that Tootsie helped.

"It was said she had a cigar box behind the counter full of IOU's from where she had given drinks and food to hungry writers and pickers. Supposedly, at each year's end, a bunch of Opry Performers would take all the IOU's and pay Tootsie so she wouldn't lose the money" (Jewly Hight at
Tootsie's was painted orchid by mistake, but it was kept orchid and the name was changed to the Orchid Lounge. And it is still maintaining its orchid hue.

Tootsie certainly contributed to Nashville's music scene and the success of many songwriters. And deserves that star.

Friday, June 27, 2014

How Do You Know…

that a restaurant is a popular tourist destination? When people line up to have their photographs taken in front of the sign and others—well, not tourists, but travelers like us—can photograph them having their photos taken. Such is the fame of the Loveless Café located in the far suburbs of Nashville, TN.
I usually don’t like to rely on a restaurant’s web site for information, but in this case the café’s site contains the most thorough summary of its history so I quote:

“Fried chicken and biscuits. These tried and true Southern food staples have been a part of Loveless Cafe’s history for more than sixty years. In 1951, Lon and Annie Loveless began serving them right out the front door of their home to travelers who passed by on US Highway 100….
“Beginning as a party house in the forties, the little white structure…had one of the largest hardwood living room floors around—perfect for dancing the night away. Weary travelers found comfort and refuge in the cozy home and in the food the owners served. As the tiny house became a planned stop for treks along Highway 100, the then private home became known as the Loveless Motel and Cafe. Lon Loveless built and ran the property’s 14 motel rooms while hungry crowds were drawn to Annie’s homemade preserves and scratch-made-biscuits…” (

The restaurant and motel changed hands in 1959 and again in 1972. “Thankfully, Annie Loveless’ biscuit recipe never changed with the ownership, enabling the Loveless Motel and Cafe to maintain its position as a true Tennessee tradition.”

Then, “In January 2004, under…new ownership, Loveless closed its doors for the first time in its history to undergo much-needed renovations. When the doors re-opened that June, folks were standing in lines thicker than sausage gravy to get a taste of their favorite dishes! To everyone’s delight, the Cafe menu was the same but better—enhanced with more southern favorites like pulled pork BBQ, lots of fresh country vegetables, and for the first time, homemade desserts! A new smokehouse was built on property
BBQ Pit. The lettering in red reads: The Keys to Great BBQ: (1) A Skilled Pit Master (2) TN Hickory Wood (3) A Good Dry Rub (4) Mighty Fine Swine (5) Some Sweet Sauce

and those fourteen original motel rooms were converted into unique retail shops—including the Loveless Hams & Jams Country Market.
Hams and Jams Country Market

Lil' Biscuits Gift Store

Harpeth Room, Dining Events

The Loveless Motel Shops provided visitors a wonderful way to pass the time while waiting for a table during busy weekend lunches” (

“For a long time it has been a favorite haunt among Grand Ol' Opry performers, whose pictures line the walls, and whose tour buses frequently can be seen parked towards the back of the lot. The Loveless has gotten a lot of good press in the last few years, praised by everyone from CBS-TV to Martha Stewart…” (Michael Stern at
Not surprising for a café that began as a private residence, seating is in a series of small cozy rooms. The one in which we were seated had blue and white checked table covers,
And—they aren’t caricatures nor are they portraits—I’ll call them likenesses of famous country music stars. While I am not that familiar with the country music scene, I did recognize “The Man in Black”
and off to his side is Dolly Parton who is easily recognizable for her two distinguishing and impressive characteristics.

It should come as no surprise that every breakfast begins with a plate of biscuits along with samples of three preserves.
The biscuits—while small—lived up to all claims made about them. “Those preserves…are reason enough to celebrate the Loveless. Peach is the color of a summer sunset, sweet and deeply fruity, just perfect in conjunction with a faintly sour biscuit. The blackberry is more tart: wonderful on biscuits or toast or waffles, or on ice cream, or (we confess) spooned straight from the jar” (Michael Stern at And the strawberry tasted of fruit just off the vine.

Chuck’s breakfast consisted of a seven-ounce slice of the Loveless’ country ham with two eggs, red eye gravy, and home fried potatoes. “…ham is the pride of the Loveless kitchen: It is country ham, slow cured and salty, fried on a griddle until its rim of fat turns translucent amber and the coral pink meat gets speckled sandy brown…” (Michael Stern at
To accompany his breakfast, he ordered a side dish of sausage gravy, and just as he was going to tell our server not to bring the red eye, I intervened and said that I was going to want it with my breakfast. I didn’t bother to taste the eggs. Scrambled eggs are scrambled eggs. The cube shaped potatoes appear to have been deep fat fried. And the sausage gravy? Perhaps the best we have had since July of 2008 when we got lost and found ourselves in Sparta, NC and, acting on the recommendation from a gentleman we met at a gas station, had a late breakfast at The Pines Restaurant. From first taste, it was apparent that this was sausage gravy made the right way with the rendered sausage fat being used to construct the roux that thickened the cream sauce. Wow!

I ordered all a la carte—one ham biscuit, one chicken biscuit, and hash brown casserole. It was with my ham biscuit that I used Chuck’s red eye gravy as a dipping sauce. This was true red eye gravy—pan drippings plus coffee—and not the faux stuff that many places claim to be red eye gravy.
The hash brown casserole was rich with sour cream and cheddar cheese and reminded me of what my mother called Duchess Potatoes and what are known in Utah as Funeral Potatoes (cheesy au gratin potatoes that LDS Relief Societies frequently serve as part of a dinner prepared for the grieving family to eat after a funeral).
Given its richness, it was a good thing that this was a small portion.

The Loveless Café is almost as well known for their fried chicken as they are for their biscuits, and the chicken was on the menu when “In October of 2012, an unexpected surprise came knocking on Loveless’ door. The prestigious James Beard Foundation extended an invitation for Loveless Cafe to serve dinner on Valentines Day 2013 in the famed James Beard House in New York City…. They pulled off one of the most successful dinner events in Loveless history, appeasing sophisticated New York palates with five courses of authentic Loveless cuisine, and warming their hearts with true Southern hospitality…” (

“Despite cultural changes that dot the timeline over the years, the Loveless Cafe remains true to what started it all in 1951: Serving true southern comfort food, encompassing a time when people ate what was indigenous to where they lived. Before the ‘super highways,’ the rural South was a remote area with back roads leading to treasures known only to those who ventured down them…. The Loveless Cafe represents a treasure trove of memories ‘out Highway 100’ and the generations of families who regularly return to relive those memories….” (
As we left following our 5.0 Addie breakfast, I felt that we had also taken a bite out of history.

To review the role of Adler, Kitty Humbug, and the Addie rating system, read the November 14, 2011 blog.