Sobro Grill, Social Club, and Chocolate Bar
Inside the Country Music Hall of Fame, 222 Fifth Ave. S. 254-9060
Open daily 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
Were there a hall of fame devoted to Nashville pop culture, restaurateur Jody Faison would be among the charter group of inductees. The opening of his first restaurant, Faison’s, in 1981 was a milestone for this city in many respects.
First, there was the location; Hillsboro Village was a neighborhood in decline a decade ago, and Jody Faison was an integral component of its transformation into the trendy, happening scene it is now. There was the restaurant itself, a shabby home with cozy rooms, creaking wooden floors, peeling plaster walls, temperamental plumbing, and a rambling front porch. It was a dramatic contrast to then popular fern bars like Ruby Tuesday and T.G.I. Friday’s, and it was a key to Faison’s establishing its unique niche in the marketplace.
There was the menu, which Jody compiled in his typical willy-nilly fashion. He threw around artichokes, bleu cheese, and blackening spice with abandon; if two ingredients were good, 10 were better. But mainly, there was just the cool funkiness of the place, which attracted a young, creative crowd of music bizzers and musicians, students, writers, artists, and aspiring bohemians. Faison’s served as their social hall and playroom.
“What Jody did was create an atmosphere of hipness,” says Bill Ivey, director of the Country Music Hall of Fame before being named chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts by President Bill Clinton. “There was a certain sophistication that made you feel sophisticated just to be there.”
If bars could talk, the Faison’s bar would offer an epic. Bill Ivey would have at least a chapter, as would his successor at the Country Music Hall of Fame, Kyle Young, who regularly held court there and is one of Jody’s closest friends. Thus the announcement just about a year ago that the restaurant in the new Hall of Fame downtown would be co-owned by Jody Faison, along with caterer Tom Morales, was a surprise to no one familiar with the relationship between the principals at the Hall of Fame and the man behind Faison’s, Iguana, 12th & Porter, Cafe 123, and the Pub of Love.
But Young is emphatic that this business partnership was not influenced by his friendship with Faison, other than offering a frame of reference for the type of place that Faison and Morales could create. “We sent out RFPs [Requests for Proposals] locally and nationally,” Young says of the selection process. “Jody and Tom got together and formed a company with the intent of running this restaurant. I thought they were offering the best of both worlds: Jody is well-known within the Nashville community, and Tom’s reputation, thanks to his work in the film industry, is national. I was confident they could do the job, and in the end, we decided we wanted to stay local. It doesn’t hurt that Jody and Tom are such tremendous music fans as well.”
Perhaps Young and the Hall of Fame are hoping that Faison and Moraleswhose TomKats catering has fed everyone from Mel Gibson to Madonnawill also lend an air of hipness and sophistication to the cafe, since country music is popularly viewed as lacking in both. Believers of that stereotype can check these sentiments at the door of the gorgeous new Hall of Fame building, designed by Tuck Hinton Architects. The Sobro Grill, Social Club, and Chocolate Bar is located in the left area of the cavernous central hall of the museum, which is fronted on one side by a wall of windows that offers a view of its downtown neighbors and on the other by a mammoth, curving wall of stone.
The name carries its own hip sophistication. “Sobro” is the snappy designation for the area south of Broadwaya nod to Manhattan’s famous Soho neighborhood south of Houston Street. “Social Club” brings to mind the cool film of a few years ago Buena Vista Social Club and its equally cool soundtrack produced by Ry Cooder. As for “Chocolate Bar,” well, actually, there is no chocolate bar; Faison simply liked the way it sounded.
Anyone who has ever eaten at a Faison-owned restaurant will recognize Faison’s penchant for tagging amusingsome would say annoyingpun-inspired names to his dishes. At 12th & Porter it’s Pasta Ya Ya, Rasta Pasta, and The Light Fantastic; at Sobro it’s Chips & Ring of Fire Salsa, Don & Philly Cheese Steak, Honky Tonk Angel Hair Pasta, and I Never Promised You a Rose Garden Salad.
Open only for lunch at the moment, Sobro offers table service, though it ran a little slow the afternoon we visited. That may be fine for tourists on vacation, but for the downtown biz crowd, a one-and-a-half-hour lunch is an indulgence few can afford, and the restaurant should remedy this if it hopes to attract more local clientele.
Table service translates to higher prices as well, though the highest-priced item on the menu is just $8.95. Daily specials are in the same range, so lunch can be bought for under $10.
The star of the appetizer department is the grilled grit cakes; three triangles of that Southern classic are slightly crisped on the exterior, firm but creamy inside. A wasabi-spiked dollop of cream cheese on top perks up the inherent blandness of the grits, while a small mound of caviar adds a nice salty touch.
I Yam What I Yam Friesa haystack of yam friesis better in concept than in execution, at least in its current form. The fries are sliced so thin that it’s hard to discern the flavor, and they’re nearly impossible to dip in the good, homemade hot-peppered ketchup. Move that julienne up a notch, fellas. The hummus plate offered a substantial serving of the garlic-infused chickpea dip with a ramekin of cooling cucumber-yogurt sauce and plain and curry-spiced pita points pleasingly presented atop a pretty, fried grape leaf.
The 16-Ton Hamburger was, as the name implies, of substantial size, but it would lose the battle of the bulge to a Super Deluxe Fat Mo. The one we got was overcooked, but as we had not specified how we wanted it done, we were in no position to lodge a complaint. We speculate that Sobro turns out all its beef well-done as a preventive measure, leery of sending tourists home to Boise with unpleasant memories of e. coli. The steak in the cheese steak sandwich would bear out that theory, as it was also overcooked and dry; removed from the grill a few minutes sooner, it would have made a terrific sandwich.
We had much better luck with the grilled chicken sandwich, which was plump and moist, successfully teamed with a hard roll, and nicely accessorized with fresh pepper rings and sprouts. The Hillbilly Wrap was a delicious handful of applewood smoked bacon, chicken, goat cheese, and raw veggies in a spinach tortilla. The crowd-pleasing favorite was a terrific interpretation of the classic BLT: crunchy slices of fried green tomato, buffalo mozzarella, and smoked bacon with a thick spread of aioli on toasted bread.
Faison and Morales have always catered to vegetarians and vegans, and for that crowd, there are a few choices: The Honky Tonk Angel Hair Pasta is a tri-colored assemblage of smoked tomato cream sauce, spinach, and asiago cheese; the Rose Garden Salad piles crisp fried onion rings and crunchy black-eyed peas atop lettuce; and the beans, greens, and tofu is a hearty bowl of veggie comfort standards.
We tried two specials. The Korean-inspired bowl of beef and wheat noodles had a distinct, clean flavor, and was a subtle signal of the presence of a chefrather than a cookin the kitchen. (Michael Grady and David Cottrell do the honors.) The other specialbattered and fried catfish served with tangy collard greenswas a tasty nod to the region.
Guitarist David Andersen performs foreground music daily; every third Tuesday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., WSIX broadcasts its New Country Cafe from Sobro. Eventually, Young hopes to showcase some of the new generation of singers and bands currently performing on Lower Broad in an early evening social hour; beer, wine, and a full bar are available.
The Country Music Hall of Fame’s previous location within the invisibly gated confines of Music Row successfully kept the locals at bay and was, in some ways, a symbol of the tensions between the hillbilly music industry and the city it called home. The institution’s highly anticipated move to one of Nashville’s most booming and visible areas is a clear signal of a new alliance between both parties. Sobro Grill is a small part of this $37 million showcase, but it complements the package and offers a delightful taste of the town to visitors and residents alike.