The line was so long in front of City Café East at lunchtime that I half-expected to find a placard at the front door warning, "You must be this tall to ride this ride." Fortunately, George and Amy Reed don't discriminate against the height-challenged at their Lebanon Pike restaurant, which they took over last fall. Folks are lining up for the revamped meat-and-three buffet as if the Reeds had just launched a new whitewater rafting adventure.
A veteran of erstwhile landmarks including Kinnard's at the corner of 21st Avenue and Blair and L&N Seafood on West End Avenue, George logged about 14 years with the Sportsman's Grille and Gerst House restaurants, where Amy also worked as an office manager for 16 years. Along the way, the couple launched Awesome Catering "By George" ("From Tie-Dye to Bowtie"), which they ran as a side business until 2007 when they made it their full-time gig.
It was through Awesome Catering that the Reeds met City Café founder Jerry Cunningham, whose daughter's wedding they catered. Last fall, the Reeds stopped into Cunningham's Brentwood outpost for lunch and a chat. They needed a catering kitchen for Awesome, and Cunningham—who had sold the Lebanon Pike City Café—knew that the new owner was looking to get out of the business. The Reeds went to see the restaurant, and about a week later, they inked a deal to purchase it. Now George, Amy and sons Matthew and Christopher are running City Café East and Awesome Catering.
At first blush, things aren't so different at the City Café, which has served a sturdy menu of Southern staples for 19 years. The interior's pretty much the same since the Reeds took over—maybe a little tidier—and all the usual suspects are corralled on the steam table: fried chicken, country-fried steak, fried corn, green beans and so on. But if you look closely, you'll recognize the signature touches that George developed over a career in Nashville's restaurant business.
For one thing, there's the familiar red-and-green-flecked Cajun corncakes any Sportsman's fan would recognize. And there's George's chicken-tortilla soup, which garnered the gold at the annual Soup Sunday fundraiser for Our Kids. He also added a grilled Reuben sandwich, available every day. Details such as homemade tartar sauce, studded with gherkins and dill, and chess pie with a Yuletide nose of cinnamon and nutmeg are sure signs that someone's doing things differently back in the kitchen.
George is doing things differently outside the kitchen too. A gregarious host in his new home, George strolls through the dining room in his flamboyantly patterned chef's pants, greeting his guests and introducing himself and his food.
You'll want to make the acquaintance of his gumbo, which alternates with New England clam chowder on the menu. A well-balanced medley of plump shrimp and gently cooked okra that still has a green, fresh crispness to it, the gumbo had a smoky hint of bacon and a texture that was neither too liquid nor too glumpy: If anything, it needed a little kick. The condiment caddy in the center of every table has that covered, offering Louisiana hot sauce and Tabasco in addition to a saucy array of A1, Heinz 57 and peppers in vinegar.
By noon Tuesday, we'd spent 20 minutes queueing up to get in the door, and the sweet potato casserole and fried squash were already gone. But there was plenty left to eat. Plump grilled chicken was tender to the center, with a skin-deep taste of the smoker. Tilapia baked with breadcrumbs and herbs was surprisingly sweet and un-fishy, accented beautifully by the cool homemade tartar sauce—though the fish's time behind glass had taken the crispness out of the browned breadcrumb coating.
George has revamped the fried chicken recipe, using a simple flour coating and frying in vegetable oil. Our piece was laudably crisp, bronzed and fresh out of the fryer. Country-style steak was plump and fresh, but the layer of dredging gave a gummy finish and the brown gravy overwhelmed the dish with salt.
On the day we arrived, a poster announced that George would be serving ribs and brisket the following day, and indeed the smoker was already fired up—as was George. (The smoke wafting over Lebanon Road made the wait out front all the more tantalizing.) Our first lunch was good enough to draw us back the next day, but this time we timed our trip to hit the lunch line after rush hour. At 12:45, we breezed in.
Meaty ribs rubbed with a little heat and spice and finished with a squirt of thick brown-red sauce had a good smoke flavor. But they also showed their time on the steam table with a slightly dull fatty finish, rather than a piping-hot sizzling sheen. Still, we gobbled them up, along with the tender slices of brisket.
Next time we hit City Café, we'll probably lean toward the fried chicken. As for the sides, there's a competitive selection of vegetables, starches, fruits and more—including creamed white corn, fried corn nuggets, tender steamed cabbage, mac-and-cheese, deviled eggs, baked apples, green beans, pinto beans and fried okra—that rotates throughout the week.
White beans flecked with peppers impressively retained some integrity in their texture, sturdy enough to split into two halves rather than mush under the fork. Green beans came pre-vinegared—in the words of one of our group—adding a welcome tang to a palette of comfort food. Turkey and dressing made with cornbread and a generous dusting of sage stood out among the sides and would make a hearty companion to fried chicken. We also applauded the roasted potatoes dusted with garlic, rosemary and salt, whose gorgeous bronze finish gave way to a creamy inside. (Again, the steam table took a toll on the potatoes, which lost the crisp edges off the roasted finish, but our empty plates proved that our criticism was purely theoretical.)
At the end of the lunch line, a seductive array of desserts calls out from under the sneeze guard, including cherry and peach cobblers Monday through Wednesday and banana pudding on Thursday and Friday. But the simple standout at our table was the chess pie. Infused with cinnamon and nutmeg, the recipe elevated a simple egg-and-sugar blend to something more earthy and complex.
In fact, we lingered so long at our table, sipping bottomless cups of iced tea and gawking at FOX News on the television over the dining room, that we ultimately went back to the line to get a slice of pie to pass around the table. We didn't need it—we'd eaten more than our fill—but it was worth it.
Maybe George should consider a sign by the door that reads, "You must have an appetite this big to ride this ride."
City Café East serves lunch 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Contact Awesome Catering at 504-3175.
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