In the restaurant-reviewing racket, we talk a lot about cursed spaces—the ones where no matter what ilk of eatery opens in them, all enterprises fail, leaving onlookers to blame everything from parking to architecture to karma. Less often do we dissect charmed spaces, probably because the businesses housed in them don't shut down.
But if I were to make a list of charmed spaces, surely 1812 21st Ave. S. would top the list. The gritty room with the sloping linoleum floor has thrived as both a pet store and a coffee shop, both of which remain indelibly emblazoned among my happiest memories of a lifetime in Nashville.
Before I ever tried to learn to play bridge at a Fido four-top, before I muddled through midterm exams fueled by Euro Eggs and Bongo Blend, before my husband and I whiled away our pre-parenting days doing New York Times crossword puzzles from Fido's communal basket of newspapers, I got bitten by a monkey and bought my first gerbils at Jones Pet Store. To this day, when I walk down the incline, I can still sort of smell puppy pee mixed with shredded newspaper—in my imagination only, of course. It makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside.
In the same way that I have never conducted a restaurant review of my mom's kitchen—another charmed dining landmark—I've overlooked Fido. Instead, I've simply counted on owner Bob Bernstein & Co. over the years to provide a reliably sturdy menu of Egg McFidos and Fishy Bombs during the day and a warmly lit study hall-cum-chat room with coffee and dry baked goods at night.
Not long ago, I was in the neighborhood and popped in to grab breakfast to go. I bought a coconut muffin that I fully expected to be punishingly dry, like the disappointing majority of the world's muffin population. But no! This gluten-free specimen, rolled in sweet chewy coconut shreds, was a marvelously moist and cakey confection. I returned soon thereafter, and—behold!—the almond flax shortbread was equally shocking, a balance of crumbly and chewy with a salty finish to offset the sweetness. Lisa Bachman's inventive and delicious organic baked goods (Pink Radio spice cake with beet icing!), as it turned out, were just the tip of the iceberg of changes at Fido.
In the last few years, when I was having kids, I thought I had outgrown the casual corner coffee shop. I no longer had studious evenings to sip 25-cent coffee refills or lazy Sundays to pore over crosswords, so I bequeathed Fido to the next demi-generation to play their games and do their homework.
But as it turns out, while I was staying away thinking I'd grown up too much, Fido was growing up too—not to the exclusion of the university crowd, but to the inclusion of us older folks. Seven years ago—just about the time I went on maternity leave—Bernstein brought on chef John Stephenson, an alumnus of the bygone Corner Market, who began a slow campaign to migrate toward better and more local products. Three years ago, Bachman signed on as head baker, Fido added beer and wine to the mix, and, in Stephenson's words, the menu began to hit its stride.
The coffeehouse that once earned 70 percent of its revenue from coffee now earns 60 percent from food, testament to Bernstein's slogan, "Blurring the line between upscale coffeehouse and casual restaurant." Even during tough economic times, Fido continues to post growth, spurring Bernstein & Co.—including former co-owner Kate Sage, who has returned to the business—to take over the adjacent space that formerly housed Taste of Tokyo and expand later this year.
You can still get breakfast burritos and bagel sandwiches all day long, but the ever-changing menu of entrée specials elevates Fido above the egg-and-pancake fray into that all-too-limited sphere of affordable-creative-local-family-friendly neighborhood spots that people clamor for. While the coffee line still snakes out the back door, the menu of seasonal and local cuisine still seems like a secret.
On a recent Friday night, we dragged our brood and some other grown-ups into Fido, grabbed a booth, ordered at the counter and had a crowd-pleasing meal on the table in minutes—complete with Fat Tire, Sam Adams and peanut butter-and-jelly.
The most impressive dish on the table was a rustic pile-up of three pan-seared shrimp on a bed of mashed white beans, drizzled with an heirloom tomato-and-onion-tinged pan sauce and topped with a handful of crisp mâche. The shrimp were cleaned and gently cooked to retain the fresh, plump pop, and the interweaving of textures and temperatures provided enough interest to create a big impression with a moderate-sized meal for around $10.
Grilled strips of marinated flank steak draped over a bed of pan-fried Yukon Gold chunks enlivened the hearty steak-and-hash duo with aioli, basil pesto and soft caramelized onions. The tender beef was a surprise in both flavor and price, also clocking in under 10 bucks.
Fish tacos were a pretty trio of flour tortillas stuffed with flaky cornmeal-coated catfish, pink onions, spinach, roasted red pepper and crumbles of feta cheese.
With the same menus available at lunch and dinner—including pancakes available all day—Fido ranks among the more versatile dining venues in town. At lunch, we filled a table with catfish and green tamales with mole-espresso sauce; sliced chicken sandwich with bacon and sun-dried fig mayo; and a plate of banana pancakes. Made with soft focaccia from Bread & Company, the chicken sandwich was a beautiful layering of tender meat with sweet and savory elements, neither too big nor too bready. Our only complaint was that we could find no trace of the avocado promised in the menu description.
A clever integration of the beans roasted at Bongo Java Roasting Company, Bernstein's East Nashville outpost, the rough-hewn mole sauce layered deep flavors of coffee and sweet dried fruit. In our experience, the huge plate of food was more impressive for its creativity than for its execution, as the green chile-tinged fingers of cornmeal were slightly rubbery and the catfish overly fishy. The tamales and mole are also available without catfish, for $7.
Specials are updated frequently on Fido's web page and usually include a terse roster of five or six items. The early May menu, for example, listed red beans and rice; lemon-chicken tortilla soup; McDonald Farms organic eggs with hollandaise and spinach on English muffin; local organic lettuces with carrot, apple and toasted walnuts with maple-cider buttermilk dressing, Parmesan crisps, jicama and dried cranberries; fennel-orange-sweet onion-radish-and-avocado salad with feta, almonds and strawberries; grilled chicken with cider barbecue sauce and chow chow; and toasted mozzarella-and-mâche sandwich with aioli, roasted red pepper and caramelized red onion.
Back to that dinner with kids: Seldom do a restaurant's kids and adult menus coexist so seamlessly, with consistent quality of products and presentation. But at Fido, there's no succumbing to white bread and frozen chicken fingers for the ankle-biters. The succinct list of grilled cheese, PB&J and pancakes delivers the same bounty and freshness as the main menu. Soft toasted grainy breads burst with molten cheddar, and fluffy light wheat loaf overflows with peanut butter, reminiscent of the over-stuffed PB&Js we fondly called "gaggers." Generous bowls of fresh strawberries, pineapple and melon add color and brightness to the plates, and the so-called "amazing fries," served with aioli, live up to their moniker and meet with multigenerational approval. It's clear that children are no afterthought here, rather a welcome arrival at a neighborhood restaurant that has matured along with a half-generation of diners.
In 13 years since it opened, Bob Bernstein's Hillsboro Village coffee shop has quietly evolved from a no-frills caffeinated hangout to a thoughtful and unpretentious dining venue—losing none of its low-key appeal along the way. Surely that ability to change with its audience—more than parking, architecture or karma—is the charm of Fido.
Fido serves breakfast, lunch and dinner Monday through Sunday.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 615-844-9408.
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