Nashville — in particular, its rising restaurant scene — is the story of the moment. From The New York Times to Food & Wine, reporters are chronicling the ascendancy of Music City with such breathless narration of kale salad and hot chicken you'd think life here was a cabaret of artisan bacon and craft cocktails against a backdrop of reclaimed barnwood and bespoke denim. It makes for a good read.
But there is a deeper, quieter, longer-running story about life in Nashville that's not so obvious to the visiting trend-spotter. For the layover journalist attempting to capture the character of the city — culinary or otherwise — might we suggest adding the Thistle Stop Café to your itinerary? Because you'd be hard-pressed to find a location that tells a more endearing or hopeful story about the people who live here.
Located on the block of Charlotte Pike where Magdalene House's Thistle Farms social enterprise manufactures paper goods and body care products, Thistle Stop Café is the latest chapter in Magdalene's ministry for women who have survived prostitution, trafficking and addiction.
When it comes to stories, you might hear some doozies as you stand in line for a chai latte at Thistle Stop. For example, the barista might tell you how she was strung out on heroin, hoping to die, until Magdalene's two-year residential program saved her life. Now she's efficiently and gregariously managing a crew of servers in the hottest lunch spot in the latest It City. Now that's a good story.
Or you might hear the tale of how the gorgeous tearoom came together, through the vision of Magdalene's founder, the Rev. Becca Stevens, and the generosity and creativity of the community.
Stevens conceived of Thistle Stop as an outward and visible sign of chado, the way of tea that creates harmony and tranquility and demonstrates the simple truth that love heals. (She is currently writing a book on the topic, to follow her book Snake Oil: The Art of Healing and Truth-Telling, which she published earlier this year.)
In a poetic gesture, Stevens broadcast a request for teacups to outfit the cafe, and her global network responded with 800 delicate vessels from around the world, including a tea set that survived the Holocaust in Germany. Artisan James Worsham repurposed some of the donated china into rustically precious chandeliers of dangling teacups and Edison bulbs.
Outside, landscape architect Tara Armistead masterminded the layout of native plantings around the building and patio, and sculptor Ben Caldwell designed the massive and magnificent metal thistle sculpture out front, which is destined to become a landmark on the burgeoning Charlotte corridor.
You might hear the story about how singer-songwriter Marcus Hummon (Stevens' husband) helped install the 150-year-old wood-plank flooring salvaged from the tobacco barn of Al Gore Sr. Or the one about how the family of a late Magdalene House participant contributed their dining room table to be used in her memory.
"Everything in this cafe encourages stories," says cafe coordinator Courtney Johnson. She follows that statement with an anecdote about driving to West Tennessee to pick up the cafe's cabinets, which were constructed by prison inmates, using reclaimed wood the Magdalene team provided. Then she shows me some fair-trade products for sale alongside Thistle Farms lotions and stationery and locally roasted Harvest Hands coffee. Intricately adorned handmade boxes of black tea benefit orphans in Kenya, while Sorwathe tea from Rwanda supports survivors of genocide.
In addition to the global outreach, there is a local story in the tea leaves at Thistle Stop. The cafe works with Murfreesboro-based Positiffitea to create custom organic blends, including a healing medley of dandelion and cardamom to detoxify the liver — a poignant reminder of the addictions that Magdalene House works to heal.
With so much goodwill on the menu, Thistle Stop could easily rest on its social-enterprise laurels and offer a bare-bones repertoire of snacks — like so many corporate coffee chains. But that's not the case here.
The list of sandwiches, wraps, salads and desserts advances the local food story with an array of vegan and raw items that will be new to many palates. Pam Daley of nearby Spark of Life Healing Foods provides mock tuna salad, quinoa tabouli and raw pad thai made with cashews over curly crisp tangles of threaded zucchini and daikon. Dozen bakery provides muffins and scones, and Vegan Vee delivers an intriguing and indulgent selection of cookies, brownies and cupcakes sans dairy and eggs. (The raw triple-chocolate cheesecake alone is worth a visit. Made with almonds, cashews, dates, cocoa, vanilla, agave and coconut oil, the dense puck has the intensity of a truffle and a richness we are still trying to figure out.)
Arnold Myint — the former Top Chef contestant and proprietor of Suzy Wong's House of Yum, PM, AM@FM and blvd — provides his turkey and charcuterie sandwiches, signature moo shu chicken and chicken pesto wraps, and several excellent salads. Furthermore, Thistle Stop's chairs are repurposed from Myint's erstwhile Cha Chah on Belmont, which, by the way, was originally conceived as a teahouse before its new incarnation as blvd.
In fact, on our visits to Thistle Stop, a copy of Native magazine with Myint and his alter-ego Suzy Wong on the cover was lying on the reclaimed coffee table, a subtle reminder of the layered creativity and generosity that energizes Thistle Stop. Like much of what goes on at this mindful café, the quiet connectedness to the broader community is not the kind of detail you're likely to pick up if you've got 36 hours to dine in the It City of the moment. But the philanthropists, artists, counselors and patrons supporting Thistle Stop Café and the women of Magdalene House know it's just the kind of detail that will make Nashville a long-term success story.
Thistle Stop Café is open daily 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.
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