Cherokee Steakhouse & Marina is not a Morton’s or Palm power palace, but a throwback to the old days, when your slab o’ beef came with rolls, some pats of margarine, an iceberg lettuce salad and some type of potato. I’ll bet it’s been that way for the nearly half-century it’s been open in Lebanon. An aerial photo reproduced on the menu shows the entire compound, including the marina, with covered slips and boats of all sizes.
The name is not misleading, but the same can’t be said for the print advertising, which suggests that the restaurant is on Old Hickory Lake and concludes with an invitation to “Come out and have a nice relaxing dinner on the lake!” (Oh, the irony: a restaurant named for an American Indian tribe on a lake that carries the nickname of the president who signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, which led to the death of more than 4,000 American Indians—most of them Cherokee—on The Trail of Tears.)
I am not so literal-minded that I thought our chairs would be bobbing about on the surface of Old Hickory, but I assumed “on the lake” meant waterfront dining. Well, you know what they say about the word “assume.”
While Cherokee Steakhouse is located within the Cherokee Marina, it is not actually on Old Hickory Lake. If you want to eat dinner on the lake, you’d best call ahead for takeout and have a boat tied up in the marina with a table on board. Otherwise, you’ll be in one of three dining rooms, none of them outdoors; from our rear booth by the window in the back room, we could see the water across an expanse of grass, upon which extended families of geese and ducks waddled about, but we couldn’t smell it, hear it or feel it. Not exactly what we were seeking from waterside dining.
Cherokee serves dinner every night except Monday and doesn’t take reservations: “first come, first served” was the policy succinctly stated when I called to inquire. What was left unsaid was that the restaurant serves no alcohol. Had I driven 30 miles to have dinner on the water only to discover that I could do no such thing, and then found out my beverage choices would be limited to sweet or un-sweet, I would have been very cranky. Thankfully, one of the members of our party had previous experience with Cherokee Steakhouse and made the 911 call to the rest of us just before our departure from Nashville, so we were able to pull some fine wine from our personal stashes to take across the county line.
Cherokee’s ad also includes explicit directions: I-40 East to Exit 232-B, take Highway 109 North for 10 miles. The claim that it is “next door to Reba McEntire’s” takes a bit of name-dropping license. Yes, immediately before you turn onto Cherokee Dock Road, you’ll see Reba’s barn—so fancy one might mistake it for a house—up a hill from the iron gates barring entry to Starstruck Farm. After you make the right turn to get to the restaurant, Reba’s residence, also well-barricaded, is on your left. But these days, Reba and Narvel spend most of their time in Los Angeles, so don’t expect them to pop into Cherokee Steakhouse with their coolers and order up some prime rib.
We arrived at 7:30 and cooled our heels in the vestibule for about 30 minutes until we were escorted to a water-view table in the back room. (Waits of an hour or more are not uncommon on weekend nights, particularly when the weather is boater-friendly.) Our request for wine glasses was promptly granted…sort of. When we pointed out to our server that the four glasses she set down on the table were actually brandy snifters, she looked a little put out. “These are our wine glasses,” she said. One size fits all? Call me persnickety, but if a restaurant declines to serve alcohol but permits patrons to bring their own wine, they should offer appropriate glasses. Bring your own, and save the 60 cents per glass that was added to our check (in lieu of a corkage fee).
The Cherokee Steakhouse may not be on the water, but its eight-page menu takes some wading to get through. Skip the three pages of ads—unless you need a new truck, a new home, a new bathroom, a haircut, jewelry, a custom home theater system, landscaping or a boat dock. I’d also avoid the page-long story titled “The History of Our Beef,” unless you find the words “slaughter” and “carcass” appetizing. It signs off with the restaurant’s motto: “You can whip our cream, but you cannot beat our meat,” a sentiment also emblazoned on the restaurant’s T-shirts. We would have gladly taken one home, had there been anything smaller than an XL available.
Begin with the appetizer page, which also details entrée accessories. In the former are 10 choices, a roll call of family-restaurant standards: breaded mushrooms, pepper poppers, cheese sticks, buffalo wings, breaded zucchini and potato skins. Since the menu boasts that only the onion rings are homemade, I suspect nearly everything else goes directly from the freezer to the fryer. The nine shrimp in the cocktail were fine, if not fresh from the gulf, and the onion rings were indeed large rounds and strips of hand-sliced Vidalia, though the plain bread-crumb coating was disappointing. As for the crab rolls, the best we could find to say is that amid the moist breading were specks of real crab meat, not that offensive pink Krab Food.
Obviously, steaks are Cherokee’s specialty. The steak page features a plethora of meats, sizes and cooking methods: ground sirloin steak (a.k.a. chopped steak), prime rib, blackened prime rib, rib eye, T-bone, New York strip, porterhouse and tenderloin, as well as pork chops, country ham and baby back ribs. We tried a tenderloin, a rib eye, a T-bone and a prime rib, and everyone in our party had the same comments: the beef—graded as “choice,” and not the higher-ranked “prime”—was comparable to “choice” meat from a supermarket; with just one exception, each plate was cooked precisely to order; only the prime rib, which was oven roasted and not grilled, had any distinguishing flavor; and the restaurant needs to invest in some better steak knives (in addition to wine glasses). Though we did not avail ourselves of the multiple types of steak sauce on every table, the diners across the aisle from us looked to be having a little steak with their A-1.
Side starches include baked potatoes, rice or a trio of fries: Freedom (that would be “French” for you unpatriotic agitator peaceniks), American (home fries) and German (home fries with onions). Broccoli or asparagus ($1.25 extra), both served unadorned and over-cooked, were the fiber options.
When our entrées were delivered, so was our check, though we had not requested it. Twenty minutes later—less than 90 minutes after we were seated, and still more than 30 minutes before the advertised closing time—every table around us had been cleared, condiments refilled, booths wiped down. After we paid up, we lingered over our Cabernet-filled brandy snifters until our server came back with an ominous warning of approaching storms. We took the hint, packed up what was left of the wine and blew on out of the Cherokee Steakhouse & Marina.
Though Nashville is landlocked, it is not without bodies of water: three lakes and several rivers are within easy driving distance. And yet, ever since Arch Kelly purchased the Rock Harbor Marina in the fall of 2004 and pulled the dock out from under the beloved Blue Moon Waterfront Café, there has been no place to have a beer and a bite against the soothing sound of water slapping gently and rhythmically against a wooden dock. Kelly’s intention to take over the space and do it himself has not exactly panned out. last summer, Buddy Rogers—the original Uncle Bud—served up his catfish through the boating season, but the place has been closed since last fall. Inquiries to the Marina office reveal that there are plans afoot to reopen “within a few weeks,” but Kelly has not been forthcoming with further information.
Clearly, Cherokee Steakhouse & Marina enjoys a devoted fan base in Wilson County and holds a place in the heart of longtime patrons who love it just the way it is, where it is. If it actually delivered dinner on the lake, I’d recommend a road trip from Nashville. But, unless you bring your own boat, it’s just not worth the drive.