The already steep price of real estate on West End is going through the roof these days, the inevitable result being that new dining ventures will require deep pockets. In other words, this area, still populated with a sprinkling of offbeat, independently owned businesses, may soon resemble Cool Springs, an outdoor food court of corporately conceived and funded restaurants. It's not as though we couldn't see this coming, of course. For decades, West End has had its share of drive-throughs and chain restaurants, but that number has grown steadily in recent years, the corporate behemoths obliterating any memory of what once stood in their place.
When the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Chinese-American restaurant P.F. Chang's opened its 7,000-sq.-ft. restaurant in the newly built 2525 West End Ave. building five years ago, it was a multimillion-dollar investmentone that has paid off handsomely for the company. Just over a month after P.F. Chang's opened, Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar also opened a 7,000-sq.-ft. restaurant on the second floor of the same building. Not coincidentally, both national chains were co-founded by entrepreneur Paul Fleming.
Now comes the news that plenty more is on the way. The Captain D's near the busy intersection of West End and 31st Ave. has been gutted and will soon emerge as a Starbucks, the Walgreen's of the coffee world. The Mapco at 3011 has been leveled and will be a bank building, a far more desirable complement to its future neighbor, Stoney River Legendary Steakhouse. Headquartered in Atlanta and a subsidiary of Nashville-based O'Charley's, the steakhouse offers steaks at "less-than-special-occasion pricing of $16.95-$25.95." Originated in a tony suburb of Atlanta, Stoney River infiltrated other wealthy enclaves in Georgia and Illinois before arriving in well-heeled Cool Springs. The construction of a 8,538-sq.-ft. "upscale mountain lodge" in the Vanderbilt area might seem peculiar, until one looks across West End at the huge Walgreen's where the historic Jacksonian apartments once stood. The suburbs have arrived on this busy corner, and it's not pretty.
The Cooker restaurant across from Centennial Park bit the dust last year, and J. Alexander's, another concept that originated in Nashville, has staked its claim on the site. Now under way, the $3 million project will be anchored by the chain's third local restaurant and will also include more than 5,000 sq. ft. of retail space.
Less than a month ago, Fuddruckers, which occupies a prime corner across from Loews Vanderbilt Plaza and Ruth's Chris, turned its burger grills off for the last time. That parking lot has been chained off, and a large sign announces that Baker Story McDonald Properties is developing the site. Plans for the 25,000-sq.-ft. commercial compound call for anywhere from five to 10 upscale retailers. I smell a Banana Republic or Abercrombie & Fitch coming on, don't you?
Who knows what's in store for 3000 West End Ave., where for 28 years Houston's has been feeding generations of Nashvillians after church, before the game and during the deal. Opened in 1977 by Nashville resident George Biel, the simple concept of thoughtful service and consistently good food at reasonable prices eventually produced a successful chain of 35 other Houston's. But ours is the only one that carries the words "The Original" under its name, which is why the news of its imminent closing is as stunning and sad as a death in the family.
OK, it's not all corporate cooking out there. There are some independents tucked in between Chili's and Outback: Blackstone, Valentino's, Rumba and the beloved Vandyland are local favorites, and one block off the main drag are both Zola and Acorn. But the opportunities for other independents to join them are slighter than ever.
Rick Bolsom's Tin Angel has been at the corner of 32nd and West End for 12 years, continuing a proud tradition of neighborhood restaurants in that spot. His restaurant group also has interests in Zola, Mirror in 12 South and Red Wagon in East Nashville, giving him a pretty informed perspective on Nashville's dining industry. And lately, he hasn't been enjoying what he's seeing from his front door: Brinker International, the Dallas-based company responsible for Chili's and Macaroni Grill, is constructing Maggiano's Little Italy nearby. At 15,000 sq. ft. and 470 seats, there's nothing little about it.
"West End has been targeted for development, whether that's restaurants or residential or retail," Bolsom says. "When a 'site' becomes available and targeted for development, the developer puts together a package before going for financing. A corporate-backed nationally known chain is going to be more attractive to a bank than an independent restaurant owned by a local chef. That's a no-brainer."
That the independent is getting priced out of the West End strip is good news for developing urban neighborhoods like Sylvan Park, East Nashville, 12 South and Berry Hill/Melrose, where properties are more affordable (though zoning laws remain challenging). But looking at the bigger picture, Bolsom sees something more insidious in store if Nashville developers aren't careful. "How many times have we heard Nashvillians say, 'We don't want to be the next Atlanta'? But start at the Broadway/West End strip and drive out to 440 in a couple of years, and what you will see is something that's beginning to look scarily like Peachtree Street. It's a feeding frenzy out there right now.
"There are cities in the South that celebrate their unique personality, through not only restaurants, but retail and residential: Louisville, Charleston, Savannah, Birmingham. Nashville has traditionally done the same. But I think we're at the point where we could go either way. Diners vote with their bottoms, and if bottoms don't care enough to take a seat at independent restaurants, then those restaurants won't survive."