Nothing says Old Nashville like Belle Meade, home of understatedly stately estates, family names that roll back two centuries and seven-figure net-worth profiles. Nothing says New Nashville like Williamson County, one of the nation’s 15 wealthiest counties (according to the 2005 census) and the home of showy McMansions, relocated corporate professionals and, in Cool Springs, millions of square feet of retail development where the loaded locals come to dispose of six-figure incomes.
In late June, Belle Meade’s beloved Sperry’s Restaurant—home of Green Goddess dressing and bleu cheese-stuffed filets—opened a store in Cool Springs, which houses more chain-restaurant seats per capita than any place in Tennessee and which, quite possibly, services them all through a single underground kitchen and a network of pneumatic tubes. Amid this sprawling compound of corporate concepts, Sperry’s arrives with 32 years of restaurant background, delivering a personal dining experience, albeit one that is a near clone of the Harding Road original opened in 1974.
In fact, faithful imitation was the intent of Al Thomas, second-generation owner of the Belle Meade Sperry’s and co-owner, with longtime business partner Sam Sanchez, of the new store.
“Even before I bought Sperry’s, I wanted him to open a store in Brentwood, but my dad always said it was too close to Nashville,” Thomas says of his father, Houston (no relation to the Houston’s chain). “That was also well before Cool Springs. As that sprang up and Williamson County residential exploded, it just seemed like the perfect place to be. There are so many people who grew up in Nashville eating at Sperry’s and who now live in Williamson County. Our goal was to make the Cool Springs store look exactly like the one in Belle Meade and to make you forget that you were in a strip center as soon as you walk in the door.”
The cozy restaurant that Belle Meade residents embraced as their neighborhood joint came by its eclectic look organically. When Houston Thomas and his brother Marion opened the original Sperry’s, they adopted some of the maritime theme from the predecessor on the site, The Brass Scales, including the brass binnacle (ship’s compass) and the tables and bar made from hatch covers salvaged from World War II ships. To that décor, the Thomas brothers added equestrian, clubby English and Old Southern elements.
Al Thomas worked there from the time he was 14 until he went to the University of Tennessee. After a couple decades in management at various chains, he purchased Sperry’s from his father and uncle in 2000. With a thorough cleansing of the building and an updating of the menu—including subtle tweaks to signature items like the artichoke, escargot, Mushrooms Sperry, lobster tails and 21-item salad bar—Al and wife Trish breathed new life into the old gal, making Sperry’s 2006 just as popular as Sperry’s 1974.
With that transformation under his belt, Thomas turned his gaze south.
As soon as the space was leased, the Thomases began looking for and collecting the furnishings and accoutrements that would create a new Sperry’s just like the old Sperry’s, with a couple of exceptions. With five private dining rooms—named for Houston Thomas and Burton Sperry—that can be configured to seat from 10 to 100, and the Bar Private available for groups of eight or fewer, the new location hosts events from rehearsal dinners to pharmaceutical company presentations. The other notable difference between old and new is the no-smoking policy in the Cool Springs location. “We went back and forth on that, but I felt pretty strongly on the issue,” Thomas says. “Both of my parents died of smoking-related illnesses. I just decided I didn’t want to subject my employees to it, or our customers. I don’t think we have lost any smokers because of it, and we have probably gained non-smokers who appreciate the clean air.”
Otherwise, everything from the bronze horse atop the sideboard in the lobby, to the copper-sided salad bar in the main dining room, to the art on the walls, to the carpet on the floor is exactly the same as the Belle Meade Sperry’s. Executive chef A. Edgar Pendley adheres to recipes that have been in place since 1974 and keeps things interesting with daily specials and invitation-only events, such as the upcoming Escoffier Dinner, an elite gathering of the 70-year-old fraternity of chefs de cuisine, hotel executives, restaurateurs, wine collectors and business executives. (It is considered a coup in the industry to host a local chapter’s dinners.)
Among the menu’s classic offerings are Mushrooms Sperry, mushroom caps stuffed with bread crumbs, herbs and seafood; escargots, pulled from the shell, and bobbing in garlic, white wine and butter; steamed whole artichoke served hot or cold with ramekins of drawn butter and creamy aioli; Alaskan king crab legs steamed in the shell and served with drawn butter; and, of course, Prince William’s Bleu Cheese-Stuffed Filet, so named since the heir to the British throne visited Belle Meade and selected the bacon-wrapped beef from the menu.
The salad bar—the Belle Meade Sperry’s was Nashville’s first—follows the original’s diagram for its set up: chilled plates all the way to the left, strictly followed by mixed greens, veggies, fruit, beans, croutons, cheese and a selection of house-made dressings, the most popular being Green Goddess and the old-fashioned bleu cheese vinaigrette. Bananas Foster for two is a flame-shooting, show-stopping closer, with the Snowball—vanilla ice cream rolled in coconut and topped with whipped cream—a favorite treat for children from 2 to 72.
On a recent Sunday night, the dining room was pleasantly full, lively and loud. My companion and I happily immersed ourselves in the most timeless of the menu items—the escargot, the artichoke, the Green Goddess dressing, the filet, the grilled swordfish steak with artichoke butter sauce, the baked potato and the steamed asparagus stalks. Everything was perfectly simple—and simply perfect—complemented by a bottle of half-priced wine from Sperry’s annual August sale.
The Palm was started by Pio Bozzi and John Ganzi as an Italian restaurant and steakhouse on Second Avenue in Manhattan 80 years ago. Careful growth and a zealous attention to detail have resulted in an extremely successful 25-restaurant group that somehow preserves its unique character and personal charm. It is now owned and operated by the third generation of the Bozzi-Ganzi partnership.
Thomas’ long-term plans include more locations in Tennessee and possibly Kentucky, and he would be well advised to ponder how it is that The Palm has built a chain of restaurants that never individually seem part of a chain. Though Sperry’s meticulously copied décor and tradition-bound menu will make even the most devoted of Belle Meade regulars feel at home in Cool Springs, somehow, everything old is new again at Sperry’s Two. That’s a very good sign for the future of a place with a proven past.
Both Sperry’s locations are open 5 to 11 p.m. seven days a week.