Coop de 'ville 

Hillsboro Village's newest watering hole is an inviting family affair that makes customers feel like part of the brood

Hillsboro Village's newest watering hole is an inviting family affair that makes customers feel like part of the brood

McDougal's Village Coop

2115 Belcourt Ave. 383-3005

Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Mon.-Wed.; 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Thurs.-Sat. ; noon-10 p.m. Sun.

Price range: $

Attention, returning Vanderbilt students: John and Tommy McDougal have your table ready.

When you've unloaded your clothing, pillow, blankie, stereo, television, DVD player, iPod and computer, take your wallet (and ID if you plan to order a beer) and walk, bike or drive over to McDougal's Village Coop, less than a mile from the southwest border of Vandyworld. To get there, enter Hillsboro Village from Blakemore Avenue, go one block south on 21st and turn right onto Belcourt Avenue. The historic and beloved Belcourt Theatre will be on your right; check it out. Less than 50 yards away, just across the road, is McDougal's, one of a trio of retail neighbors pioneering the commercial development of this side street.

McDougal's is the newest kid on this block, but you'd never know it from the weathered exterior and lived-in interior, or the lively crowds that gather on the patio nearly every night of the week. Just eight months since its opening in January, McDougal's is already an established hang among the peripatetic crowd that frequents Hillsboro Village nightspots. More impressively, it has the laid-back vibe, confident and outgoing personality, and warm soul of a place that has been there forever.

Credit the vibe and personality to the fair-haired, blue-eyed McDougal brothers, who would look right at home in a Gap ad. Nashville natives and graduates of Brentwood Academy, the McDougals followed family tradition and went to college at UT-Knoxville, older brother Tommy preceding John by two years. That's about where their educational paths split. Tommy stayed, taking the six-year scenic route to graduation. After six months, John decided he wasn't exactly college material, came back to Nashville and began a series of jobs that would eventually land him on Belcourt Avenue.

"Tommy and I had always wanted to open our own restaurant," John explains on a recent, unseasonably cool evening, standing on the back porch outside the building's service entrance. "We used to talk about it at night in our bedroom when we were kids. It was just something we knew we would do one day."

During their brief simultaneous tenure at UT, the brothers each worked for a popular college feederie, Sawyer's Chicken, which had two locations in Knoxville. Sawyer's was an unabashed knockoff of what John refers to as the godfather of chicken restaurants, Guthrie's, which has fed budget-starved students at the University of Georgia in Athens since the '60s. "The people who opened Sawyer's had worked at Guthrie's in Athens, and they pretty much opened the same thing in Knoxville. Both places are just chicken, and they are really successful."

It didn't take an MBA to figure out how to replicate that KISS formula—Keep It Simple Stupid—here in Nashville. But the McDougals knew their hometown well enough to offer one thing their mentors did not: cold beer and plenty of it. "We knew it wouldn't fly without beer," says John. "So that narrowed our search for a location."

Since Tommy didn't come back home until graduating in May of '03, John—then in the landscaping business—was heading the search committee. A place on Richard Jones Road in Green Hills was available, and the brothers thought they had it in the bag. As it turned out, the agreement didn't pan out and that spot is now occupied by Fluffo Mattress. "What a lucky break that fell through," John says with a wide grin. "It would never have worked for what we are doing here."

Not long afterward, an ad for a commercially zoned property in Hillsboro Village caught his eye. The stone cottage had most recently been a quadruplex and was in pretty bad shape. But the McDougals felt the potential, convinced landlord Treg Warner that they were the right guys for the spot, signed the lease in June of 2003, and posted an optimistic announcement on the front of the building: "Coming Soon! McDougal's Village Coop."

As it turned out, it wasn't quite as soon as they hoped. The planned opening was delayed by five months, and the expansive front deck and patio—which accounts for more than half of the restaurant's seating—had to be tented and heated to be used in the first several months of business. But to the brothers' surprise and delight, no one seemed to mind. A large network of family and friends got the place going, Titans football broadcasts brought in a Sunday-afternoon crowd, and curiosity piqued by the festive strung lights and quirky signage lured the street's heavy foot and car traffic to check it out. Eventually, word of mouth spread to the nearby Vandy campus, as the McDougals had hoped it would. If you build it, they will come.

But will they come back? There are countless reasons to become a McDougalite, not necessarily starting with the food, but the food offers a darned good argument for arriving hungry. The KISS formula is especially in effect when it comes to the menu, which offers chicken, chicken and more chicken. Chicken fingers come fried, buffaloed or grilled, in a basket with a big pile of hand-cut fries. One-hundred-percent fresh and cooked to order, the fried chicken fingers are plump, crispy on the outside, moist on the interior. My children, who hold degrees in chicken fingerology, declare these hands-down the best in town, and who am I to argue with two teenagers who between them have probably eaten an entire truckload of fowl? Weight-watchers can feel virtuous with the grilled chicken fingers, but I'd rather go on the grapefruit diet for a week than deprive myself of the deep-fried goodness of not just the fingers, but the superb fries. There are several pre-made dipping sauces, but the only choice in my book is the slightly spicy, house-made (secret) sauce. Sandwiches—chicken, burgers and patty melts—are available on thick slices of Texas toast.

Chicken wings and hand-cut onion rings have recently made sparkling debuts; wings are fat and happy, available in six flavors and in orders ranging from six to 100. The onion rings succeed in being crunchy and greasy all at once, needing only a generous shake of salt to send me catapulting off my sensible eating routine.

There are four beers on tap—PBR, Gerst, Shiner Bock and hometown fave Yazoo. The bottled beer list isn't particularly lengthy, but has something for every taste and is served up ice-cold.

It's the intangibles, though, that sparked my crush on McDougal's. There's the aforementioned laid-back vibe and outgoing personality, both served up in spades by the McDougals, who trade off days and nights on a weekly basis so that one of them is always on site—Lesson No. 1 in the restaurant proprietor field. (Lesson No. 2, painfully learned by John: owning a restaurant is not good for personal relationships, so back off ladies, unless you are willing to come in a distant second on his priority list).

The soul of the place emanates from within, evident all over the small room. There's the framed orange football jersey that was worn by the McDougals' father, who played for UT. There are the old black-and-white photos of dad during his playing days, and their granddad when he was a Packer—as in Green Bay. The hall walls outside the bathroom are plastered with 3-by-5 snapshots of the McDougals and their customers chronicling the first eight months of business. Ask to see the one of the guy who used to live at that address years ago, when it was a one-family house. He came back to check it out while it was under construction and took a souvenir shot with John and Tommy.

Stuffed deer and other hunted heads, mounted fish caught in a permanent arc, and other quirky odds and ends keep the eyes in motion. The bricks that form the base of the counter were salvaged from a friend's home. There are several televisions strategically mounted, including the very first flat-screen on the market, relocated from the McDougal family den.

Businesses traditionally display the first dollar they ever made; at McDougal's, there are a couple hundred stapled to the wall, donated by customers who've added personal notes, which make for an amusing swath of conversational wallpaper. Personal contributions from customers have also grown the McDougals' collection of vintage beer cans (from their dad), ball caps and battered license plates; a clothesline of SEC football helmets has just begun, but I'm betting it will be complete before mid-season.

I don't know if John and Tommy included this decorating concept in their business plan, but I have to say it is brilliant. Allowing customers to add a personal touch to the restaurant is a generous act that gives them a sense of familiarity, comfort and ownership. The colorful, story-telling collection of hats, notes, photos, cans, plates and whatnot charmingly reflects the eclectic—and growing—flock of customers the McDougals have attracted to their Coop.


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