“If we all liked the same thing, everyone would be after your grandma,” my husband’s grandfather used to say about matters of taste.
Scary mind movie, but it’s true that Americans have a wide range of taste, appreciating both sleek, silver skyscrapers and weathered beach houses, designer suits and comfy tie-dye, Lamborghinis and battered bicycles, starving artists and wide profit margins, manicured executives and tousled Deadheads.
When you’re deciding on whether to go to J. Alexander’s for a meal or to one of the city’s fine independent places, you’re weighing whether you want to be in a Lamborghini on your way to a skyscraper with some manicured executives, or on a battered bike on your way to a weathered beach house with tousled Deadheads.
The company has worked hard to escape its “ferny” origins—there’s not a speck of forest green or a brass light fixture anywhere in the new West End location. Instead, the inside is tastefully designed with up-to-the-minute space planning, fine-quality contemporary finishes and excellent streetscaping.
But the seating arrangement really marred both of our visits, so it’s surely no coincidence. There are no large tables for groups, and the raised booths make it impossible to simply pull up a chair. Tables are filled in an alternating arrangement for maximum privacy, so pulling together two tables is a lot of fuss.
The company seems to have begun a call-ahead seating policy, so if you’re a party of seven (for instance) you won’t have to wait 10 minutes, with four-tops and six-tops empty all over the place. On another visit, the nine-person family next to us in the waiting area was furious when our two-person party was seated within seconds of our butts hitting the waiting bench, while they had clearly been cooling their heels for some time.
Really handsome light fixtures are perfectly centered above the tables, but when they move a table, you need a headlamp to read the menu. They could just buy some bigger tables.
Once you get past that, there’s a lot to create great expectations of your meal experience: Etch-a-Sketches for the kids (this way, some poor serf doesn’t have to re-sort the crayons at every table when diners leave), Angus beef, premium-brand liquor, a good wine list (plus a separate, super-duper fine wine list on request), crystal wine glasses, homemade soups, salad dressings and sauces. The training manual must be the envy of the industry, because everyone from managers to novice servers is beautifully trained.
And the food doesn’t disappoint your elevated expectations. Nicely cut steak brazzo gets a New York steak house feel from the mushroom madeira sauce. Colossal deveined shrimp get a dunk in cilantro oil and quick turn on the grill for just a hint of wood-flavored char. Crab cakes flake big hunks of crab while the many entrée salads are plated artfully.
Recipes are more than capably developed for their flavor profiles. Coleslaw is transformed into a larruping side by a little Maytag blue cheese, while a bigger-than-usual pink French dip gets a dash of horseradish. Angus beef makes a deeply satisfying burger. Our party’s coastal native declared the lush remoulade for the crab cake authentically spicy. Thai Kai salad gets a touch of cilantro vinaigrette and peanut sauce to boot.
Expect the monstrous portions of today’s “upscale casual chain” dining rooms. The burger is big enough for two women and the French dip would be enough for two with a salad (which are now priced à la carte). Thai Kai salad is enough for two entrées or four side salads. Happily for us, each portion of irresistible shoestring fries is big enough for adults to pick away at kids’ plates with plenty left over. With portions this size, the $3 plate-sharing charge was a good move for improving margins.
There’s a terrific downtown restaurant in Asheville, N.C., called Tupelo Honey Cafe. At the website (tupelohoneycafe.com), clicking the “About” button yields this mission statement: “To create a charming atmosphere with innovative Southern cuisine emphasizing quality, selection and excellent service.”
At J. Alexander’s website, click “About” and you get “J. Alexander’s is a publicly owned corporation whose stock trades on the American Stock Exchange. The company was formed in 1971 as Volunteer Capital Corp.” Would you buy a crab cake from this board of directors?
On the one hand, it would be easier to write about the Nashville-based J. Alexander’s in one of the two-dozen other cities where the eatery has locations but not headquarters. Then it would just seem like a well designed, nicely decorated “upscale casual” dining option (and the website says “the company has repositioned all its assets into upscale casual dining”) rather than a company with a bunch of shareholders expecting healthy returns.
On the other hand, J. Alexander’s is a big-hearted company with straightforward goals and the deep pockets to achieve them. Mostly it works for them, and even tousled Deadheads seem to like it.
Kay West is busy finishing a book, but she will return here in a few weeks.Kay West is busy finishing a book, but she will return here in a few weeks.