217 Louise Ave. 329-4349
Hours: 5 p.m.-midnight
Price Range: $$$$
A wooden clock hangs directly over the bar at Jimmy Kelly's, but it hardly seems relevant to this Nashville dining institution, where time is measured in years, not hours, and told through a colorful history that spans more than seven decades.
On a weekday afternoon several hours before the doors open at 5 p.m., the restaurant is quiet, save for the soft murmur of voices drifting from behind the kitchen doors in the back hall, the gentle whir of spinning ceiling fans and the creak of nearly century-old floors muffled under thick carpet as Mike Kelly walks from room to room, each empty to anyone's eyes but his own. The third-generation owner of this establishment sees ghosts wherever he looks, and within each imagereal or imaginedthere is something that tells the tale of a family, a restaurant and in some ways, the city itself.
Mike Kelly's grandfather John Kelly was an exuberant Irishman, an ambitious entrepreneur and the biggest bootlegger in the South. He started the first rental car business in Nashvillea savvy move that allowed him to rent big Packards from himself to make his liquor runs between Nashville, Canada and Chicago. Like the rental car business, John Kelly opened a restaurant in good measure to support his liquor trade. Even though Prohibition was repealed in late 1933, liquor by the drink remained technically illegal in Nashville until the late '60s.
In September 1934, John Kelly opened the 216 Supper Club in a former home at 216 Eighth Ave. N.; an image of it is captured in a framed black-and-white photo to the left of the bar at Jimmy Kelly's today. The sign that hung in front of the 216 Supper Club promised "Steak, Chicken, Country Ham." Behind the barin spite of the laws of the daywere bottles of booze. "Regular customers had their own bottles with their name on them behind the bar," Mike Kelly says, explaining a system common to many establishments in Nashville. "Even if you didn't have a bottle behind the bar, there were ways to get a drink. No one went thirsty."
And no one went hungry there either. The restaurant served lunch and dinner, and if you had a hankering for breakfast for dinner, you could get that too. The décor of the main dining room at the present Jimmy Kelly's is nearly a replication of that in the first, which one can only assume got its inspiration from chop houses in the Windy City: dark walls, heavy wooden tables and red-and-white checked tablecloths. Kelly notes that table linens in all of the other dining rooms are white. "We just decided to keep it the same in this room, sort of as tribute to what my grandfather started," he says.
John Kelly's son Jimmy, from his first marriage, worked with his father at the 216 Club. In 1949, Jimmy opened a second restaurant in another old house on Harding Road. The restaurant, located across from the Belle Meade Theater, became known as Jimmy Kelly's. "Jimmy Kelly's on Harding developed its own clientele," says Mike Kelly, "and both places were busy all the time."
Following the death of John Kelly, his son-in-law Bob Woolwine managed the 216 Club. In the mid-'60s, the Eighth Avenue building became a victim of the so-called urban renewal that demolished countless historic buildings in American cities and sent many long-established businesses, as well as well as 216 customers, out of downtown and into outlying areas. Mike Kelly's father, Bill Kelly, had started his professional career, ironically, in the feed business, but when his big brother Jimmy needed his help, he jumped into the feeding business at the Harding Road location.
"It's interesting being brought up in the restaurant business," Mike Kelly admits. "It's all you know. I started wrapping potatoes when I was 9 years old. If the busboy didn't show up for work, then I was busboy. It's just a way of life. The restaurant feels like home, and the staff and customers become a family." It's a large family, and a multiracial one too. While the great majority of customers at the Kelly family restaurants have been Caucasian, the servers have traditionally been male and black, both prior to and after segregation laws.
"We have always been known for friendly, professional service, and long-term employees," says Kelly. "We have never had to advertise for servers, and we have a very low turnover." A humble understatement, to be sure, considering Johnny Grubbs' 44 years behind the bar, and Buster Ransom's 40-plus years of service. "Buster was one of the all-time greatest people who ever lived," says Kelly. "He started as a car parker at Harding Road, and became our head waiter. He was so respected and highly regarded. When he died recently, his service was at St. Andrew's Church. The visitation was scheduled for 11, and the service for noon. I got there at 10:20 and had to park more than a mile from the church. The service was more than 30 minutes late getting started because there were still so many people waiting to pay respects to his family in the visitation. What a wonderful thing to see how many lives Buster touched."
Part of the reason for the long tenures and low turnover is reciprocal loyalty, not only between owners and employees, but between the restaurants and their customers as well. "We had a couple from Lewisburg who honeymooned in Nashville and had dinner at the 216 Club. Every year on their anniversary, they came back to have dinnerincluding their 50th anniversary." That milestone was observed, says Kelly, in the current restaurant, now located in a three-story Victorian home at 217 Louise Ave.
Built in 1911, the building's first incarnation as a restaurant was as Elliston Hall, then Oliver's, then a Mexican restaurant that was fairly successful until the manager took off one night with the money. The property became available, which turned out to be fortunate for Bill and Mike Kelly in 1982. (Mike, who had a successful career as a graphic engineer, was helping out his father as well.)
"There was a Gulf station beside the Harding Road restaurant," Kelly remembers. "They wanted to expand, and with Bronson Ingram, who owned the property on the other side of us, they bought the land and we needed to relocate. It was a very difficult decision for my father. Everyone was anxiouswe didn't know if people would follow us back into town."
The Harding Road restaurant closed on a Saturday night, and staff and crews worked nearly 48 consecutive hours painting, moving and readying the Louise Avenue building to open for dinner the following Monday night. "The place was packed," says Kelly. "We were so relieved."
Though Jimmy Kelly's was in a new location, that was about the extent of the departure from tradition. The menu of steaks, lobster, shrimp cocktail, Faucon salad and, of course, the signature corn cakes remained exactly the same. The faces were familiarall of the staff had moved over from Hardingas were the furnishings, from light fixtures, chairs and tables and linens to glassware, flatware and art. Judging by a photo of the interior of the Harding Road restaurant, the relocated bar and main dining room were nearly replicated, except for one thing: The space was no longer subterranean.
"It's hard to explain," Kelly says, "but everything in the old place happened in the basement. There were dining rooms on the first floor, but no one wanted to eat there. You would park your car in the back of the house and walk down into the basement. We had a woman here in the bar a few weeks ago during one of those heavy rains, and she said, 'If this were the old place, we'd be standing on Coca-Cola crates right now.' When it rained hard, the basement would flood," continues Kelly, "but people didn't want to leave, so the staff brought out Coca-Cola crates for them to stand on."
The cedar support posts from the old place were salvaged before demolition, and now frame the barsmall (about 10 stools and three tables), but large enough to contain Nashville's and the state's most powerful and influential men, who have long made Jimmy Kelly's bar their favored watering hole. "We have plenty of female customers, but it's a pretty masculine place," admits Kelly. "Checkered tablecloths, big steaks and Irish whiskey. Everyone wants to sit in the bar. From there, you don't miss a thing."
Mike Kelly hardly misses a thing. He is on duty six nights a week; if he's not at the door, he is walking the floor and greeting customers. "I try not to worry much about the new places that have come in," he says. "It would be nice to be the only steakhouse in town, and for years we were. But times change, and competition is good for you. It makes you try to do things a little bit better. Our advantage is that we are Nashville, and people have been loyal to us. To be continuing the family tradition, celebrating our 70th year, to have all of that behind me and this extended family around me, a restaurant full of family and friends enjoying themselves, that is very gratifying. We have been very fortunate."