On Sept. 7, Mayor Bill Purcell conducted the dedication of the magnificent new Schermerhorn Symphony Center. It’s hard to believe that the mammoth 197,000-square-foot structure, with countless intricacies, exacting specs, meticulous requirements and exquisitely detailed embellishments, went from excavation to celebration in less than three years. No doubt, there are things that still need tweaking, but when the doors officially opened on Saturday night and 1,870 people took their seats in Laura Turner Concert Hall, the unveiling was breathtaking, the debut performance spectacular.
It was months ago that the Nashville Symphony announced the date of the premiere concert, and they stuck to it. When Sept. 9 rolled around, they were ready. It helps to have upward of $120 million to toss around, but it helps even more to have all the members of your team on the same page, following a plan and committed to fulfilling the expectations raised by promises made.
Earlier this year, a trio of Chicago lads had the immense foresight and good fortune to snag a lease on Third Avenue South directly across the street from the Symphony Center. In fact, from the door of the bar/restaurant they named Past Perfect, it is 100 paces to the steps on the building’s northern facade, from which you can almost see directly into the restaurant’s front room.
In other words, Past Perfect is poised to take advantage of the crowds filing into the Symphony Center for inaugural performances by the likes of Amy Grant, the Nashville Chamber Orchestra, Marty Stuart, Grand Ole Opry stars, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Turtle Island String Quartet, singer/songwriter Darrell Scott, Stephen Seifert on the mountain dulcimer and guitarist John Jorgenson.
Unfortunately, the chalkboard in front of Past Perfect promising “Best Food Downtown! ” is misleading at best and, at the extreme, could warrant a full refund to any customer alleging false advertising when the food inside is so disappointing.
It’s not the first claim Past Perfect has made that has turned out to be hyperbolic. In stories published before opening this spring, the owners described the fare they would serve as “simple and elegant,” “something better than bar food,” “the finest ingredients” and “fresh catches every day.” They also proudly noted that they “don’t have a fryer.” My first piece of advice for Past Perfect: run, don’t walk, to the nearest restaurant supply store (I believe there is one a couple blocks south) and git you one.
Then, own what you are. If it looks like a duck, waddles like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. Past Perfect looks like a bar, smells like a bar, sounds like a bar, operates like a bar. Call it what you will: a tavern, a saloon, a pub, but it’s a watering hole, for crying out loud. An inviting one, too, with a welcoming vibe and incredibly friendly and likable staff. The long sturdy bar is made for bended elbows and regulars claiming their stools. The video jukebox is stocked with great roadhouse tunes. There are dartboards on the wall. Get the drift? A bar.
And what, one might wonder, is wrong with bar food or pub fare or roadhouse grub done well? Not a thing. The problem with the food at Past Perfect is that it is terribly confused and lacks purpose, meaning or definition, the culinary equivalent of George Bush standing unscripted, sans handlers in front of a room full of kindergarteners. It just doesn’t make sense.
Appetizers begin with the Past Perfect Plate, which is exactly where hungry people should stop: a large platter set with three small ramekins of hummus, balsamic-sweetened black olive tapenade and beer cheese with baby carrots, snow peas, broccoli florets and warmed pita or toast for dipping. Two small squares of feta cheese finish the $10 dish, which is enough for two to share.
From there, matters spiral out of control with one of the worst cases of menu ADD I’ve ever seen: grilled chicken legs tossed in a cloying and bland Buffalo sauce, garnished with canned potato sticks; mushrooms Rockefeller (excuse me?); salads and wraps that cover Asia, the Mediterranean and the Southwest. The tiny font on the menu combined with the low lounge lighting prevented us from noticing that the Caesar salad is served with a choice of romaine or spinach (in which case it should be a spinach salad), but ours was simply made and delivered with the latter. The entrées have a Tigger-like hyperactivity, bouncing irrationally from one item to the next. An 8-ounce filet mignon leads the way, flying solo on a large white plate covered with an exceedingly salty beef gravy and mushrooms. The steamed and lifeless vegetable medley in a small side dish was pitiful. From there, it’s on to grilled grouper in a “sweet and savory orange glaze.” Thinking of chef Anthony Bourdain’s advice in his culinary tell-all Kitchen Confidential to avoid fish on Sunday, we passed. From fish to spaghetti and meatballs, filet cabernet (sliced tenderloin) to Chicken Nathanzola (grilled chicken in sun-dried tomato, garlic and Gorgonzola Alfredo sauce, tossed with farfalle), my head was spinning. We closed our eyes and ordered two of the house specialties: a bison burger, dry and tasteless and quite possibly the worst $10 I’ve ever spent, second only to the worst $11 I’ve ever spent, for the four slices of equally tasteless tenderloin fanned on a thick slice of toasted garlic bread and topped with a puddle of white dressing, minus even a crumble of the promised Gorgonzola. Sandwiches are served with kettle chips—proof that they really don’t have a fryer.
It is my policy to give new restaurants at least one month, preferably two, to test customer reaction, respond to diners’ suggestions or complaints and work the kinks out before I arrive with a critical eye. Reports coming in from the field on the food at Past Perfect have been consistently harsh, and a professional colleague of the owners—though not one associated with their business—suggested a couple of months ago that I give them “more time.” Past Perfect has been open for five months, during which time a huge structure has been under construction across the street and the adjacent and gorgeous Shelby Street Pedestrian Bridge has been drawing new crowds to SoBro. With a spot on the walking tour of downtown, within sight of the Country Music Hall of Fame, Gaylord Arena and LP Field, and on the threshold of a tremendous spike in downtown living, Past Perfect knew what it was doing when it chose a location. The question then: what the hell happened between concept and execution? Past Perfect needs to rethink the first and immediately remedy the second. There is absolutely nothing wrong with bar food—done well. Even Symphony swells crave a great burger and fries or a steaming plate of onion rings, a big bowl of chili, a fried fish sandwich. Or call it a bar, pull the plug on the kitchen and stop disappointing innocent people with the unsupportable claim of “Best Food Downtown!” Saying it doesn’t make it so, and as your momma says, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.
Past Perfect is open 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. daily. The kitchen is open until 2 a.m.