Food Fight 

Why is it so hard for independent restaurants to thrive in Nashville?

Why is it so hard for independent restaurants to thrive in Nashville?

When P.F. Chang’s opened for its first day of business at 11 a.m. on Labor Day, four people were already standing at the door. They were the first customers at the brand-new restaurant, but they were among the last not to encounter a wait of up to two hours for one of the nearly 200 seats inside one of Nashville’s most eagerly anticipated new eateries.

It’s not the first time this restaurant has met with such success. In fact, the P.F. Chang’s at 2525 West End Ave. is the company’s 42nd since its founding in 1993, and many more are planned for cities all over the country. The restaurants offer Americanized, upper-end versions of traditional Chinese cuisine in elegant yet comfortable settings. Though each outlet is slightly different depending on its location, they all feature similar design elements of natural wood, stone, tile, and jewel-tone fabrics; panoramic hand-painted murals depicting ancient China; and exhibition wok cooking. Dishes are made to order, using no MSG, and there is an extensive selection of American-style desserts, along with espresso and cappuccino. The full bar offers more than 50 wines by the glass. In other words, P.F. Chang’s differs substantially from your typical mom-and-pop-owned Chinese restaurant.

But that’s where P.F. Chang’s individuality ends. The menu that Nashvillians order from is exactly the same as the one in Salt Lake City, Austin, Boston, Cincinnati, and Miami. The Peking Dumplings, Chang’s Chicken in Soothing Lettuce Wraps, Ahi Tuna Salad, and Lemon Pepper Shrimp are made the exact same way in Tempe, Dallas, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles. According to a recent industry story in Shopping Center World, the kitchen is always standardized. Says Rick Federico, president and CEO, “We’re not having to go in and figure out how to operate. All functions are identical.”

Nashville has long embraced chain restaurants (though P.F. Chang’s prefers to be called a “family” or “group”). We have several homegrown chains—Houston’s, O’Charley’s, J. Alexander’s, Cracker Barrel, and Shoney’s among them—and plenty of imports, including two Olive Gardens, four Outbacks, three Chili’s, four TGI Friday’s, and 15 Applebee’s. Then there’s Planet Hollywood, Hard Rock Cafe, NASCAR Cafe, and now the Rainforest Cafe. Sometimes it seems that these national chains, much like Walgreen’s, pop up nearly overnight with a ready-made customer base. Their indisputable success seems to prove the theory that most Americans prefer the familiar and predictable, whether in their pharmacies or their restaurants.

But that means Nashvillians who hunger for an unusual dining experience—who would rather challenge than appease their taste buds—have to look a little harder. True, they don’t have to look quite as hard as they used to. The tremendous development of ethnic restaurants on Nolensville Pike, Murfreesboro Road, and Charlotte Avenue is testament to the burgeoning growth of Nashville’s immigrant population and to an increasingly adventurous spirit among local diners. But if you’re craving a full-service, quality dining experience using fresh, regional ingredients, the choices get much narrower.

There’s no doubt that Nashville’s dining landscape has grown and diversified considerably in the last decade, and it’s light years away from 1980, when there wasn’t a steak to be had for love or money much past 9 p.m. Yet industry veterans and disgruntled foodies still think that for a city of its size, Nashville is sorely lacking in restaurants that make a unique statement of the owner and/or chef—the kind of eateries that distinguish a town for its dining sophistication. While people are willing to stand in line for two hours at P.F. Chang’s for Crispy Honey Shrimp and Peanut-Lime Chicken Salad, on any given weeknight there are tables for the asking at establishments like Sasso in East Nashville and Mirror in 12 South.

Prying Nashvillians out of their chain-restaurant comfort zone to try something new and different is just one of the many challenges facing independent restaurateurs. As this paper’s restaurant critic, one of the questions I am asked most often is, “Why doesn’t Nashville have better restaurants like [insert the name of any other similarly sized city]?”

The answer is complicated. Even as Nashville grows increasingly cosmopolitan and adventurous, there are factors both common to the industry and unique to Nashville that make opening and succeeding with an independent restaurant as difficult and frustrating as creating a flawless soufflé. In a town like ours, location is especially crucial, given that people tend to move in fairly limited geographic comfort zones. But complicating that even further are technical issues that every aspiring local restaurateur must untangle: Byzantine zoning codes that can sink even the most well-intentioned of economic endeavors, not to mention restrictive liquor laws that reflect our presence in the heart of the Bible Belt.

Like many things, though, the problems all begin with money. Rick Bolsom—who with wife Vicki opened Cakewalk in 1987, owns Tin Angel, co-owns Zola with Ernie and Deb Paquette, and is an investor in Mirror—has a little joke he likes to tell: “How do you make a small fortune in the restaurant industry? Start with a large fortune.”

Raising capital is a challenge for anyone wanting to open a small business, with a few special caveats reserved for those entering the restaurant industry. According to the Small Business Administration, four out of five small businesses fail in the first five years of operation. By comparison, four out of five restaurants fail in the first two years, and many don’t make it to their first birthday. It’s a depressing statistic, but one well known within banking circles. A chef making $50,000 a year who applies for a loan large enough to open a little place of his own—at least in the low six figures—will be ushered out the door with little more than best wishes and a promise that the banker will come by for a meal someday.

It’s one thing if you’re a P.F. Chang’s, which has the capital and the clout necessary to secure the $2 million it typically invests in each location. It’s another if you’re an average Joe looking for a hundred grand.

“Restaurants are a four-letter word to bankers,” says Randy Rayburn, who opened Sunset Grill in November 1990 and purchased Midtown Cafe in September 1997. Even though he had a proven track record of success in the industry, operating a dozen of Nashville’s best-known and most successful eateries, Rayburn had to bring in a partner and sell his home, giving up 12 years of equity, to raise the money to open Sunset Grill. Despite the fact that Bolsom owned a successful hair salon, he and his wife raised the money for Cakewalk through purely personal funding. “Unless you have someone like Martha Ingram or Bill Frist cosigning your loan, you won’t get your money from a bank,” Bolsom says. Both entrepreneurs’ initial investments were considerably less than $2 million—in fact, they totaled about $100,000 each.

Chefs Anita Hartell and Corey Griffith met while working together in the Cakewalk kitchen. When they decided that becoming partners in their own restaurant was the perfect idea, they got socked with a reality check. “In Nashville, chefs are still basically blue-collar workers,” Hartell says. “So imagine two blue-collar workers going to a bank for a loan for a business with a failure rate as high as restaurants. We found that no one would take us—two chefs who also happen to be a woman and a black man—seriously. They wanted me to put my house up for collateral just to lease space. With two children, I didn’t feel I could do that.”

Instead, Hartell and Griffith, resigned to the fact that they couldn’t afford the sky-high prices in established locales, formed a partnership with Nina Neal, a paralegal who lived in East Nashville and owned rental property there. Together, the three purchased a run-down building at 14th and Woodland streets, spending nearly a year doing much of the renovation work themselves before they opened Sasso in late 1998.

There are other, equally arduous routes to the same goal. Kevin Boehm, who with chef/partner Scott Alderson will open the much-anticipated 6º in the former Javanco building on 12th Avenue South later this fall, dropped out of college in the late ’80s to pursue his dreams of owning a restaurant. The Midwest native spent three years bartending and waiting tables in Panama City, Fla., before saving the $35,000 he needed to open his first restaurant in 1992, Lazy Daze Cafe in Seagrove Beach. In 1994, Boehm sold Lazy Daze to Sandor Zambori and, using the money from that sale, opened The Indigo Wine Bar. Then, after selling his second restaurant, he decided to head north and open a restaurant in Chicago. On his way, he stopped at his hometown in Springfield, Ill., and decided to stay, opening Indigo there in 1998. Within three months, it was named Best New Restaurant in a local newspaper and was doing 300 dinners a night. Eventually, a developer made him an offer he couldn’t refuse, and he sold Indigo, signing a non-compete agreement effective until 2005.

Boehm went looking for a new city and a creative partner, which he found in chef Scott Alderson, who’d been executive chef at Marina Cafe in Destin, Criolla’s in Grayton Beach, and most recently 30A in Seagrove. Boehm knew some people in Nashville, who assured him that he could provide just what the city needed—a stylish and creative restaurant with exciting cuisine. The pair made a scouting trip to town, visiting some of the other independent restaurants here. “We went to Sunset, Bound’ry, and The Trace,” Boehm says, “and saw that they were doing the kind of food we embrace very successfully, and doing it six and seven days a week, not just weekends. We could see Nashville is growing and felt that the market was far from saturated with places like ours. We thought there was room for us too.”

The first place they looked for that room was the West End area, but like other independents before them, they found that real estate there was way out of their price range. Then they met real estate developers Steve Armistead and Bill Barkley, who’ve partnered with Marketstreet Equities, an investment firm formed by Steve Turner (Cal Jr.’s brother) and Joe Barker, to revive the gritty area just west of downtown known as The Gulch. The partners’ urban neighborhood concept, which might cost as much as $350 million, is envisioned as a 3-million-square-foot mix of apartments, condominiums, retail space, and office space. Boehm and Alderson were on the same page as Barkley and Armistead.

In March, Boehm and Alderson, who will be owners of the restaurant, signed a deal with Armistead and Barkley, who will be owners of the building that will house 6º. For his investment in the project, Boehm is using the money he received from the sale of Indigo, along with a loan from a bank in Springfield. “We didn’t even ask any banks here,” he says. “Banks don’t want to loan restaurants money. It has taken me opening and selling three successful restaurants to even get a bank to talk to me. I got the loan in Springfield, where people knew me and knew my restaurant.”

As the above tale demonstrates, finding a space is just as important as raising capital. Location, location, location—it can make all the difference in the world when it comes to succeeding in the restaurant business. P.F. Chang’s, located on busy West End Avenue, is almost impossible to miss. But try giving someone from Green Hills, Belle Meade, or Brentwood directions to Sasso in East Nashville or The Mad Platter in Germantown. “We have to go across the river?” they might say. Or, “North Nashville—isn’t that kind of dangerous?”

“One thing that concerned me about Nashville is that most people who live here think that if it’s not on West End, in Green Hills, or Hillsboro Village, they’re taking a trip,” Boehm observes. “But for anyone other than the big chains, there simply are no affordable buildings on West End Avenue. So you have to find an alternative location.”

Ten years ago, Hillsboro Village was an alternative location. When Rayburn signed the lease on a closed bicycle shop, he was taking a chance on the potential resurgence of what had once been one of Nashville’s busiest neighborhoods for dining and shopping but was then floundering. Today, he refers to the Village as an alternative mall, and he notes how the landlords and tenants have worked together to create a thriving and desirable mixed-use neighborhood.

But Hillsboro Village is an anomaly. Ever wonder why so many restaurants are located in strip malls or huge retail complexes like Hickory Hollow, Rivergate, and CoolSprings? For a plethora of reasons—not the least of which is Nashville’s current zoning legislation, which went into effect in 1998. “Finding a location in Nashville is a real problem,” Bolsom says. “Even if you are willing to take a chance on a less desirable neighborhood, the laws are very restrictive.” Rayburn agrees: “Under new zoning laws,” he says, “it is nearly impossible to open a new restaurant in an urban location.”

At the time the zoning laws were proposed and adopted, a suburban mind-set was clearly at work, with new specifics requiring vast parking lots, more space between buildings and the road, and more space devoted to landscaping. “The 1997 bill was a complete revision of our zoning codes, one that anyone looking at how Nashville had changed over the past 20 years could see needed to happen,” says Council member Eileen Beehan, who represents East Nashville. “But I think shortly after it passed, the Board of Zoning Appeals and planning commissioners began to see situations where there needed to be reversals of some of those new codes.”

“Even as it was being done, there were some people who thought it carried a one-size-fits-all formula,” says Cynthia Wood, supervisor of the sub-area planning section with the Metro Planning Commission. “It was always thought that there would be alterations made.” Sure enough, soon after the zoning laws passed, the Board of Zoning Appeals began to get requests for variances—and to see firsthand what obstacles the new laws presented in urban neighborhoods. The primary complaint was that the bill did not take into account the unique needs and features of urban neighborhoods such as 12 South, Belmont, Hillsboro, West End, Sylvan Park, and East Nashville, where lots are smaller, where houses are built more closely together than in suburban neighborhoods, and where there is plenty of on-street parking.

For Beehan, the problems with the zoning laws became clear as her constituents grappled with the regulations in the midst of recovering from the disastrous tornado that decimated their neighborhood in April 1998. “The tornado was really an impetus for me to look at the new regulations,” she remembers. “At the same time, the Planning Commission was also looking at the obstacles the new laws were presenting to business development.” The laws were especially difficult, for example, for developers working in the area south of Broadway. “I was bringing feedback from neighborhood meetings to the Planning Commission,” Beehan says.

As East Nashville spent the better part of a year clearing away debris and rebuilding houses, Hillsboro Village was confronting its own frustrations with the zoning laws and decided to take a proactive approach. In the spring of 1999, a committee of property owners, residents, government officials, and planning and design professionals created a set of design guidelines intended to preserve the character of the Village’s pre-World War II architecture. The area is now known as an Urban Design Overlay District, meaning that it has an extensive set of guidelines placed on top of existing zoning laws. The guidelines cover, among other things, building heights, exterior design, signage, and set-backs. (Tom Sheffer’s Jackson’s Coffee & Tea, at the corner of Belcourt and 21st Avenue South, was the first restaurant to apply for building permits under those guidelines.)

“The process of doing the Urban Design Overlay for Hillsboro Village revealed the thought that some of the things in Hillsboro Village were probably common to other areas of the city,” Wood says. “To have to go through that each time, for each neighborhood, would have been very time-consuming. We thought that if there was a way to apply those guidelines and the problems we were seeing with the new zoning regulations to other areas at one time, then we should investigate that.”

To that end, the Metro Planning staff assembled a team of consultants, headed by Don Elliott of Colorado-based Clarion Associates, to come up with a proposed Urban Zoning Overlay for the city’s core neighborhoods. One of the goals, according to Elliott, was to make sure that the zoning laws didn’t impede investments in new business. Wood notes that there were three main areas of concern: the placement of buildings on lots, the placement of parking areas, and the amount of parking required for each building.

For potential investors, business owners, and especially would-be restaurateurs, the biggest obstacles in the 1997 code were the new parking regulations, which created a stalemate in neighborhoods where space is at a premium. As they are currently written, laws require one paved parking space per 100 square feet of interior space in a full-service restaurant—that includes total square footage, not just the dining and bar area. The unintended effect of this might be that a business owner buys an adjoining piece of property—an old home or building—and knocks it down to provide parking, thus irrevocably changing the face of the neighborhood.

Also not taken into account was the fact that neighborhood restaurants might be willing to assume the risk that patrons could park nearby and walk a couple of blocks to their destination, a normal practice in other cities. But even if a restaurant owner opts to offer valet parking by hiring a parking service and leasing space in a nearby lot, the current laws require that the owner sign a 50-year lease on that lot—hardly a wise business move in the restaurant industry. Additionally, there are strict guidelines regarding shared parking areas.

Prior to opening Sasso, co-owner Nina Neal spent countless hours preparing appeals for parking variances for the East Nashville restaurant—variances that were granted in large part because administrators realized the need for a restaurant in the area, as well as the benefits that new business investment would bring to the neighborhood, which was still reeling from the effects of the tornado.

The owners of Mirror had no such leeway. Before the restaurant could open in July of this year, they had to shell out an additional $12,000 to meet current zoning regulations, paving what was a perfectly serviceable gravel lot beside an already paved parking lot. Co-owner Rick Bolsom points out that not only did the paving add expenses to an already tightly budgeted project, it resulted in additional construction time and raised questions about the environmental effects of laying asphalt over a piece of property that could have been developed in other ways.

The new Urban Zoning Overlay (UZO), which proposes to de-suburbanize the current zoning laws for about 23 square miles in the heart of Nashville—roughly the 1956 city limits—addresses these issues, particularly parking. As it was first written, the UZO allowed the first 2,000 square feet of space in a restaurant to be exempt from providing parking. After that, one space would be required for every 150 square feet of floor space. The standards for businesses sharing space (such as Mirror, which shares a building with Trim hair salon) were also loosened, as were the lease requirements for off-site parking: from 50 years to three years or the life of the building, whichever is greater. Also, further reductions were proposed for businesses located on a transit line, or with sidewalks out front, making the restaurant a walk-to destination.

On Aug. 1, the UZO bill, cosponsored by Beehan, had its first reading before Council. The bill was on the Council schedule for a second reading on Sept. 19, but didn’t make it out of committee before some Metro Council members raised concerns and recommended slowing its progress. Among those with concerns, specifically with regard to the proposed parking changes, were Ginger Hausser of District 18 (which includes Belmont, Hillsboro Village, Vanderbilt, and West End) and John Summers of District 24 (which includes Sylvan Park).

Both Hausser and Summers think the new parking regulations went too far the other way and could have negatively impacted the residential streets in their neighborhoods. “I am very familiar with the issues these new zoning regulations address, and certainly there are needs,” Summers says. “But let’s not so liberalize it that that it creates a parking and traffic problem for the neighborhood. People who move to a neighborhood for its residential attractions need to have some recourse against commercial development. You can’t tell me Sasso is strictly a neighborhood restaurant; people come from all over Nashville to eat there. We also don’t have a mass transit system that supports the concept of people taking a bus to a restaurant. While we want to attract these businesses to urban neighborhoods, we also don’t want to drive out residents who have taken a chance in these transitional neighborhoods.”

These concerns have resulted in amendments to the bill, which include lowering the parking exemption to the first 1,000 square feet of space and every 100 square feet after that. Other suggestions include reducing parking requirements based on location-specific factors, rather than implementing across-the-board rules. Even some restaurant owners agree with the proposed parking amendment: “I think that an exemption for 2,000 square feet is maybe too much, and that 1,000 [is] more reasonable,” Rayburn says. “Restaurants have an impact on a neighborhood, and they should strive to be a good neighbor. If you are not a good neighbor, you will not survive.”

A final Council vote on the bill is scheduled for Nov. 21.

It’s enough to drive a restaurant owner to drink—which he can do in his own restaurant, provided the establishment meets Nashville’s convoluted beer, wine, and liquor laws, many of which have been shaped by politics and religion. According to Will Cheek, an attorney with Lassiter, Tidwell & Hildebrand who specializes in beer and liquor licensing, we’ve come a long way. “Remember, it wasn’t that long ago that we didn’t have liquor by the drink,” he says. “These statutes were huge compromises between people who wanted to keep liquor out altogether and people who wanted to pass laws that would allow for the type of restaurants that could serve liquor.”

Still, there’s no one-stop shop when it comes to preparing your restaurant to serve a drink. Metro approves beer licensing, and the state approves permits for wine and liquor.

To receive a beer permit, a business owner must fill out an application detailing the business, the owner, the landlord, and shareholders; pass a health inspection; and be in compliance with all building codes. There must be adequate kitchen equipment to serve meals—as minimal as a freezer and a microwave—and seating for at least 25. The most stringent regulations for beer permits involve distance regulations. A business cannot serve beer if it is less than 100 feet from a church, a school and its playground, a park, a licensed daycare center or nursery and its playground, or a dwelling for one or two families.

There are exceptions. The distance policy does not apply to any business that received a permit prior to May 26, 1991, but if the business changes hands, it loses its exemption if it is closed for longer than a year. Nor does the policy apply to restaurants in the downtown area, as long as 50 percent of their sales are from food. Finally, the policy doesn’t apply to any Metro arena, an exemption that was in direct response to the Gaylord Entertainment Center’s well-publicized gaffe several years ago, when not long before completion of the building it was discovered that the First Baptist Church next door was only 90 feet away. “They had two choices,” Cheek recalls. “They could move the Arena, or they could change the law.” Bingo, presto, the exemption was introduced and passed.

Hillsboro Village suffers little from distance regulations, as there is just one church, and it’s far enough away not to have any impact, nor are there any schools, day-care centers, parks, or residences too close by. The same goes for Sylvan Park, where all the retail businesses have been concentrated into one strip on Murphy Road. But other mixed-use neighborhoods, such as Belmont, 12 South, and much of East Nashville are much more hampered by the regulations.

For instance, several aspiring restaurant owners have eyed the little market on Belmont Boulevard between Dallas and Paris Avenues, but the building’s current beer license is just for off-premises sales. It’s not clear if Metro’s Beer Permit Board would allow that permit to be changed for on-site sales and to be grandfathered in to override the distance regulations. (The market sits next door to a residence.) Another potential restaurant property, the former transmission shop at the corner of 12th Avenue and Sweetbriar, is across the street from the Islamic Center of Nashville and possibly too near the residence next door.

When it comes to wine and liquor, it’s not so much the distance between buildings as the space inside. To get a liquor or wine license, the restaurants must meet a larger seating capacity: 75 seats at tables for liquor, 40 for wine. It goes a long way toward explaining why patrons are seated elbow-to-elbow at Caffe Nonna, which just barely meets the wine requirements, and why they can’t get a mixed drink there.

According to Cheek, there isn’t as much popular movement afoot to change alcohol laws as there is to change zoning, though it would be easier to change beer laws because they are on a local level. “Changing state laws is a real problem, though they may be able to create a restaurant law that would apply only to Nashville. The process is complicated to begin with, but I think that the Metro Beer Board and the Alcoholic Beverage Commission work extraordinarily hard to make things work for people within the laws as they stand today.”

Let’s say you’ve cleared all these hurdles so far: You’ve got your money, your location, your parking, and your beer, wine, and liquor licenses. Now it’s time to staff your restaurant. Good luck.

Ask anyone running a business in Davidson and surrounding counties these days, and you’ll get an earful about labor shortages. Get into more specialized areas like restaurants, and you’ll really learn how hard it is to find good help these days. “There are many problems in finding good, knowledgeable, talented, professional help for the front and back of a restaurant,” Bolsom says. “You need a wait staff for the front and a kitchen staff for the back and management that can oversee both. That’s tough.”

Bolsom notes that in Nashville, people don’t look at a job as a waiter or waitress as a livelihood, as they do in larger cities. “In New York or L.A., every waiter might also be a struggling actor, but the fact of the matter is, they are making a living on the floor of a restaurant. If it weren’t for the music industry here, [the employment situation] would be even worse. I could cut an album with all the singers, songwriters, musicians, and engineers I have working for me.”

Another problem is that a young person applying for restaurant work often carries a frame of reference picked up in fast food and chain eateries. If a quality restaurant takes a chance on a novice and spends the considerable effort training him, the transitory nature of the business means there is a good chance he will jump ship to a newer, bigger, hotter restaurant.

Even laborers for the least skilled positions can be hard to come by. According to Corey Griffith at Sasso, the restaurant has gone through more than 20 dishwashers in the two years it has been open. He believes the proliferation of big theme and chain restaurants is partly to blame. “They are having such a hard time getting help that they are willing—and able—to pay ridiculous wages,” he complains. “Small restaurants like us can’t afford that. Before I pay $10 an hour for a dishwasher, I’ll buy more plates and just run through them every night.”

But good service and clean plates won’t get you very far if you don’t have inspiring food. Increasingly, Nashville has become a city that recognizes the names under the toques, a result of more restaurants being chef-driven than in the past (and a definite sign that our restaurant options have both improved and increased). In some cases, the restaurant is chef-owned; in others such as Sasso, Caffe Nonna, and Zola, the chefs hook up with savvy business partners or investors who have an interest in helping that chef pursue his or her talents. But sometimes the owner has to find, recruit, and nurture that special person. It’s not always easy. To replace Deb Paquette when she left Cakewalk for Bound’ry several years ago, Bolsom placed ads in papers as far afield as New York and San Francisco, and he ended up interviewing 15 contenders.

There are two routes to a career as a chef: by learning hands-on in the kitchen or by attending culinary school. Either way, the aspiring chef is not so likely to think of Nashville as the best career move. “Let’s face it—a kid spends $35,000 at Culinary Institute of America, they don’t usually think of Nashville first when they get out,” Bolsom says. “They want to go to New York or L.A. or San Francisco. They’ll even work in a kitchen in Paris for free for a year just to get it on their résumé. Nashville—and much of the South—is still not considered a food city.”

Even if you are able to recruit, and pay, a star chef, finding the appropriate caliber of staff to work under him or her remains a problem. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation: To attract and keep quality, creative talent, you’ve got to offer fine, innovative restaurants for them to work in. To have fine, innovative restaurants, you must attract and keep quality, creative talent. Once again, the chain restaurants—even upper-end ones like P.F. Chang’s—don’t face this problem; they can offer a bigger name, higher wages, and more benefits, and they don’t require quite the level of imagination and creativity in their standardized kitchens.

But recently, Nashville has seen an immigration of relatively young, out-of-town chefs who are unable to afford the investment necessary in bigger, more cosmopolitan cities, or who find those markets oversaturated. These up-and-coming kitchen professionals are looking at Nashville as a place to have their own slice of the pie. They include Colleen and Michael DeGregory, who moved from Miami and opened Mirror; Dyersberg’s Richard Graham and Kevin Alexandroni, who just opened Le Cou Rouge; and Boehm and Alderson of 6º. In November, Aaron Roberts and Drew Watson, two San Francisco chefs with admirable résumés, will move here with the intent of opening their own restaurant next year.

The arrival of national, upscale chains like P.F. Chang’s and The Palm, set to open in December, is a clear sign that Nashville is shedding its image as a provincial Southern town and is now gaining status as a growing, exciting cosmopolitan city worthy of $2 million investments. “We’ve had Nashville on our books for some time,” says P.F. Chang’s operating partner Jay Roberts. “We had identified West End as a premier restaurant area, and when that space became an option, we knew the time was right. It was a combination of the growth of the city and its pulse.”

It’s flattering, and all well and good, that P.F. Chang’s considers Nashville an attractive city, but in the end, that’s essentially all P.F. Chang’s says about us: The chain’s new location on West End Avenue is more a reflection of the company than of our city.

The emergence of smaller, independent restaurants like Mirror and 6º is a more significant measure of our growth: Not only do they add personality and individuality to Nashville, but such businesses take the lead in nursing important but borderline neighborhoods back to good health. “Restaurants are traditionally groundbreakers, pioneers, in older, transitional neighborhoods, among the first to go in and take a chance,” says Cynthia Wood of Metro Planning. “And that’s why we want to give them a boost. It is in everyone’s best interest.”

If such restaurants are to survive and thrive, the people of Nashville must also give them that boost. Chain restaurants are a reflection of a concept and policy put in place by a corporation located hundreds of miles away, but independent restaurants are a reflection of the people inside: the ones who own them, who run them, and who frequent them.

Can these restaurants compete with the big boys? They can if Nashville diners reward investors’ risks by taking a risk of their own—by literally putting their money where their mouths are. “Thirteen years ago, when we opened Cakewalk, there were very few people in Nashville who understood that kind of restaurant,” Bolsom says. “On our worst night, we did three dinners. When we finally hired a dishwasher, we felt we had made it. You have to educate and expose people; it’s like that with anything new and different. In the end, despite all the odds, if this is your dream, you’re going to do it. You have to be willing to make a leap of faith, and hope that there are people out there willing to make it with you.”

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