Frist Center Cafe
919 Broadway. 244-3340.
Open 1-5 p.m. Sun.; 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Mon.-Sat., until 8 p.m. Thurs.
The first time I went to the Frist Center Cafe, the smart little restaurant that attends to the nutritional needs of visitors to the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, was on the last day of the 2000-2001 Metro school year. Right away, I ran into Mayor Bill Purcell, who was with his senior policy advisor Patrick Willard. The mayor had just joined the service line that runs past the streamlined cases storing the cafe’s attractively displayed selection of salads, sandwiches, and desserts. Just the day before, he’d delivered his State of Metro address, in which he announced he would be asking for a property tax increase to fund several proposed budget initiatives, among them increased spending on public schools.
One might have expected the most powerful man in local government to mark the occasion with a power lunch at The Palm or Sunset Grill. But there he was, humbly standing in line like an average Joe, a cafeteria tray and napkin-wrapped utensils in hand, patiently waiting to order a Cobb salad just like everybody else. I said hello and thanked him for proposing more money to Metro schools.
When I carried a tray of drinks outside to where my children and their friends had commandeered a table and had been not-so-patiently waiting for their food, they asked me what had taken so long. Although I’d encountered some logistical problems in the service line, I simply told them that I had been talking to the Mayor. “The Mayor!” they exclaimed as one, as if I had said “Eddie George” or “Derek Jeter.” And off they went, four children in one flying mass of arms and legs and baseball caps, racing through the massive glass doors and into the Frist Cafe, where they braked right in front of the Mayor.
“Mayor Purcell!” they exclaimed. “Do you remember us?”
The mayor, smart man that he is, responded, “Of course I do. I came to your school this year!” The children, unaware that he’d visited every Metro Nashville school sometime in the last year, and forgetting they were wearing their Percy Priest Elementary T-shirts, were thrilled that someone so important knew them personally.
They exchanged a bit more chitchat, but when my food finally came up, Mayor Purcell lost the battle for the kids’ attention to a corn dog, chicken fingers, and a piece of pizza. Ah well, it happens to me all the time. We bid farewell to the city’s top executive, who had made a few inches of progress down the line toward the cashier.
The mayor wasn’t the only familiar face we ran into that day, but it was the most recognized by every other patron of the arts. So here’s a little warning: No matter who you are, if you want to eat in the Frist Cafe, you will probably have to stand in line. How long you stand in line depends on what time of day you go, and on the demographics and size of your party.
All in all, there are many, many more reasons to eat at the Frist Cafe than there are reasons not to, and any outing to enjoy the museum benefits from a visit to the cafe as well. But since I believe in getting the bad news out of the way first, let me explain that the ordering process can present a few problems. The service area is divided in two: On the left are coffee drinks, fruit smoothies, breakfast pastries, and desserts; to the right are salads, sandwiches, pizzas, soups, kids’ meals, and beverages. If you want to order from the right, pick up a tray and some utensils at the beginning of the line and place an order with one of the people behind the counterthough exactly which one can be confusing.
While I waited to be helped, I decided on a Thai chicken salad for me, but from where I was standing, I couldn’t see the children’s menu board or the beverages. I got out of line to see those, and by the time I got back to my place, the person behind me had already placed her large order. After she went ahead, I placed my order and was told they were out of kids’ pizza and that the root beer was sold in glass bottles. I stepped out of line again to reexamine my beverage and children’s choices, thereby holding up everyone behind me. It was annoying and frustrating.
So here’s a suggestion for Guckenheimer, the company that runs the cafe: Provide a pile of menus at the front door for people to pick up when they enter, and post a few throughout the dining room as well.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that a light meal at the Frist Cafe is one of the most appealing, tasty, and economical dining experiences in town. If you have been through the museum’s exhibits, the Frist Cafe will not be an aesthetic letdown. High ceilings, glass walls, carpeted floors, black and chrome chairs, and stainless steel tabletops lend an openness and contemporary sophistication to the room. In pleasant weather, the outdoor courtyard offers a plush swath of manicured lawn, gurgling fountains, and sculpture; if the tables are taken, there are other seating options.
But if you aren’t in the mood for Monet, you do not need to tour the Frist to eat in the cafe. It’s open at no charge to the public. If I worked in the area, I can’t imagine a better place to eat lunch and take a midday respite from the pressures of the office. (Mayor Purcell seems to think so.)
There are several options for a light meal in the cafe, and all of them are a world apart from what one used to find in museums back when the dining rooms were called cafeterias. Among the salads are the Thai chicken, a spicy steak, the classic Cobb, Caesar (traditional or with chicken or salmon), and an orange-broccoli with sesame noodles. Order one, and it will be tossed in front of your eyes, with your choice of seven different delectable dressings. All are large enough to serve as an entrée with the accompanying hunk of baguette. The two soup choices change daily, but don’t look for anything as pedestrian as chicken noodle: Try wild rice with lentils or roasted tomato with white beans and fennel. Served in heavy white bowls, these likewise make a meal. Better yet, do the salad-soup or soup-sandwich combo.
Sandwichesmost of which are served on Provence breadschange as well, though not as often as the soup. On our visit, we sampled grilled ham and pineapple, a turkey club, tuna, grilled salmon on a roll, a veggie wrap, and grilled Southwestern chicken. Each comes with a house-marinated pickle wedge and a huge handful of fantastic homemade potato chips. Hats off to chef Jennifer Wood and her staff for turning out such tasty, filling, and creative fare. She reports that she will tweak the bulk of the menu with every exhibit change.
The children’s menu has the usual suspectschicken tenders, corn dogs, pizza, grilled cheese sandwiches, and peanut butter and jelly, but all a cut above the usual.
Now for the best news: the price. Guckenheimer is headquartered in San Francisco; always ringing the bell for the local guy, I was pretty skeptical when I first heard that the company would be handling food service for the Frist. But as it was explained to me, the Frist put out feelers to several companies, and Guckenheimer came in with an above-average product at a below-average price. Every soup, salad, sandwich, and kiddie meal on the menu is under $5. I fed 10 people, including a bottled water for each, for exactly $50 before tax. All of which just goes to show: You don’t have to be the mayor to take advantage of a golden opportunity.
The cosmopolitan is so yesterday. The drink of the summer is the mojito, a refreshing South American concoction of rum, mint, lime, and sugarcane syrup. After reading about the cocktail a while ago in the Scene, Palm bartender Tim Hansen did a little field research, and a couple of weeks ago he began offering mojitos at the downtown steakhouse.
The arrival of the drink at 6º has also been very popular. According to co-owner Kevin Boehm, the restaurant has a group of regulars who order nothing but mojitos, and following the Backstreet Boys show here a couple weeks ago, one of the Boys came into 6º and ordered a pitcher.
Calvin LeHew, developer of The Factory at Franklinthe multi-use retail and restaurant center located in a beautifully renovated cluster of former industrial buildings on Franklin Roadconfirms that one of his first tenants, Magnolias Restaurant, has closed. The very upscale and very expensive restaurant, which opened in the spring of 1998, was the victim of mismanagement, overspending, and, ultimately, not enough business to fill the dining rooms. According to LeHew, shareholders are meeting and mulling the options for a new tenant.