Five terrific new restaurants on the Nashville dining scene

Five terrific new restaurants on the Nashville dining scene

Arts & Entertainment

During its opening night party on Dec. 27, 2000, 6º restaurant attracted a swarming mass of youthful scene-makers who cavorted about the dramatically designed, multileveled contemporary space as if it were the set for Sex & the Music City. Other independent restaurants in town, already engaged in a heated competition for every bottom (and bottom dollar) they could put in a seat, were nervous about the 200-seat, self-elected epicenter of hipdom. Their anxiety proved prophetic. That winter, spring and summer, 6º sizzled; it was the place to be for the bold and the beautiful.

Until it wasn’t. As summer faded into fall, the fast crowd turned its limited attention spans elsewhere. Suddenly the cavernous 9,000-square-foot room seemed as large as a warehouse, and the lonely question “Where’d everybody go?” echoed throughout the room.

Still, the closing of Nashville’s most high-profile new restaurant did nothing to stabilize the already shaky ground many local restaurateurs found themselves standing on in September 2001. Summer is traditionally a tough period for restaurants, and combined with a softening economy and the events of 9/11, this fall was the worst of times for the food service industry locally and nationally.

6º wasn’t the only restaurant to close in Nashville in 2001. Le Cou Rouge, the upscale French-Southern restaurant in Green Hills, lasted just over a year before shutting its doors in November. Clayton-Blackmon A Bistro, the tony Green Hills restaurant owned by catering duo Anne Clayton and Mary Blackmon, closed this summer. The excellent and innovative restaurant Quails, one of the best culinary reasons for Nashvillians to venture to Brentwood, closed in September. In Franklin, Magnolia’s also shut its doors, leaving Williamson Countians’ appetites to be tended by the numerous chain restaurants that have overrun Cool Springs.

But in spite of the daunting odds that face aspiring restaurateurs even in the best of times, several local chefs and entrepreneurs threw caution to the wind and opened. Here’s a look at five of my favorite new restaurants on the scene.

Certainly, The Palm—one of New York City’s most venerable dining institutions, and now a popular national family-owned chain of more than 20 locations—was in a far more secure position than other newcomers when it opened a Music City branch last December. The $64,000—or more likely, million dollar—question they faced was with Ruth’s Chris, Morton’s, Fleming’s and several other locally owned steakhouses already here, did Nashville really need another one? The answer is yes.

And the location didn’t hurt. The Palm is directly across from the Arena and next-door to the new Hilton Suites Hotel. Couple that with a 75-year legacy of quality and service, a rogue’s gallery of caricatures of local luminaries on the walls, and a power block of politicians, civic leaders, sports figures and music bizzers, and you having a winning formula. With confidence to spare, The Palm staked its claim to a hefty portion of Nashville’s dining dollar.

Willie Thomas, who made his debut in Nashville opening the much-acclaimed Capitol Grille in the Hermitage Hotel, was the first of a succession of young, creative chefs who took the wheel this year and opened a little place of their own. In January, Thomas left his most recent post at Bound’ry to open Park Café in the Sylvan Park neighborhood this March. One of a potpourri of shops and restaurants at the commercial curve of Murphy Road, Park includes a charming, covered outdoor patio and more than a half-dozen small, inviting rooms to dine in. The contemporary menu includes well-executed fusions of comfort French with Asian and Southwestern influences. Reservations are a must.

Bobby Kornsuwan married into one of our first families of Thai cuisine. His in-laws opened Siam Café nearly 25 years ago. Korsuwan himself opened Orchid in 1994, the area’s first fine-dining Thai restaurant. A dispute with partners led to his departure, so he and his in-laws opened Siam Cuisine up the road. Determined to make his own mark, he spent six months learning classic French cuisine under Emeril LeBrousse at Magnolia. When the Orchid space in the Albertson’s shopping center at Cool Springs became available, he signed a lease, redecorated and opened it as Jasmine. After a slow start, Williamson Countians are discovering the subtle delights of Thai food, and Nashvillians are discovering it’s not such a long drive. And well worth it too. Kornsuwan offers superb traditional renditions of his native cuisine, including refreshing vegetable, meat and shellfish salads and some entrées not found at other Thai restaurants in town. Make sure to try “Bobby’s Specialties” on the menu, as well as several happy marriages of Thai and French dishes.

Chef Margot McCormack was part of the team that helped transform F. Scott’s from a stodgy, conservative enclave of the mature monied set, to a lively, energetic restaurant popular with the younger monied set. After a five-year stint there, McCormack left this February and went east (East Nashville, that is) with partner Jay Frein. Renovating a dilapidated former service station in the bustling Five Points area, they unveiled Margot Café & Bar on June 5. The cozy, rustic two-leveled space, small bar, open kitchen, wine list from French, Italian and American vineyards and short, simple menu of country French bistro fare that changes daily has hit the spot in Nashville. Reservations for one of the 75 seats are a must on weekends—and not a bad idea during the week too.

At about the same time McCormack was arriving in East Nashville, chefs Corey Griffith and Anita Hartel were leaving after a falling out with their business partner at Sasso, the East Nashville restaurant the three opened in late 1998. It was only a matter of time before these iconoclasts of unbridled culinary bravura popped up somewhere else. On Aug. 3, in the middle of a huge storm that knocked out their power, the duo opened mAmbu in a renovated Victorian house on Hayes Street in the West End corridor. mAmbu, according to Griffith, means “my love for you,” and the feeling is obviously mutual, as longtime and newfound lovers of Griffith’s Asian-infused cooking and Hartell’s Mediterranean-flavored cuisine elbow for a table in one of the four quirkily decorated dining rooms.

Like everything else about the city, Nashville’s dining scene continues to evolve, with a nod to the arrival of some well-known, well-respected national players like The Palm and P.F. Chang’s. But special thanks for its evolution are due to the efforts of optimistic individuals who, despite daunting national industry statistics and restrictive Metro regulations, throw good sense to the wind, take that leap of faith and hope that after they open their doors, Nashville diners will follow.


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