Soup $4 cup, $5.50 bowl
There's a comforting patina of yesteryear at Diana's Sweet Shoppe, the downtown sandwich-and-candy emporium. Everything from the dark, rich wood paneling to the elegant sconces and chandeliers stirs nostalgia for a gracious, slow-moving past.
Of course, it's not Nashville's past that Diana's recalls, but the history of Port Huron, Mich., the lakeside town that claimed the sweet shop from 1926 until it closed in 2001. Three years ago, Nashville-based Gibson Guitar owner Henry Juszkiewicz, who also owns the Wurlitzer Jukebox company, discovered Diana's through his hunt for a Violano-Virtuoso, a hybrid of percussion and string instrument, of which the Port Huron shop owned a rare specimen. When Juszkiewicz attempted to purchase the musical relic, he ended up acquiring the shuttered sweet shop — lock, stock and barrel.
With the help of Strategic Hospitality owners Ben and Max Goldberg, the entrepreneurs behind Patterson House and Paradise Park Trailer Resort, Gibson Guitar extracted every panel, booth and beveled mirror and transported it to Nashville, where it was reassembled in the former Lower Broad location of Gibson Cafe.
According to an emotional account of Diana's published in Port Huron's newspaper The Times Herald, the reincarnation of the candy store is faithful to the original Michigan landmark, with two subtle exceptions: A punched-tin ceiling was replicated in the new location, and the Broadway store is three feet wider than the original establishment, in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The Times Herald also pointed out the absence of Diana's signature pizza bagels on the Nashville menu, a shortcoming that Ben Goldberg says he is working to address. Goldberg adapted the Diana's 2.0 menu to the limited kitchen infrastructure of the Broadway store, which does not have a deep fryer and other commercial kitchen components.
But the hometown paper of Port Huron conceded that the relocated candy store appeared pretty much intact, with wood floors, a cashier's cage and a phalanx of candy jars and cubbies filled with rich fudge, colored peppermints, jewel-toned jelly beans, Bit O' Honey candies and the occasional gummy rat.
The dining room behind the storefront candyland delivers a sturdy repertoire of predictable lunch counter staples, such as club, BLT and meatloaf sandwiches, as well as panini, soups and salads, which are available in combination. Patrons of the Goldbergs' Paradise Park Trailer Resort across the street will recognize the high quality of ingredients among low-brow cuisine. From sandwich breads baked locally at Charpier's to ice creams from Pied Piper Creamery in East Nashville, these thoughtful details — as much as the architectural relics — are a welcome throwback to a bygone era.
Soups stood out among our orders. Corn chowder delivered a deceptive smokiness that suggested a hidden infusion of bacon, but our server confirmed there was no meat in the recipe. Tomato bisque all but screamed out for a grilled cheese sandwich, and Diana's preparation of melted cheese slices on toasted sourdough bread met with hearty kid approval, despite the fact that it was not the molten, butter-soaked griddle version that some might hope for.
Chicken noodle soup with hunks of tender white meat and strands of al dente linguine straddled the textural line between thin broth and thick cream to offer a comforting lunch on a cold day.
What sandwiches lacked in inventiveness, they made up for in quality of ingredients, from tender grilled chicken breasts to plump sweet roasted red peppers.
In our experiences, we had two consistent gripes: The mixed greens of the salads arrived tired and wilted, like you might expect from the opening course in a banquet hall. And the iced tea was so weak that we dripped a sample onto a white plate to see if perhaps we hadn't been served water by mistake. (We had not.)
On the other hand, ice cream confections delighted on all counts — from sundaes to shakes — though we would expect nothing less of the hand-churned delicacies from Jenny Piper's twee boutique across the Cumberland River. In a sugary nod to its new home, the sweet shop offers a so-called Diana shake, infused with GooGoo Clusters. Meanwhile, the peanut butter shake is reason enough to keep an eye open for a parking spot on the way down Broadway.
In fact, the drill of parking downtown set up a nice contrast for our trip to Diana's. While we were prepared to pay premium rates to stash our vehicle, we were also resigned to shell out top dollar for lunch on the tourist strip of Lower Broad. To our surprise, Diana's resists the urge to price gouge, and the menu tops out at $11 for a combo of soup, salad and half-sandwich. At such reasonable prices, the retro candy store-cum-lunchroom becomes a contender for everyday lunch, as well as a kitschy destination for time travel. If the downtown crowd figures that out, Michigan's beloved throwback to the past could become a fixture of Nashville's dining future.
Diana's is open 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. The kitchen closes at 7 p.m.
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