Good Pub 

McCabe family approaches 25th year in their neighborhood landmark

In December 1986, Ernie Fleming came to McCabe Pub to help out his friend, owner John Dean, for a couple weeks. In December, he will mark his 20th anniversary with the Sylvan Park restaurant.

In December 1986, Ernie Fleming came to McCabe Pub to help out his friend, owner John Dean, for a couple weeks. In December, he will mark his 20th anniversary with the Sylvan Park restaurant, a gathering place as ingrained in the fabric of the West Nashville neighborhood as McCabe Park and McCabe Golf Course, from which Dean took the name.

“At the time, there was just one other place in town with the name Pub,” remembers Dean, sitting at a table in the corner of the restaurant one afternoon with wife Josephine, daughters Stefanie and Katie, and Fleming. “I figured if we named it McCabe Pub, it would be easy to find. Lots of people golfed at McCabe because it’s a public course, and lots of softball teams played in McCabe Park.”

People have been finding McCabe Pub for close to 25 years now, and, like Fleming, once they walk in the door, they tend to come back again and again. In fact, while bartender James Anderson will also get his 20-year pin next month, there are customers whose tenures stretch nearly back to August 1982, when Dean opened with a fairly simple concept: “A group of fellas just wanted a nice place to watch a game and have a beer.”

A regular at Doug’s Pub—a former West End Avenue landmark—Dean went looking for just such a place in the neighborhood where he was born, raised and graduated high school. “Bogie’s was a beer joint here on the corner,” he says. “It was in an old house, it had a small bar and draft beer. The owners wanted to sell out, so I did a lease with Woody Miller, who owned the property. It was a handshake deal. He said if I decided to develop the property, he would tote the note, and he was good on his word. There wouldn’t be a McCabe Pub if it weren’t for Woody Miller.”

A regular at Doug’s Pub—a former West End Avenue landmark—Dean went looking for just such a place in the neighborhood where he was born, raised and graduated high school. “Bogie’s was a beer joint here on the corner,” he says. “It was in an old house, it had a small bar and draft beer. The owners wanted to sell out, so I did a lease with Woody Miller, who owned the property. It was a handshake deal. He said if I decided to develop the property, he would tote the note, and he was good on his word. There wouldn’t be a McCabe Pub if it weren’t for Woody Miller.”

Originally, Dean thought he would just renovate the existing building, but it was in such bad shape he decided to tear it down and start anew—with one exception. “We were afraid that if we tore the whole thing down, we would lose the beer license, because the beer laws had changed. If we kept some of the old building, we were grandfathered in. So we left one corner and part of the floor. Everything else we built.”

When McCabe first opened, there were two televisions, one of them an early model big-screen. They served bottled beer, a burger and a couple of sandwiches. The theory behind the name was a good one—people knew where it was. They just had a hell of a time getting there, thanks to I-440 under construction up the road. In spite of that obstacle, Dean says, his little sports pub became pretty popular, particularly with members of the softball teams he sponsored and the rest of the league that played at McCabe Park. “They would come over after the game for a beer and a burger,” he says. As the menu expanded, so did the clientele. “When we added liquor, the men who were coming in started to bring their dates. We decided we wanted to do a lunch business, so we added meat-and-three. That brought families in at night to eat.”

Family could be McCabe Pub’s middle name. Josephine came on board to work the door as greeter and seater about 20 years ago, and the couple’s four daughters—from eldest to youngest: Christene, Ronnie, Stefanie and Katie—have worked there since they were old enough to walk. “Mom would bring us to work with her when we were little and we would take naps in the booths,” says Katie. “That was back when it was fun to pick up dishes and pat burgers. It was the best thing in the world to be here.” Stefanie nods in agreement. “We would rather have been here than at home. This is home to us, and everybody here is like an extended family to us. We grew up here.”

They’re not the only ones. Some customers became part of the extended family nearly from the moment of conception. Josephine brings up Scene writer Walter Jowers and his wife Brenda, who live one neighborhood over and have been eating at McCabe Pub for years. In fact, on the day Brenda was to deliver their daughter, Walter ran over to McCabe at lunchtime for a quick bite. When he explained where Brenda was, Josephine sent him on his way with a big salad and a slice of pumpkin cheesecake, which the new mom consumed shortly after giving birth at 9 that night. Not one minute after Josephine tells the story, Walter walks in the door to have dinner with Jess, who celebrated her 18th birthday Nov. 21.

About 20 years ago, Dean added the side room and more recently tacked on a patio. “I wanted to have outdoor seating for years and years,” Josephine says. “But John would never agree to it. One day he finally said, ‘Well, if you want to do it, go ahead.’ He barely had the words out of his mouth and I was out the door running to get the furniture. I was afraid he would change his mind.” Though the area has become so popular that on many spring, summer and fall nights it has a waiting list, John is still not convinced. “Just a bunch of tables and chairs on asphalt,” he grumbles. The two Dean daughters stick up for their mother, noting how the area is fenced, landscaped and shaded.

Add to Josephine’s job description chief baker, responsible for most of McCabe Pub’s homemade desserts, a menu expansion she oversaw. “We added the crunches first, then the Hershey Syrup cake—Jimmy Buffet used to love that—and then the coconut cake.” Over the years, the menu has swelled beyond burgers to include something for almost everyone, though record producer Norro Wilson whines relentlessly about the lack of a steak. “We’d love to stop Norro from complaining,” Dean says, “but we just can’t find a steak of the quality we insist on at the price point we are comfortable charging. He can go to a steak house if he wants a steak.”

Though all of the Dean girls have worked at the restaurant, the older two are no longer in the business. Stefanie and Katie—both MTSU graduates with master’s degrees—have taken over for their parents, who still come in on nearly a daily basis. “We let mom water the plants,” Stefanie says with a grin. “And, of course, she still bakes. You can find Dad on the barstool by the service area; he can see everything from there—the front door, the kitchen and the bar.”

But if he wants the Best Bacon Cheeseburger in Town, he’ll find it at McCabe. Awarded the title more than 20 years ago by the Tennessean restaurant critic at the time, Joan Dew, the restaurant has ably defended it ever since. The plump hand-patted burger dominates its roll, with thick slices of bacon protruding from either end. McCabe is also known for Fleming’s specialty soups, particularly the cream of chicken mushroom and the chicken tortilla. “I have about 30,” Fleming says. “I change them out according to the season.” Year-round classics include the individual meat loaf (the recipe was John’s mother’s); the catfish, dipped in homemade batter and served with secret-recipe tartar sauce; the hand-cut fries; the pork chop sandwich (the Deans like theirs blackened and topped with cheese); the Mexican cornbread, prepared like corn cakes; and the old-fashioned Southern casseroles (squash, broccoli and sweet potato). Fried chicken liver aficionados love the McCabe version, served with sautéed onions and a corn cake. Dean says he got the idea from another veteran restaurateur, John Rotier. “He said they sold the heck out of ’em over at his place. So I figured we’d give them a try. We sell the heck out of ’em, too.” Despite its popularity, the item is not a favorite of Fleming’s. “I still can’t stand to touch ’em,” the chef admits with a shudder. “I wear gloves to prep them.”

Though all of the Dean girls have worked at the restaurant, the older two are no longer in the business. Stefanie and Katie—both MTSU graduates with master’s degrees—have taken over for their parents, who still come in on nearly a daily basis. “We let mom water the plants,” Stefanie says with a grin. “And, of course, she still bakes. You can find Dad on the barstool by the service area; he can see everything from there—the front door, the kitchen and the bar.”

On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, the family will decorate the restaurant for Christmas, and they’ll play holiday music on the sound system until the end of the year. James Anderson will start making his famous hot buttered rum behind the bar to the delight of his regulars. Jazz singer and former hostess Annie Sellick will return for a short engagement working the front door. Casseroles, cakes and pies—available for bulk purchase to go—will find their way onto holiday tables all over Nashville. And McCabe Pub will approach its next quarter-century with a second generation of Deans running the restaurant they call home, serving a second—and even a third—generation of customers who do the same.

McCabe Pub is open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

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