The past embraces the present at Arthur’s Restaurant, the Nashville fine-dining establishment that marked its 26th anniversary on Aug. 26. For the past 15 years, it has been tucked into one corner of Union Station Hotel, the handsomely renovated and refurbished building that once served as Nashville’s passenger train terminal and remains one of the city’s most beautiful historic landmarks. Prominently hung on the walls of the luxuriously appointed room are three portraits: of Arthur Bloom, the restaurant’s namesake, who died in 1976; of Walter Thrailkill, one of the founding partners, who died in 1993; and of Walter’s wife, Sheila, who co-owned the restaurant until her death in 2001.
Jamie Camara, Walter Thrailkill’s business partner since 1969, is very much alive, a fixture in this award-winning institution, and an institution himself in the local industry. If there were a Nashville Dining Hall of Fame, both Arthur’s and Camara would be ensconced therein.
Colleagues in the hotel business, Camara and Thrailkill met in Denver in 1969. “Walter was a very robust man,” Camara recalls. “He weighed more than 250 pounds. I am quite small. We also came from very different backgrounds, but we respected each other professionally, liked each other personally and knew we wanted to start a business together. We teamed up, and in 1970, we opened The Captain’s Table in Hilton Head.”
Vacationing that year at the renowned Greenbriar Inn, the two men were impressed with a gentleman working as the “bread and butter boy” in the resort’s gourmet dining room. His name was Arthur Bloom. “Arthur was an executive in the garment industry in Boston, but after a heart attack and an acrimonious divorce, he decided to change his life. His brother was maître d’ at the Greenbriar and got Arthur in. He was so charming and endearing that we told him if he ever wanted to come to Hilton Head, he had a job with us. Two months later, he was knocking on our door.”
Arthur stayed with Thrailkill and Camara through the opening of additional restaurants, including one called the Overlook, so named for its scenic view of the Atlantic Ocean. When Bloom died in 1976, the business partners closed the restaurant for three days, and when it reopened, it was as Arthur’s Overlook.
Though their Hilton Head restaurants were quite successful, Walter’s wife Sheila was homesick for Tennessee, where she was born and raised. “Nashville was where they wanted to be, so I thought I’d just go with the flow,” Camara says. “We started looking for a location for a restaurant.”
They took over a place that was already home to a popular spot, The After Thought, in the lower level of the Belle Meade Plaza. On Aug. 20, 1979, they turned the key on Arthur’s Restaurant. “We had to drop ‘Overlook,’ ” Camara explains, “because it didn’t overlook anything. But we kept Arthur’s name. It was important to us.”
The original concept for Arthur’s—seven courses, all predetermined with the exception of the entrée—remains to this day, though the price of the prix fixe menu has gone up a bit, from $12.95 to $69.
That opening night, they rang up $25.90, not including alcohol and tax. “We had two customers our first night of business,” Camara admits. “But then [former Tennessean restaurant critic] Homer Blitch wrote us up so kindly in the paper, and from then on, it was all wonderful.”
Not that Arthur’s didn’t deserve a glowing review, but at the time, Blitch must have been happy to have something to write about. When it came to dining out, Nashville circa 1979 had few choices and little excitement. Private country clubs were the domain of the city’s bluebloods, while Jimmy Kelly’s was the public alternative for old Nashville, as well as the watering hole for politically connected. The Stockyard catered to the music business and tourists. Houston’s was only 2 years old, and Faison’s was still two years away. There were tearooms, meat ’n’ threes, burger joints and barbecue shacks. The word “foodie” had never been heard or uttered in Nashville.
Along with Arthur’s, there were exactly two other upscale dining choices: the still active Italian restaurant Mario’s and the now closed Julian’s, which served French cuisine. These were the shining stars in the culinary zodiac, where the elite met to eat, to see and be seen; where birthdays, graduations, engagements, weddings, anniversaries and promotions were celebrated. Arthur’s proved particularly popular for such occasions: it was romantic and cozy enough for intimate dinners, and especially accommodating to large parties. Other than the entrée, there were no decisions to be made, courses were delivered simultaneously, and the check could be easily split if that was called for.
The restaurant’s popularity soon outgrew its space—there were just 46 seats in the Belle Meade dining room—so bigger digs were found in Green Hills. Arthur’s took over a slot at one end of what was then a small shopping center on Abbott Martin Road, opening to a full house in November 1982. Camara and Thrailkill remained there until the final day of 1989, when their lease ran out with the new owners of the Mall at Green Hills.
Six weeks later, they and their loyal clientele celebrated Valentine’s Day at the third Nashville location for Arthur’s, in Union Station Hotel. Since Feb. 14, 1990, they have marked 15 more. This Dec. 31, they will see out the old year for the 16th time, but sadly, they will not be ringing in the new—at least not in Union Station. The new owners of the hotel have informed Camara and Jim Breuss, his partner of the last few years, that their time runs out at the end of this year. Until then, Camara will continue to do what he has done his entire professional life: welcome customers as if they were family, wine them, dine them and, when the evening is done, invite them to come back. But at this point, not even Camara can say where. “We are looking at options. I would like to open one more Arthur’s, do it for a few more years, and then retire. This is all I have ever done. It’s been a wonderful life.”