8400 Highway 100. 646-9700
6 a.m.-9 p.m. Mon.-Fri.;
7 a.m.-9 p.m. Sat.-Sun.
Tom Morales doesn't pretend to be a psychic, but he can pretty well predict what longtime customers of the venerable Loveless Cafe will say the first time they come back to the table at the newly reopened Nashville dining institution. "These biscuits are good, but they're not the same."
"They're not the same," he confirms. "We have more than one working oven now. But it's the same woman making them, Carol Fay Ellison, who has been doing it for 25 years. She doesn't ever measure, so the biscuits are never the same from batch to batch, but they're better now; they're cooked."
When he purchased the 53-year-old Loveless Cafe last November, Morales had to feel a little bit like the folks charged with restoring the Ryman Auditorium a decade ago, another iconic Nashville landmark: how to preserve the history of a legend and honor the memories of generations of fans, while restoring faded glory and modernizing the infrastructure?
"Like most Nashville natives, or people who have lived here a long time, the Loveless held a pretty firm place in my memory," says Morales, the founder and owner of TomKats catering, which enjoys a tremendous reputation in the movie-location catering field. "It hurt me in recent years to go there and see it falling into disrepair. I felt like it was a cherished community asset, and I wanted to save it, but I didn't know if it could be saved. Then I heard there was a possibility that the buildings and property would be sold and a strip center built in its place, so I called the only person I know with a lot of money and said, 'Help me do this.' We acquired it last November, and I spent the next four months sitting in there, watching operations, observing everything I could."
What Morales observed was a restaurant sorely in need of deep-cleaning, new equipment, more space, upgraded facilities and an energy boost; but he was very cognizant that no matter how shabby, worn and tired it had become, it maintained a near-sacred place in the hearts of its customers and staff. "It became more daunting the more time I spent there," he recalls. "It was much more of a challenge to take a place that everyone had a perception of and memories invested in, and honor that, than it would have been to create something new."
In February of 2004, the Loveless closed for business for the first time in more than 50 years. To undertake the restoration project, Morales called Seab Tuck of Tuck-Hinton Architects, a firm whose most public works include the Bicentennial Mall, the Frist Center for the Visual Arts and the Country Music Hall of Fame. The plan was to preserve as much of the original buildingwhich had once been the home of Lon and Ann Loveless, proprietors of the motel in the early '50swhile adding on to make room for new bathrooms, a new kitchen and expanded seating. "We wanted the addition to be built onto the back, so that when people drove by, the Loveless would still look the same from the road. We didn't want to alarm anyone."
They cleaned up the property, improved parking and, most significantly, refurbished the old motel roomswhich had in recent years been used for storage and the Loveless' Hams and Jams mail-order business. (Those are now leased by specialty shopsan outdoor store with canoe and kayak rentals, a cycling store with bicycle rentals, a shop selling handcrafted jewelryas well as the greatly expanded Loveless retail store.)
On June 23, a ribbon-cutting ceremony and the lighting of the "Hot Biscuits" sign out front signaled the resurrection of the Loveless. The timing took advantage of summer road-trippers who travel the 444-mile Natchez Trace Parkway, which has its northern terminus just a stone's throw from the Loveless' driveway.
Business, which had declined measurably in the past few years, has been booming ever since. "Well, I think a lot of it has been curiosity," Morales says modestly. "A lot of people are coming in just to see if we screwed it up."
The answer is a resounding no. The bones of the existing structure remain, though they have been degreased, painted and polished, windows scrubbed squeaky-clean. The framed photos of stars, former stars and never-were stars are reassuring in their cheesy familiarity, providing a good 15 minutes of finger-pointing amusement. The rooster art and collectibles, antique wood-and-glass cabinets, mason jars and old milk bottles are dusted and back on display; new checkered oilcloths and cheery cafe curtains made from old tea towels provoke memories of Sunday dinner at Grandma's.
The first room to the right is aptly named the "transition room"; though new, it is designed and decorated like the original space. It leads to the large addition on the back, which is very up-to-the-minute, but not in a way that could offend even long-tenured Loveless veterans, thanks to the gleaming oak floors, solid wooden beams, buttery walls, golden paneling, big paned windows, and the same solid chairs and tables covered with the same checkered oilcloth.
For years, breakfast was the backbone of business for the cafe, and the tradition is so entrenched in Loveless lore that it is still offered daily until 5 p.m. (There is also a separate lunch menu from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.) The staples remain: country ham and eggs with red-eye gravy; sausage, bacon and steak; three-egg omelets; pancakes and waffles. All seem to have a new lease on life, ratcheted up several notches on the quality-control scale as compared to my last, very disappointing visit here four years ago. The pork barbecue is a new addition, cooked in the new screened barbecue pit next to the restaurant. And the fried-green-tomato BLT is another creative breakfast option, though mine was decidedly not an improvement on the standard.
As explained on the back of the menu, Morales is committed to using the best local product he can find, which includes the fine Loveless peach and blackberry preserves. The country ham is from Gatton Farms in Kentucky, cured the slow, old-fashioned way, and not injected with smoke as many are today. Just as significant to Southern cuisine purists will be the waterwheel, mill-ground grits from Falls Mills in Belvedere, Tenn., a slow-cooked bowl of creamy, heavenly goodness.
Though breakfast, as Morales notes, "will always bring people to the Loveless," it is at lunch and dinner where business has really picked up. Much of that can be attributed to the remarkable residential development that now lines Highway 100. While a meal at the Loveless used to be a special outing to the country for people who live in the city, the young families who live in the new, neighboring subdivisions are finding that the Loveless sets a darned good dinner table.
Just like breakfast, a big white plate of steaming-hot biscuits, with butter and preserves, arrives as soon as you are seated; Morales says the kitchen bakes about 3,000 a day. Again, meat-and-three classics lead the cast: the Loveless' excellent, golden, skillet-fried chicken, rich chicken and dumplings, country ham dinner, and a meaty, moist meatloaf. A stellar supporting cast includes homemade sides like mac and cheese, white beans, field peas, yellow squash, slow-cooked flat green beans, chunky mashed potatoes, skillet-fried shoepeg corn and fried okra. (Note to cooks: lose half the breading on the okra.)
Making sparkling debuts have been the smokehouse platters: pork, turkey, chicken, pork chops and ribs; fried catfish; pecan/cornmeal-crusted, pan-fried Bucksnort trout; barbecue shrimp in a big bowl of those delectable grits, soaked with a spicy red sauce. Morales says he plans to add more "healthy items," but slowly, so as not to spark a heart-attack in traditionalists. Another crowd-pleasing addition has been wine, beer and a couple of mixed drinks.
Four words I rarely write in a review are these: save room for dessert. But I would be doing a grave disservice to readers if I did not strongly urgeno, no, insistthat you push away some of the hash brown casserole and instead dip your fork into a slice of pastry chef Alisa Huntsman's blue-ribbon pies, among them fresh berry, chocolate pecan, coconut cream and peanut butter. You will thank me for this advice as you are using your finger to wipe up the last smear of chocolate or baby blueberry off your empty plate.
When I was a child, our living room had an old rocking chair that my father's mother brought with her from Germany; when she stayed with us every summer, she sat in that rocker as she embroidered linens for her family and friends, humming, sewing, rocking. Years ago, I rescued it from my parents' basement. It was in pretty bad shape; it looked nearly hopeless, in fact. But once the wood was stripped and refinished, a couple of small repairs made, and the seat of the chair reupholstered in a beautiful vintage fabric, it was as good as new; it is where I rocked my two children in my lap when they were babies, and it sits today in my dining room. As it turned out, there was a lot of life left in that old chair.
There was a lot of life left in that old restaurant too. Because Tom Morales put his whole heart into saving the Loveless Cafe and Motel, one of Nashville's most beloved icons is as good as new, serving up heaping helpings of biscuits, hams, jams and sweet memories for generations to come.