Independent Means 

Reality bites at Cakewalk and Tin Angel

Reality bites at Cakewalk and Tin Angel

Cakewalk, one of Nashville’s most successful restaurants, celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. Newcomers to this sophisticated, coolly elegant restaurant would probably be surprised to know that Cakewalk started life as a bakery and to-go establishment. Within six months, however, owners Vicki and Rick Bolsom were making changes, scuttling the bakery and breakfast, and implementing the vision that is Cakewalk today. Over the past two years, Cakewalk has received more than a dozen awards for its food and service. Its national awards include The Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator magazine.

Cakewalk is a true success story. But, as the Bolsoms will gladly tell you, achieving that success has, by no means, been a cakewalk.

Success in the restaurant business requires many things, not the least of which is a vision. Sadly, the industry is littered with the failures of aspiring restaurateurs with nothing but a vision, people with so much vision that they can’t see the writing on the wall that says, “The idea ain’t working.” By the time reality hits them upside the head, it is often too late to make life-saving changes. Then, boom, another one bites the dust.

When the Bolsoms opened Tin Angel in August 1993, they had another kind of vision. They wanted to continue the neighborhood bar/restaurant tradition already established at the location by Bishop’s Pub, then Bishop’s Corner, then 32nd Avenue. Tin Angel was named for a Greenwich Village restaurant where Rick, a native New Yorker, says he “spent many happy hours.”

The culinary vision of the place was a bit more problematic. At the time, Tin Angel was described as an American bistro—healthy Southern cooking, home-cooking with a twist. The menu featured things like fried green tomatoes, veggie hush puppies, biscuits with Tennessee honey butter, macaroni and cheese, meat loaf, and a grilled pork chop. Entrées came with vegetable choices that included turnips and greens, baked applesauce, crowders and baby limas, sugar snap peas, and mashed potatoes.

When I reviewed Tin Angel in March 1994, I compared it to a Zima. It seemed to pique the curiosity, but there seemed to be a real gap between concept and execution.

It pained me to make the comparison. The Bolsoms—along with their original Cakewalk chef, Debra Paquette, who helped develop the first Tin Angel menus—have always displayed a commitment to culinary excellence, which they combine with enthusiastic but not unbridled creativity. At Tin Angel, the concept was offering tasty, fresh food that would be good for you, an amusing twist on that Nashville dining staple, the meat ’n’ three. A concept that would have been gangbusters in New York fell flat right here in Music City.

“The menu that we did and that we were very enthusiastic about doing just didn’t work,” Rick Bolsom admits. “People who loved it loved it a lot. Nobody else got it. I really had no idea, and didn’t anticipate that would happen.”

The Bolsoms moved to Plan B: They retooled their menu into something more sophisticated and contemporary, but they maintainined their vision of a comfortable neighborhood bistro. By 1995, they felt they had overcome the worst of the battle, but then construction began out on West End Avenue, just outside their front door. For almost six months they had no sidewalk and no street.

“Bless my regular customers,” says Bolsom. “It was a real struggle. After the construction was completed, it took several months just to get business back to where it was before.”

On most any evening at Tin Angel, it looks as if the Bolsoms have accomplished their objective. The bar and both dining rooms are user-friendly, imparting a warm, welcoming ease to new or tenured customers. This is a neighborhood restaurant that would be equally at home in Nashville, Boston, Chicago, or Birmingham.

The current Tin Angel menu bears little resemblance to the original; the only holdovers are the fried green tomatoes, the garden lasagna, and the meat loaf. The new menu is vegetarian-friendly without being vegetarian, healthy without being health-food oriented. Dishes are lively with fresh herbs and zesty seasonings; the combinations of flavors and textures are pleasant and aesthetically appealing.

The burger comes both in all-beef and in garden versions; there’s an 8-ounce filet mignon with smashed bleu potatoes, and there are vegetarian croquettes with cucumber yogurt sauce and apple dijon salsa; there’s grilled pork loin with apple cider shallot sauce, and there’s the Angel’s version of bruschetta—thick eggplant slices, lightly crumbed, layered with ricotta, parmesan and mozzarella, then served on pasta and spinach. Entrée salads are imaginative and satisfying, and sandwiches come with what many argue are the best french fries in town. Tin Angel relies on an all-day menu, with just a couple of adjustments that signal the transition from midday to evening. Prices are moderate. At lunch these days, you can expect a short wait for a table.

About a month ago, the Bolsoms made another change. They closed Cakewalk for lunch and moved some of the lunch staff and some of the menu items over to Tin Angel. Donald Main, former lunch chef at Cakewalk, is now sous chef at Tin Angel, where Joe Irwin serves as chef. Med Salad, Pasta Primavera, Tour de France, the wildly popular chicken and vegetable quesadillas, the hot turkey Reuben, and the bruschetta made the move as well.

Already, the Bolsoms are convinced they’ve made the right decision. “Periodically, you have to make a business decision that you hope is the right one,” says Rick. “We asked ourselves, what would be the most efficient way to get more enjoyment out of doing what we are doing. At Cakewalk, for all intents and purposes, I was running two different restaurants. By moving lunch over to Tin Angel, we have given ourselves more freedom at Cakewalk, we have more independence and, quite frankly, more room in the kitchen.”

Now, Rick says, Cakewalk can concentrate on dinner, “creating new dishes and offering the best possible dining experience for our customers.”

Compared to the rolling tank forces unleashed by chain restaurants, independents are the little engines that could. They will always be faced with the daunting challenge of making the most of limited means, of filling a niche that many never knew existed, of raising the bar of public taste, of making the transition from a vision of the perfect dining experience to the reality of filling tables. Few independents succeed—and many fail—but you have to respect them for trying.

“Eating is more than putting gasoline in the tank,” says Rick Bolsom. “Food should be a pleasurable experience. The difference between chain restaurants and independents is a passion for food. It’s the difference between marketing edibles and cooking good food.” Vive la différence.

Cakewalk is located at 3001 West End Ave. (320-7778). Open for dinner 5:30-10 p.m., Sun.-Thurs.; 5:30-11 p.m. Fri. and Sat. Brunch is served Sunday 11 a.m.-3 p.m.

Tin Angel is located at 3201 West End Ave. (298-3444). Open 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Mon.-Thurs.; 11 a.m.-midnight Fri.; 4:30 a.m.-midnight Sat.; closed Sundays.

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