2725 Clifton Ave. 329-4418
Seven days a week, the staff of Swett’s Restaurant arrives at work by 7 a.m. Inside of two hours, every available cooking surface is in use. The big grill is covered with perfect rounds of flat cornbreadthe kind without sugar. As the uncooked surfaces of the pancakes begin to bubble up, the man at the grill flips them over one by one, revealing a perfectly golden underside. Behind him are tall stacks of already cooked pancakes. Just coming out of the oven are large pans of baked cornbreadthe kind with sugar. Some like it sweet, some don’t.
On one stovetop are four huge pots, each containing a different item: corn, white beans, yellow squash for squash casserole, and pig’s feet. The pig’s feet, which actually include a pretty good portion of the leg, are easy to cook: Boil them up in water with some salt and pepper. They aren’t on the menu daily, but when they are, they always sell out.
When it comes to food preparation, much has stayed the same in the almost half-century that Swett’s has been feeding Nashville. Vegetables are still cooked fresh every day, and all the meat and fish is processed fresh on site. They’re still using the recipes handed down from David Swett Sr.’s mama, Susie. ”They ain’t hard recipes,“ the owner says, ”but we use all good, fresh product. We always have.“
Elsewhere in the kitchen, white potatoes are boiling in one huge vat, yams in another. The cabbage, macaroni and cheese, and apples have already been cooked and are in big warming pans, covered with foil.
At one table, a woman is slicing the meat loaf that was cooked the day before, putting it in another warming pan and slathering it with red sauce. Nearby are a mound of fried pork chops, big slabs of pork ribs, and another pan full of meaty beef ribs.
Beef tips simmer on top of another stove; the broth is used to make gravy, and the beef fat is used for a batch of turnip greens. For health or religious reasons, Swett says, some customers can’t have their greens cooked with ham, which is the more popular method, so Swett’s makes them both ways. The owner prefers his with pork: ”I guess I’m gonna die on time anyway, so I’d rather eat them the way I like them.“
Fried chicken gets cooked fresh during lunch. Five years ago, Swett bought a chicken rotisserie, another concession to some of his customers’ healthier eating habits. ”Not everybody wants fried, so we do it this way too, but fried chicken is still our most popular item,“ he says.
By 10:30 a.m., 80 percent of the work is done. Pans of food are carried out and put in the warming trays, and clean plates are stacked up on the counter behind the serving line. A worker goes over the dining room floor with a mop one more time, then checks each table for hot sauce and vinegar. By 10:45, customers start pulling up in the parking lot, wanting to be first in the door at 11. By 11:30, the cafeteria line is shoulder to shoulder, and the dining room is full. It will stay that way until the lunch rush is over, at about 1:30. Food is served until 8 p.m. at Swett’s, but lunch is the restaurant’s bread and butter.
The food at Swett’s may have stayed much the same over the decades, but plenty else has changed at the corner of 28th Avenue North and Clifton Avenue since Susie and Walter Swett went into business there on Sept. 21, 1954. At the time, Nashville, along with the rest of the South, was completely segregated. The neighborhood surrounding bustling Jefferson Street was exclusively African American, and whites rarely had occasion to venture into that part of town.
Walter had been running a grocery store but was struggling to provide for his wife and nine children. The couple decided to go into business for themselves and opened a tavern to sell beer and sandwiches. It was right around the corner from their house at 32nd and Clifton, so Walter took the early and late shifts; when he went home to nap around lunchtime, Susie went to work. She began cooking a few things for her customers, including fried chicken. By the early ’60s, they were selling more food than beer.
While all nine of the Swett children worked there at one time or anotherbussing tables, cleaning up, working in the kitchenall went on to do other things. David, the youngest, was working at the Ford Glass Plant, but it wasn’t steady. He and other African Americans would be hired for 90 daysso the company could fulfill minority hiring obligationsthen get laid off for the rest of the year. He started spending more time at the restaurant, learning about the business. In 1969, his parents went to Jerusalem for a long trip with their church. When they returned, Walter told David he wanted Susie to retire; David could help him run the place.
In 1972, the Swetts replaced the serving staff with a cafeteria line, something customers took to right away. Not long after that, the restaurant’s customer base started changing as well; integration was taking hold in Nashville. One of Swett’s earliest white customers, David says, was a young Fate Thomas Jr., son of Davidson County Sheriff Fate Thomas Sr.
Fate Jr., now proprietor of Fate’s Pig and Pie, remembers it well: ”I was at Father Ryan, and I used to cut school and drive over to Swett’s for lunch, then go back to school. Man, I loved that food. All the black entertainers and performers who came to town ate there. I ate lunch with the Harlem Globetrotters at Swett’s one day. It got so I was taking about a dozen kids with me. It was so funny; there’d be all these Father Ryan kids there in their uniforms, white as snow. Somebody asked David one day what all those white people were doing there. David said, ‘That’s not a white person, that’s Little Fate.’ “
Meat-and-three restaurants in Nashville have long provided a common ground for the wealthy and the poor, the professional and the blue-collar, but Swett’s has been the most racially mixed as well. Every day, whites and blacks line up together for fried pork chops, beef tips, candied yams, and turnip greens, then sit side by side in the dining room.
In 1979, Walter Swett retired, and Morris Swett came on board to run the restaurant with his brother. The two dreamed of opening a larger building to replace the original, but it took years to find a bank willing to give them the financing they needed. In August 1988, they opened a brand-new Swett’s on the same lot. Twenty-eight days later, David got a call in the middle of the night that his restaurant was on fire; he got there in time to watch it burn to the ground. Throughout the long rebuilding process, customers regularly stopped by to check on the progress, and both daily newspapers called periodically for updates. When Swett’s reopened on April 10, 1989, in addition to a line of hungry customers, all three television stations came out to film it.
Morris Swett passed away in 1995; these days, two of David’s sons help him out with the family business. David Jr. and Patrick, both graduates of culinary school, have brought some new ideas to the business, which now includes a Swett’s lunch line at the Farmer’s Market. But they know better than to mess too much with 46 years of tradition. Eventually, his sons will take over, but at 55 years old, David Sr. doesn’t plan on handing over the reins for a long while. ”If I’m breathin’, they’ll have to buy it from me. If I die, they’ll inherit it. But I don’t plan on doing either one anytime soon. I’m still breathin’ and movin’, and I still come in here every day.“
In future weeks, ”Comfort Food“ will periodically profile some of Nashville’s most enduring dining establishments and traditions.
Cibo, which calls itself a Euro-café and catering company, has opened on Church Street, positioning itself on the street that just a few years ago resembled a forlorn ghost town but now bustles with construction projects and lunchtime traffic. Currently, Cibo serves breakfast breads, specialty coffees, baked goods, and lunch items from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. in a small, cheerful room painted in rich, Mediterranean colors. Eventually, a short menu of evening fare and wines will be added, and hours will be extended to 8:30 p.m. Cibo is at 708 Church St. Phone: 726-2426.
Williams-Sonoma, the popular cooking and cookware store in The Mall at Green Hills, has moved upstairs, added more than 5,000 sq. ft., and now calls itself Williams Sonoma Grand Cuisine, a new concept being rolled out by the mail-order company. The larger space has allowed for an expansion of inventory, as well as the addition of a demonstration kitchen in the front of the store.