Nashvillians have a rather peculiar way of giving directions. Person A asks Person B how to get to Point C. Person B says, “Well, drive down Granny White Pike, which turns into 12th Avenue South, keep going, and it’s three blocks north of where Becker’s used to be.” Perfectly fine for natives, but frustrating to Person A, a newcomer who hasn’t the slightest idea what Becker’s was, much less where the beloved, now shuttered bakery used to be. But that’s the way it’s done here, and in a year or so, you’ll be doing it too.
In fact, you can start practicing now with these latest additions to the list of local institutions that used to be: Cibo on Church Street and Basante’s in Green Hills. By mid-summer, Green Hills Grille and Vandyland will also be on the roll call.
It’s tempting to place the blame for all these restaurant closings on the recent arrival of big box chains, particularly if you’re one of those people who believes that the Dallas-based Brinker International—the chain restaurant behemoth that owns Chili’s and Maggiano’s Little Italy, among others—is conducting a culinary shock-and-awe campaign far more successful than the one Donald Rumsfeld conducted in Iraq.
But that would not be entirely accurate. Luis Fonseca, owner of Basante’s, has been in financial distress since moving the original Basante’s location on West End across the street a little over a year ago; not long afterward, the owner of the building at 1719 West End Ave. decided to convert it into a hotel. Rather than face months of construction upheaval, Fonseca decided to close the West End restaurant and focus on his Green Hills store. While that location was doing excellent business, it could not shoulder the burden of the debt accrued from previous transactions, and Fonseca had no choice but to abandon ship.
Sylvia Harrelson, Nashville’s own Nigella Lawson, opened the utterly charming Cibo on Church Street six years ago, before the new public library opened and well before the current downtown building surge. Almost from the start, the tiny storefront café has been shrouded in construction dust from the constant demolition, refurbishment and construction of neighboring buildings, not to mention the recently completed redo of Church Street. Through it all, Harrelson persevered; in the end, it was the soaring potential market for downtown space that destroyed what bulldozers and jackhammers could not. Because the building that housed Cibo is currently under contract for sale, Harrelson couldn’t secure a long-term lease, and rather than face the almost certain increase in rent when the sale goes through, she decided to close; her last day was March 24.
Soon to be off our local landscape are Vandyland and Green Hills Grille. The latter is being booted by landlord John Griswold so that he can take over the space himself. Prior to the Grille’s admirable 16-year tenure, the space was occupied for 20 years by an equally popular restaurant, Nero’s Cactus Canyon. Griswold plans to open an updated version of father Nero Griswold’s place, to be called Nero’s Grill, sometime this summer.
George Bush might feel better about his poll numbers if he were to compare them to Treg Warner’s, trustee of the family that owns the building housing Vandyland, a 78-year-old Nashville icon. When current owners Bea and Mitchell Givens’ 30-year lease expires on May 31, it will not be renewed, and the city will lose another historical marker.
The landlords are not commenting on future plans for the space, but it doesn’t take a crystal ball to figure it out. While Vandyland has benefited from its highly trafficked location on West End Avenue, that’s also the reason for its ultimate demise in these boom times. Look no farther than where Houston’s used to be (coming soon, Bricktop), where Rio Bravo used to be (opening this month, Stoney River), where Cooker used to be (J. Alexander’s), and consider the vacant Fuddruckers (soon to be a Bonefish Grill? Dave’s Famous Barbecue? The 226th Texas Roadhouse in America?), to understand that it’s all about real estate in today’s market. While Vandyland is dearly loved by its devoted clientele, how much profit is there in a breakfast and lunch counter specializing in BLTs and chocolate shakes? The owners could not possibly absorb the monthly nut that a chain restaurant can plunk down without batting an eye. As Rick Bolsom, owner of the independently owned West End restaurant Tin Angel, observes, the effect of skyrocketing real estate value and chain penetration “is analogous to destruction of habitat in nature: it eats up the real estate and forces the indigenous species out.”
As long as Nashvillians shake their heads sympathetically over the imminent closing of Vandyland while queued up outside of Maggiano’s, Cheesecake Factory and P.F. Chang’s, there is no end in sight, and with each loss of who we are—or used to be—we look more and more like anywhere else. Try giving directions to that.