When Davis-Kidd Booksellers occupied the two-story space that centers Grace’s Plaza on Hillsboro Road, it devoted a corner of the upper level to a casual café titled Brontë. There, in an area of the store barely distinct from the stationery department, a Green Hills hodgepodge came daily to lunch: harried mothers with cranky children overdue for naps, doubles partners in tennis skirts, matronly women discussing their book clubs and grandchildren, Birkenstock-shod middle-aged men still clinging to their college backpacks. The easygoing staff exerted no pressure to quiet babies or concede your table; solitary readers immersed in the latest issue of The New Yorker tarried over coffee long gone cold.
The expansion and million-dollar overhaul of The Mall at Green Hills lured Davis-Kidd and Brontë to new—and far less homey—digs, leaving a substantial hole on Hillsboro Road’s commercial landscape. But nature and property owners abhor a vacuum, so it wasn’t long before Tennessee Bank & Trust announced plans for a new branch there. While it didn’t provoke the breathless excitement of the Mall’s acquisition of Tiffany & Co. , Louis Vuitton and Coach, it likely shares some of the same moneyed clientele.
So, with most of the square footage committed to housing bankers and servicing depositors, an area on the upper level remained, primed for food service. As is often the case in professional partnerships, a personal relationship secured the deal. Tennessee Bank & Trust owner Gayland Lawrence happened to be a regular customer of MacK & Kate’s, a surprisingly contemporary and culinarily sophisticated restaurant in rural Kingston Springs. Lawrence, who knew that owners Jan and Bernie Strawn lived in Green Hills and were looking to open a second restaurant, mentioned that he had some space that might interest them. They struck a deal, and in September, Macke’s (pronounced “Mack-ees”) Fine Dining and Wine Bar opened, preceding its landlord by three months. In the opening weeks, a temporary wall in the restaurant concealed the ongoing construction in the bank. But with the TB&T completed, the provisional wall gave way to etched glass panels that frame a view of the stunning furnishings and high commerce in the bank.
Macke’s main entrance remains up the winding back staircase on the Bandywood side of the building. The restaurant first presents itself with a scattering of tables, greenery and wooden screens in the second-floor concourse. Brontë offered a similar though more casual arrangement, consistent with its café personality. Macke’s positions itself—in concept and price point—as fine dining, and though the aforementioned design tactics soften the area somewhat, the remaining ceramic tile floor, surrounding storefronts, unflattering lighting and busy daytime foot traffic compromise the result. By dinnertime, the neighboring businesses are dark and the overhead lights are dim, but the lack of warmth in the concourse is reason to make reservations far enough in advance to get a table inside.
Nashvillians of a certain era, social stratum and professional status will remember when the downtown main offices of local banks maintained private dining rooms for use by their executives, important clients and committees of stylish and well-coiffed volunteers planning high-profile fundraisers like the Swan Ball and Steeplechase. Fully staffed kitchens cooked up appropriate meals—something hearty for the masters of the universe, light salads for lunching ladies—served on fine china and delivered by African American waiters in crisp white coats, who also attended to refilling sweet tea, clearing plates and pouring coffee. A similar style distinguished country clubs and four-star restaurants in the evening hours.
The main dining room of Macke’s both re-creates and modernizes the leisurely and cosseted ambiance of days gone by. Here, the color of money is warm brown walls and ivory wainscoting, lush flowers, gilt-framed oils, charcoal-gray suits, navy-blue blazers, Chanel jackets, cashmere sweaters and tasteful jewelry. Thoughtfully spaced tables wear heavy white and tan linens that reach midway to the floor. Wide silver rings cinch black napkins on place settings with cutlery arranged in outside-in order. Silver-rimmed white china plates are a delicate counterpoint to the heavy bistro plates ubiquitous to modern dining. Macke’s clearly encourages a certain bygone decorum and behavior from its diners, one that is modeled by its front-of-the-house staff, who serve with grace and class.
Two things save Macke’s from suffocating under the aloof stuffiness that frequently swaddles fine dining establishments: first, the Strawns are as modest as they come, doting parents who name their restaurants after their college-age daughters MacKenzie and Kate. Bernie eschews coat and tie for knit shirts and pressed jeans, and when Jan makes an appearance in Green Hills (she spends most of her time in Kingston Springs), she is turned out in chef wear—white coat, black-and-white-striped pants and clogs.
Secondly, the subdued ambiance of the dining room jolts to life with every plate that comes to the table. Chef Darrell Manhold, a big fellow with an effusive and oft-expressed enthusiasm for every aspect of cooking—from raw fish to culinary portraiture—runs his kitchen and builds a menu with no restraints from the Strawns. Acknowledging the conservative bent of his clientele, he steers guests toward culinary experimentation with simply described dishes of familiar ingredients creatively interpreted and flavored.
Nashville’s MacK & Kate fans who have gladly given up the 30-minute drive to Kingston Springs would have staged an insurrection had Manhold not brought his fondue of lobster and crab to Green Hills. Chunks of sweet lobster meat and morsels of crab await spearing from a blend of tangy melted cheese, with rounds of sourdough crostini for dipping. It competes for the starter blue ribbon prize with an open-face quesadilla—crisped to a crackle, strewn with thinly sliced sautéed pear, caramelized onion and blue cheese.
“Fried brie” are the two irresistible words that describe and top an entrée-size salad of toasted walnuts, roasted corn, grilled asparagus and mixed greens. The Macke’s Wedge sets the gold standard of this familiar salad, plating chilled iceberg with a fan of avocado slices, each green tip punctuated with a bright-red halved grape tomato, and sent over the top with lump crab meat, applewood-smoked bacon and avocado ranch dressing.
Manhold lays the foundation for his entrées on meat and potatoes, which is no doubt reassuring to the well-heeled traditionalists who would no more rattle their taste buds than shake up their portfolios. The safest choice is the 8-ounce filet with buttery au gratin potatoes and grilled asparagus; a 14-ounce New York strip is more satisfying, well seasoned before chargrilling and set astride an intense brandy demi.
Thanks to his West Coast upbringing and a stint with Gulf Pride Seafood, Manhold bonds beautifully with fish from waters near and far. “Trust me,” he implores those who hesitate. Take the plunge via macadamia-crusted tuna with a sassy ginger and pineapple pico de gallo and sinus-clearing wasabi vinaigrette or with scallops rolled in corn meal, sautéed and drizzled with rich bourbon butter, sided with an Asiago-laced grit cake. Mediterranean shrimp scampi is an intensely flavored, earthy stew of shrimp, Swiss chard, sundried tomatoes, salty capers, roasted garlic and fig balsamic that demands a hunk of crusty bread for sopping. Another robust one-bowl meal is his Portugese chicken, a recipe from his grandfather that immerses chicken, chorizo sausage, mussels, white beans and artichoke hearts in a stout tomato broth. A lamb shank gets the osso buco treatment, braised with winter root vegetables until it melts off the bone.
Portions are generous enough to make the notion of dessert seem ridiculous, but sacrifice a notch on your belt for house-made mocha Mallomars or the classically prepared soufflé, destined for calling-card status.
Lunch is served six days a week; the decadent lobster BLT wrap oozing with melted goat cheese and kicked up with chipotle dressing compels a visit. The ambiance is a tad more casual, but even then it is not a room that embraces cranky children or flip-flops.
The lack of signage on the exterior of both the Hillsboro and Bandywood sides of the building does not solicit walk-in traffic or casual diners seeking a quick bite to eat. Macke’s is not trying to be everything to everybody, which is part of its design. While membership is not required, reservations are highly recommended.
Macke’s serves lunch 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
I think of smoke when I hear Wendell Smiths.
I love eating there!
A few questions: 1. who own the building? Does the family or is it leased?…
I have been eating here for years. Great place.
Wendell Smith's is one of my favorite places for breakfast! Always good food and always…