Matters of Taste 

A fine restaurant satisfies the eye, as well as the appetite

A fine restaurant satisfies the eye, as well as the appetite

By Kay West

In M.F.K. Fisher’s An Alphabet for Gourmets, A is for “Dining Alone,” B is for “Bachelors,” C is for “Curious,” and D is for “Dining Out.” Fisher, perhaps the world’s most respected food writer, recalls her introduction, as a small child, to dining out—“a neglected art and much abused privilege.” For her, a meal in a restaurant was always a special occasion. “I seldom dine out, and because of my early conditioning to the sweet illusion of permanent celebration..., I feel automatically that any invitation means sure excitement, that it will be an event,” Fisher explains. But she goes on to confess that “the trouble is, I am afraid, that I expect the people I dine with to feel the same muted but omnipresent delight that I feel. They seldom do. More often than not they eat out (and what a dreadfully glum phrase that is!) several times each week.”

If I weren’t a restaurant reviewer, I’d be like M.F.K. Fisher. I would dine out very rarely. As simple as it may be, I prefer my own cooking and my own table to the experience of dining in most restaurants. When I do dine out—particularly when I am off duty—I want the experience to be special, an event, a celebration. And I want it to be just right.

The perfection should begin from the moment I walk in the door. If the restaurant is one that won’t take a reservation, and if I am greeted at the door by a floor manager with a clipboard, asked to give my name, and furnished with a beeper, I can be pretty certain that this will be an evening of eating—not dining—out. If, on the other hand, I am greeted by a floor manager who finds my reservation on the book and welcomes me to the restaurant as if it were a private home, I may well be on the road to an actual dining experience.

If the dining room is loud, if the tables are tightly spaced, if the lights are bright, if the music is intrusive, and if anywhere on the menu there are descriptions of food that is “fun” or “festive,” I’m not only eating out—I’m also eating in a hurry. Which is exactly the point, of course.

Mario Martinez, a Nashville neuropsychologist, is developing a Psychology of Design course for O’More College of Design in Franklin. He points out that fast-food restaurants employ lots of straight lines, bad acoustics, bright colors, and bright lights. The deliberate intention is to maintain a high level of energy. The name of the game in fast-food, chain, and theme restaurants is turning tables. The environment is designed to make you eat quickly and get out.

No wonder so many people suffer indigestion after eating out. If it’s not the food that gets you, it’s the atmosphere that makes you sick.

When I dine out, I want to take my time, to savor the occasion, to linger in the celebration or the ambience or the romance. I want to feel that I have all the time in the world.

I want to feel like I am in my own world. I don’t want to get tangled in the marital discord of the troubled couple beside me. Nor do I want them to share in mine (not that Mr. Wonderful and I ever...). I want flattering light, I want earthy colors, I want substance and weight. I want real art on the walls, chairs that are comfortable, and tables that don’t wobble.

The room should be warm; it should be inviting; it should have some interesting architectural details. It should not be what a flack for a trendy new restaurant recently described as a “foodspace.” It should, as Dr. Martinez explains, have weight and balance, function and aesthetics, a combination of old and new, a lightness to relax you, and a solidity to ground you.

It’s not surprising that my favorite restaurant interiors in Nashville have so much in common. They feature brick, wood, ceramic, or terra-cotta tile, warm colors, and solid furnishings. It’s clear that, in each case, the proprietors have a definite vision.

In 1989, Marcia and Craig Jervis were looking for a catering kitchen for their business. Lois Riggins Ezzell steered them to Germantown, an old urban Nashville neighborhood that was tentatively moving toward revival and gentrification. Marcia peered into the windows of what had once been the retailing portion of a meat market, then a grocery store, and, finally, a restaurant called Chefs on Command. She knew she had found the right place. Especially when her epiphany was followed seconds later by the building’s landlady, who happened to be out walking her dog. Presto, chango, on Aug. 22, 1989, The Mad Platter opened its doors.

Approaching the brick building in the daylight, the first thing you might notice is the fenced-in garden in the rear. That’s where the Jervises grow the flowers that decorate their tables and many of the herbs that are used in their kitchen. In the evening, the large plate-glass windows fill the room with a warm glow.

Inside, the small room holds no more than 20 tables, all covered in white linen, lighted by candles and graced with vases of fresh flowers. The plaster walls—cracked in some places—are painted putty, and the woodwork is painted a dark green. The worn wooden floor creaks slightly underfoot. Along one wall, a tall, built-in bookcase, painted bright blue, suggests a home in the French countryside. On the shelves are groupings of glass, bowls, silver, and Craig’s impressive bound set of National Geographic magazines. The other collections are Marcia’s. “I spent my early years in Europe,” she says. “My father was in the military, and we lived in several villages in France. My mother made me appreciate the mix of things that were fine and functional. It’s a European flair that appealed to me.”

Marcia intends for The Mad Platter to be the sort of restaurant where she herself would like to dine. “I don’t like to be really close to someone in a restaurant,” she says. “I think people need to feel a little insulated if they’re going to relax and feel comfortable. If I have to place tables close together, I make sure the tables are large enough to let you feel that you have your own space.

“If I can feel like I’m in my own little world, then I am happy. And that’s what we try to do at The Mad Platter. I want people to feel that they have come into their own personal dining room.”

European flair comes naturally to Pino Squillace, owner of Caffé Milano on Third Avenue North. Squillace was born and raised in Milan, where he studied graphic design. He is also a musician, and his brother, Max, is an artist. At Caffé Milano, he has successfully merged his influences and interests into a unique environment for food and music.

Caffé Milano’s immediate predecessor in the old, two-story brick building, a blues club called The Grand, was not quite so successful. The owners had covered up much of the original detail in the interior, including several brick walls and columns and an original tile floor.

“I loved the space when I first saw it but couldn’t believe what they had done to it,” says Squillace. “I loved the brick and the columns and all the little details. I thought it had a lot of potential. It was a building that was uniquely Nashville, but it still had a European flavor. In Italy, art and architecture are all around you. From the grandest buildings to the smallest, they all have some artistic value.”

Squillace hired the architectural firm Cochran Ferguson Smith, which coincidentally once had its offices in the same building.

“The project presented some unique challenges,” says architect Buddy Ferguson. “We asked Pino if he wanted a restaurant or a music club, and he said both, which is difficult to accomplish. He wanted to keep the integrity of the building, but he also wanted to offer the best environment for a live performance. And he wanted an open kitchen.”

In nearly every aspect, the renovation and redesign was successful. At the entrance, curved divider walls, a curved service area into the open kitchen, and a small curving bar invite patrons into the restaurant and focus attention on the main dining and listening room. Elevated dining areas on either side of the main room ensure a good view from nearly every seat in the house. At the front of the house is a matte-black ceramic tile floor that segues into the sound-absorbing neutral gray carpet in the main room. Max Squillace’s art, in wood, metal, and plaster, decorates the walls. Color in the room comes from bright oilcloth tablecovers, cobalt-blue ceramic tile in the kitchen, and divider walls painted terra-cotta or cornflower blue. At lunch, natural light from the five skylights brightens the room; in the evening, the lighting is dimmed to a golden glow.

The open kitchen is a European tradition. “In Italy, the kitchen is right there out front; the pizza guy is right there throwing the dough. It kind of gives you the feeling that we have nothing to hide,” Squillace says with a smile.

While Caffe Milano is downtown, it is far removed from the forced excitement of the theme restaurants and Opryland outposts that are taking over The District. Squillace has created an oasis of comfort, aesthetics, food, and music. Because it is just far enough off the beaten path, tourists aren’t beating a path to his door, which is just the way he wants it. “I want Nashvillians to feel good coming here,” Squillace says. “I love Nashville, and I feel like we are filling a niche for the people who live here.”

Jody Faison has made a career of filling niches. His funky, on-the-edge family of restaurants for the twenty- and thirtysomething crowd includes Faison’s, 12th & Porter, Iguana, Joe D’s, and Jules Dining Hall. For many of his fans and followers, aging right along with the closing-in-on-40 Faison, Cafe 123 represented a giant step in the maturation process, a grown-up, sophis-ticated version of his other restaurants. It’s the sort of place where you can even take your parents, if they’re hip enough.

For some time, Faison had had his eye on the brick building—a former livery, then a grocery store and a hotel, then a liquor store and a brothel—across the street from 12th & Porter. His vision for the interior got a kick-start from a gorgeous mahogany Brunswick bar he found in Atlanta, a treasure that had originally been in a ’20s-era Chicago restaurant.

“The bar reminded me of what I thought a speakeasy might have,” Faison explains. “So I wanted the room to have that sort of feel—dark and maybe a little bit dangerous, a place you may have gone to during Prohibition.”

He achieved his goal by using wood—on the floors, at the bar, on the wainscoated back wall. The walls are brick, and so is the fireplace; the pressed tin ceiling is painted bronze. Large plate-glass windows line the long north wall, and lace cafe curtains shield diners from passersby. The mustard-painted window frames add a shot of color. Wooden ceiling fans turn lazily overhead, candles flicker on every table, and a Sinatra-esque soundtrack plays softly on the house speakers. Admittedly, Cafe 123 is louder than I’d like it to be, and not all the tables are ideally placed. But at just the right spot, with just the right companions, it’s the sort of place that reassures me that I’m dining, and not just eating out.

He achieved his goal by using wood—on the floors, at the bar, on the wainscoated back wall. The walls are brick, and so is the fireplace; the pressed tin ceiling is painted bronze. Large plate-glass windows line the long north wall, and lace cafe curtains shield diners from passersby. The mustard-painted window frames add a shot of color. Wooden ceiling fans turn lazily overhead, candles flicker on every table, and a Sinatra-esque soundtrack plays softly on the house speakers. Admittedly, Cafe 123 is louder than I’d like it to be, and not all the tables are ideally placed. But at just the right spot, with just the right companions, it’s the sort of place that reassures me that I’m dining, and not just eating out.

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