Eastland Café is, as the name implies, in East Nashville. But on a recent Saturday night, the bar and dining room of this born-again neighborhood restaurant were crammed with immigrants—presumably legal—from West Side zips: Belle Meade’s 205, Belmont/12South’s 212, Green Hills’ 215, and 204, which covers the emerging area between 12th and Eighth avenues south.
Judging by the high-spirited table-hopping that took place throughout the evening, most of the people there were connected in some way and proud of their decision to drive over the river for dinner. They clearly made their reservations in a timely fashion, because by the Wednesday before, the only openings available for a table of five were 6 or 9 p.m. We took the earlier slot, having learned that diners tend to settle into their tables on a weekend night and a 9 can easily turn into a 9:30.
Our table, placed snugly in the street-side corner of the main room, turns its occupants into an animated window display, so dress and behave accordingly should you be awarded the same spot, which our hostess describes as her favorite. Besides being seated at the only round table, which abets more inclusive conversation, my companions were distinguished by being four of the few in the building who actually live in the neighborhood. The two couples are charter members of the East Nashville movement, having logged more than 20 years apiece on the east side of the Cumberland. They met when their two grown sons—one in college, one in the Air Force—were in the infant room at Holly Street Day Care at 14th and Holly Street. Though I am almost 14 years removed from the neighborhood, having lived eight years there in its pre-cool days, I was able to participate in veteran East Nashvillians’ favorite party game: Remember When? Remember when the only restaurant in the neighborhood was The Knife & Fork? Remember when we couldn’t get a glass of wine with dinner? Remember when the Gallatin Road Kroger was called the Murder Kroger? Remember when you went to H.G. Hill’s because it was, as far as anyone knew, homicide-free? Remember Shirley’s? Remember when Sasso opened?
That was in 1998, pre-dating Margot by three years. These days, Five Points teems with life, the sidewalks that lead to it well worn by locals who gladly—even smugly—walk several blocks from their homes to avoid those unpleasant DUIs. The neighborhood’s plentiful on-street parking allows visitors to make a night of it in this one-stop shop for dining, drinking and entertainment.
Although Eastland Café shares a zip code with Margot, Three Crow, Alley Cat, Red Door, Pizza Real, Batter’d & Fried, Marché, Beyond The Edge, Bongo Java and the coming-soon Rumours East, it does not share in the mutually supportive environment of Five Points. With the exceptions of Rose Pepper Mexican eatery across the street and Portland Brew one block away, it stands alone, occupying the corner of a pedestrian-unfriendly thoroughfare and a street still largely untouched by redevelopment and gentrification. Therefore, Eastland Café must be self-sustaining and offer diners good reason to bypass 11th and Woodland and drive one more mile to Chapel and Eastland.
Chef Willie Thomas and his wife and business partner Yvette, who live in Brentwood with their three young children, have shown they can draw diners to relatively new territory. Opening Park Café in 37209’s Sylvan Park in 2001—two years after Caffe Nonna broke ground there—they quickly established it amid the top tier of independent neighborhood restaurants. As evidenced on this bustling Saturday night, their fan base has clearly followed them to Eastland Café.
Other than the solid bones of the historic brick building that began life in the early 20th century as a pharmacy, little remains of its previous occupant, Chapel Bistro. Instead of the extravagant color explosion and eye-popping art that defines Park Café, designer Kathy Anderson opted for subtle elegance and class. Stucco walls wear cream coats; the ceiling, baseboards and woodwork are dusky brown. Gleaming dark wood prevails on chairs, tables, bar and floor, and frames panels of frosted and clear glass between the bar and the dining room. The wall above the banquette on the left side of the room is mirrored in the style of old European cafés, reflecting the entire room in a lively tableau. Chairs and banquettes are upholstered in a blue/green/brown print, booth benches in green.
The Eastland menu—created by Thomas, chef Hal Holden-Bache and sous Nathan Wells—does not share the culinary extravagance of Park Café, where dishes assume multiple global influences and a shopping bag of ingredients. Restrained in description and compilation, the Eastland menu adheres to the basic bistro concept of simplicity and comfort delivered in unadorned, straightforward fashion.
The goat cheese brûlée is an easy plate to pass around the table while enjoying a cocktail, conversing and perusing the menu. The “brûlée” is actually a ball fashioned from chèvre and cream cheese, which facilitates spreading on a piece of flatbread still warm from the grill. Strips of roasted red and yellow peppers and sun-dried tomatoes, a swirl of chestnut honey and puddles of balsamic syrup complete the composition. Steamed mussels—piled in a bowl barely deep enough to contain two-dozen briny, black-shelled bivalves—emerge from a russet-hued, sweet-and-sassy coconut curry broth, chock full of bacon, leeks and tomatoes. Ask immediately for extra slices of grilled and buttered Tuscan bread to sop up the excess, lest you find yourself lifting the entire bowl to your lips once the mussels are depleted. Crab cakes assume a lighter finish with panko crumbs rather than traditional breading, but are served with the traditional remoulade of mayonnaise, Dijon mustard and capers. Other choices in the appetizer category include French onion soup, baked cheese manicotti, crispy polenta cake with portobello mushrooms and stone-baked pizza.
Four salads invite diners to go green, but what would Al do? I’m guessing the hipper, cooler, looser environmentalist would go for the distinctive arugula and grilled radicchio, which are nicely balanced by a fan of thinly sliced, tart green apples with a sweet balsamic reduction. I’m not alone among diners who order an iceberg wedge simply as an excuse to eat large amounts of Roquefort, so I was disappointed by the bland nature of the bleu cheese dressing accompanying this salad; not even the rounds of fried green tomato or scatter of bacon could make up for its lack of moldy crumbles.
Meat and potatoes—chicken and whipped, pork with mashed sweets, rib eye with cauliflower and potato purée—dominate entrée selections and, on our visit, fared far better than the fruits de la mer. The blame for overcooking the citrus-and-vanilla-roasted shrimp and pistachio-crusted salmon could well be assigned to the fact that the kitchen was slammed on this particular Saturday night; Holden-Bache, Wells and crew were a blur of motion in the small kitchen. Thirty seconds can make the difference between succulent and shrunken, between moist and dry, and both of those dishes spent 30 seconds too long under heat. Sides of creamy risotto with sweet peas and tarragon supporting the shrimp and earthy stewed lentils flavored with cumin under the salmon redeemed both dishes. In a beautifully braised lamb shank special, meat fell from the bone into a pool of glistening jus. Likewise, the pan-roasted duck breast arrived precisely as ordered, with a faint blush of pink at the center, and partnered exquisitely with a cherry demi-glace. But its side of cold soba noodle salad simply didn’t work with the dish or the season. I would ask for a substitute from the à la carte sides. Flat-iron steak, also known as top blade steak, is a small, boneless cut from the top blade near the shoulder of the cow. Much like the underappreciated hanger steak, it is gaining popularity among beef lovers for its flavor; the flat-iron, despite its name, is actually thicker and more tender than the hanger. Though it requires very little seasoning, Eastland’s version—straddling a pile of crispy pommes frites—was enhanced but not overwhelmed by a tongue-tingling green peppercorn sauce spread over its charred top.
Of the desserts, which included a tangy key lime pie, crème brûlée and a dense, seemingly flourless chocolate cake, the standout was the raspberry mini-beignets, served warm and golden in a bowl with a rich crème anglaise.
Eastland Café is a tad off the path beaten to Five Points from within and beyond 37206, but those who go the extra mile will be well rewarded. The Thomases may not live in the neighborhood, but they do a terrific job of creating one.
I loved the Carnitas en Chile Rojo at Las Maracas, but when they changed the…
Probably 55 South...
Blue Koi in KC, MO. Phat Bites Deli in Nashville. Anyone know the Southern restaurant…
Who knows what any of this shit is at any of these places? I refuse…
FYI - Mason's is not Farm to Table. They source about 10% locally.