No matter what the entrée, everything at Nero’s Grill seems to come with a side of nostalgia. Local diners of a certain age fondly recall the precursor restaurant Nero’s Cactus Canyon and its Silver Slipper Saloon, which occupied the same location over four decades ago. Patrons of the original Nero’s wax poetic about a menu of wild game, corn cakes and white bean soup, served in the good old days before Green Hills traffic required valet parking and anti-smoking legislation loomed.
When John Griswold, son of Nelson “Nero” Griswold, set out to revive his daddy’s landmark restaurant last year, he undertook a massive overhaul of the original building, which had housed Ireland’s, Tempo’s and ultimately Green Hills Grille after Cactus Canyon vacated the property. Griswold remembers being the last person to lock the doors to the family business in 1976. When he reopened the doors to Nero’s Grill on March 26, Griswold, along with his wife Judy (an alumna of the Ruth’s Chris chain) and his dad, manned the front of the house, welcoming a bubbly crowd of clubby, old-school customers glad to see the Nero’s name resurrected.
But while many of the faces were the same, restaurants and appetites had changed over 31 years. So Griswold has relied on chef Tom Allen, who moved to Nashville in 1983, to bring Nero’s into the 21st century, beyond the basics of fried and broiled meats garnished with sprigs of parsley.
“You can’t just send out spiced apple rings with a steak,” laughs Allen, alluding to the comparatively unsophisticated palates of Nashville diners during the heyday of Cactus Canyon. Allen, who formerly manned the kitchen at Belle Meade Country Club, has created a menu that recalls the hearty meats and game birds of the original Nero’s, but updates the carnivorous canon and classic French cuisine with eclectic—often Asian-inspired—items that have infiltrated local appetites in the past three decades. Think duck nori rolls, ahi tuna and smoked-salmon martinis.
The result is a steak house that doubles as a lunch spot with enough lighter items to serve a midday crowd.
Nostalgia aside, the reason to go to Nero’s is the meat, beautifully showcased in the Signature Selections menu. So far, the most popular item on the menu has been the grilled elk tenderloin, a straightforward presentation of seared tournedos with a peppercorn crust, roasted and served with a silky demi-glace. But we preferred the other New Zealand import, roast venison loin. The butter-smooth meat, charred on the outside and accented by a mushroom ragout, was so tender that a steak knife seemed superfluous. Perfectly cooked to a cool rare, the purple-red meat almost mirrored the color of the ahi tuna entrée, which was gently seared with a sugar glaze and served over a bed of sautéed spinach with a side of sesame seaweed salad.
Another signature selection, the fried rabbit, arrived as a surprisingly child-friendly meal, dredged in light batter and deep-fried, resulting in what one member of our group described as “the best chicken finger I’ve ever had.” Like chicken tenders, the rabbit would have benefited from a dip of barbecue sauce or honey mustard, if not something more adventurous.
While our dinner on the whole was excellent—tender meats, succulent fried oysters, crisp salads—we might have asked for a little more “pow!” in our gunpowder onions, which accompany many of the main dishes. The lightly battered onion strings, allegedly seasoned with white and black peppers and cayenne, lacked significant bang. And the tender escargot appetizer tasted far too much like, well, snails, a flavor that begs to be overwhelmed by copious and unsubtle amounts of garlic.
Throughout the repertoire—which includes seven steaks, pheasant, lamb and duck in addition to the venison, elk and rabbit—Allen keeps the distractions on the plate to a minimum, with streamlined sides such as steamed asparagus or a kebab of grilled squashes on a sprig of fresh rosemary. A la carte sides are available—rice, potatoes, homemade chips, various vegetables, stone-ground grits and warm slaw with apple and bacon—but in our experience the entrées offered enough food on their own.
The lunch menu cherry-picks from the dinner menu, offering tastes of several signature selections at prices well below the dinner versions as well as pastas, sandwiches and salads. The crunchy trout, a Frito-encrusted fillet (yes, Fritos) with the skin on, offered an inspired variation on traditional cornmeal coating, adding a light, nubbly texture to the smooth, flaky fish. Barbecue quail salad was an easily forgiven misnomer for two generously sized, succulent birds lacquered with sweet bourbon glaze and garnished with a tussle of greens.
With chef Allen’s creative offerings, the vestigial Lone Eagle from the original Nero’s menu—a cheesy open-face sandwich of turkey and ham—paled in comparison. That said, the legendary corn cakes, with a thick deep-fried skin cradling a soft interior, were a worthy artifact of the old days. (We recommend splitting them like a hamburger bun and slathering both halves to make an oozy butter sandwich.)
Of the three desserts, we preferred the warm chocolate cake, a moist and spongy slice served with macadamia ice cream. The key lime pie fell flat, suffering from too little citrus flavor and a heavy-handed creamy topping. In a town of crème brûlées claiming to be the best, Nero’s version is a contender, its sturdy tile of caramelized sugar on top recalling the bubbly amber glass of the light fixtures overhead.
Which brings us to the ambiance.
While Allen and sous chef Mark Wakefield, formerly of Belle Meade and Hillwood country clubs, deliver admirably in the kitchen, Nero’s suffers from an interior design scheme that belongs more in the Baptist Hospital maternity ward than in a tony Green Hills nightspot charging $71.95 for a porterhouse steak for two. The monotonous maple-stained wood of the chairs, tables and other fixtures across the sprawling 298-seat restaurant, accented by muted yellow and teal walls, recalls not the endearing red-and-white-checked tablecloths of Cactus Canyon but a cloyingly calm birthing suite or a cautiously expensive hotel conference room.
The only breaks in the institutional appointments—which include multiple copies of identical abstract paintings—are the stained-glass chandeliers suspended in the corner of the main dining room and in the bar. Inlaid with designs of high-heeled shoes, the colorful lamps recall the Silver Slipper Saloon, where the lights originally hung.
The bar, which opens off the main foyer and does not connect to the dining rooms, is the exception to the milquetoast decor. Decked with black-and-white photos and yellowing menus from the original Cactus Canyon and Silver Slipper, the bar offers more of a cozy neighborhood feel than the main rooms. But the fate of the bar and its powerful smoke-eating ventilation system remains to be seen when anti-smoking legislation kicks in.
Diners genuinely want Nero’s to succeed, either because they feel goodwill toward the Griswold family and their landmark, or because the menu helps fill a void in a zip code that long considered F. Scott’s its only upscale dining option, until the recent arrival of Macke’s in Grace’s Plaza. Fortunately, John Griswold seems aware of the aesthetic shortcomings and is bringing in furniture and plants to help make the spacious rooms a little homier. If he succeeds in goosing the ambiance, he could lay the foundation for a new generation of Nero’s nostalgia.
Nero’s Grill opens for lunch daily at 11 a.m. and closes at 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 9 p.m. on Sunday. Nerosgrill.com
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