1036 Jefferson St. 846-9065
Hours: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sun.-Mon.;
11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tues.-Thurs.;
11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri.; 5-10 p.m. Sat.
The opening of a new fine-dining restaurant is always cause for excitement, both for the proprietors and their potential clientele. The opening of a new fine-dining restaurant that offers a cuisine or an experience unavailable in a city is particularly exciting.
The opening of a new fine-dining restaurant that not only offers a cuisine and an experience unavailable in a city, but that also represents a major milestone for a community, could be cause for celebration.
It is also, depending on how one looks at these things, blessed or burdened with great expectations. No matter how you look at it, there’s no arguing that the stakes are high for Jubilee Restaurant, which opened the last week of February. Owned by Jefferson Life Corp., a minority-owned, for-profit corporation, the $1.7 million project was funded in large part by AT&T Capital Corp., the Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency, and the Mid-Cumberland Area Development Corp. It is one of a handful of large-scale, minority-owned business projects in recent memory in the historically black business district.
As the first full-service restaurant also offering live music to open there in years, it is hoped Jubilee will remind people of Jefferson Street in its heyday between the 1930s and 1950s, when it was Nashville’s premier black neighborhooda haven for enterprise, education, and entertainment. More than that, community leaders are hoping that the opening of Jubilee will spur a rebirth of the area that was decimated in the ’60s by the deadly double-whammy of desegregation and the construction of I-40, an asphalt stake driven through the very heart of Jefferson Street.
This is not to say that the Jefferson Street neighborhood doesn’t have much to offer. As for restaurants, there is Mary’s Barbecue at one end and Darold’s Salmon and Biscuits at the other. The Old Negro League Sports Shop is a treasure. Fisk’s Van Vechten Gallery and Carlton Wilkinson’s In The Gallery are vital parts of the city’s art scene, as are concerts and festivals at TSU. Still, the revitalization of this historic neighborhood is as integral to the fabric of Nashville as Belmont/Hillsboro, Richland/West End, Edgefield, Woodland in Waverly, and 12South.
I thought of all of these things long before setting foot inside the building that previously served as the Church of God Sanctified. The 7,500-square-foot restaurant has been gorgeously refurbished. The main room is stunning, with soaring ceilings, three levels of dining, and plush carpeting. A street-lit, gray-tiled walkway meanders down the center. A huge exhibition kitchen displays the cooking, while a stage in one corner offers entertainment. For a view, the mezzanine lounge and cigar bar have windows that open onto the main room.
Live music fills the room Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. There’s a lot going on, and we had plenty of time to take it all in. My first dinner experience at Jubilee started badly and went downhill from there. They lost the reservations I had made and twice confirmed. We sat without so much as a glass of water for 30 minutes. Visits by our waiter were sporadic and inattentive throughout the entire meal. The evening dragged on and on. Everyone looked busy, but nothing seemed to be getting done. Though the foyer and even the staircases leading up to the bar were jammed with people waiting for tables in the 250-seat restaurant, at any given time throughout the night there were at least a dozen empty tables on our level that sat dirty and unbussed for as long as an hour.
It was not so busy at lunch a few days later, when service was smooth. We were one of only about 10 tables and had the undivided attention of our server. Our assigned server at my second dinner there showed vastly more experience and professionalism, but she was saddled with a kitchen seemingly in chaos. Orders were lost and mixed up, and timed in a most annoying fashion. Only two people at our table of six received their entrées at the same timethe arrival of the last dinner followed the first by 30 minutes.
By my measure, even the worst service can be forgiven in the wake of a fabulous meal, and I was hopeful that would be the case at Jubilee, where Chef Cass Mitchell has designed a creative menu he calls ”Soul Confusion.“ Unfortunately, though many of the dishes we sampled on three visits were good, none were exceptional enough to balance the scale. The Jubilee Spirit Rollstrips of fried chicken and julienned veggies wrapped in wonton, deep-fried, and served with a sassy ginger soy dipping saucemade a good impression. So did the fried green tomatoes, but only on the first visit, not the second. The saucer-sized corn cakes served with bottled apple butter would be a nice touch if they were offered gratis as Jubilee’s breadlike Jimmy Kelly’s signature corn cakesbut they were not worth the $4.25 for an order of six. The crab cake was better and bigger the first visit than the second, when it tasted more like fish than crab.
The excellent seafood gumbo and chicken-and-corn chowder were almost thick enough to stand a spoon in. The big house and specialty salads were all too heavily dressed; you can ask for the dressing on the side as we did, but there’s no guarantee it will come that way. There are quite a few entrées to choose frompastas, seafood, steaks, and chops, but it is best to stick to the ones called Jubilee Signature items, with the notable exception of the awful Spicy Cashew Chicken. Otherwise, we liked the thick slab of moist meat loaf, the pan-fried chicken and gravy, the smothered pork chops, the fried salmon cake, and the excellent smoked back ribs.
Side dishes were consistently superb on all three visits, particularly the mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, black-eyed peas, and fried corn.
The large crowds awaiting seats at Jubilee since its opening three months ago are a testament to the fact that Jefferson Street is ready for a restaurant like this. Unfortunately, in this case, it’s the restaurant that isn’t quite ready for its audience. They need to take a serious look at their management, staffing, and operating procedures. Jubilee has the potential to be the start of something really wonderful on Jefferson Street, but it takes more than just opening the doors to declare a celebration.