Opening the front door of The Smith House—a grand 19th century home that somehow avoided fire, war, wrecking balls, urban renewal and Walgreen’s—reveals an architectural relic magnificently renovated and a Southern tradition elegantly remembered. Step over the threshold, and shoulders lighten, brows de-furrow and stress floats away up the walnut staircase that languidly spirals above the wide foyer. Returning the warm greeting of the woman at the front door, you will wonder for a moment how you know her. If you’re new at The Standard, the restaurant on the ground floor of the Smith House, you probably don’t know owner Sharon Smith, unless you’ve spent time in Memphis, where she and her family lived for the last few decades. But if you’re a returning guest to this newest downtown lunch spot, she most likely remembers you, and she’s genuinely delighted to see you again.
The sincere greeting is all well and good, but having eaten lunch twice now at The Standard, I’m more interested in a heaping plate of the indescribably delicious sweet potato fries, so good that two days later, my party is still talking about them in fond terms normally reserved for sleeping babies, snuggling puppies and half-price shoe sales. So good that when I ran into a friend one evening whom I had seen lunching the week before at The Standard, the first thing she said was, “Oh my God, can you believe the sweet potato fries?” So good that when it comes down to the last fry, even in a setting as genteel as The Standard, good manners fly out the window, and three hands reach simultaneously to snatch it.
Take my word for it, as soon as your bottom hits the chair, order your fries. Then settle in to peruse your surroundings and their history, which begins in the early 19th century and includes a roll call of some of Nashville’s venerable names: Overton, Dedrick and McGavock. The building operated as an upper-class boarding house from the early 1840s through 1881, when it was purchased by Julius Sax, who leased it to a Jewish men’s social club. Over two decades, The Standard Club added a ballroom in the rear and Nashville’s first bowling alley in the basement. At the turn of the century, ophthalmologist Giles Savage purchased the property and used the front rooms for his practice. His daughter also used the home for her practice until 1975. In 1980, John Hunt and David Nelson purchased the house, installing the Savage House bed-and-breakfast on the upper floors, the Towne House Tea Room on the main level and, in the rear ballroom, The Gas Lite Lounge, patronized by Nashville’s gay community for live music, theater productions and karaoke.
The lounge and tearoom continued to operate after the B&B closed, but the food and the setting declined dramatically until the building was shuttered by early 2005, prompting concerns among historians and preservationists about its fate.
Sharon Smith and her husband Jerry, pastor at a Baptist church in Memphis for more than 20 years, and their four grown children purchased the home about a year ago in a life-changing decision to live and work together. They undertook a $1 million renovation, restoring the original doors and gas light fixtures, adding mirrors and lamps from the old Maxwell House Hotel and simply embellishing the structure’s fine bones with pale-painted walls, gleaming floors and heavy drapes on floor-to-ceiling windows. Since the Aug. 16 ribbon-cutting, downtown workers, history buffs, church ladies, deal-makers and political figures have filled the dining rooms, bringing a clubby atmosphere of handshakes and hugs to the sidewalk patio, gracious entry hall and lunch tables.
The contented expressions on diners’ faces suggest either that the Smiths have developed a mood-elevating formula for their sweet tea or that downtowners have been pining for a good, old-fashioned Southern tearoom since the Satsuma Tea Room on Union Street closed a couple years ago.
Frequently owned by women, and at least initially catering to women, tearooms are traditional sanctums of civility, gentility, decorum and hospitality. The menu leans toward lighter fare—mindful of a lady’s delicate digestive system and, one suspects, tightly bound corsets—served on fine china, with good silver and elegant linens. Though The Standard menu offers no congealed salads, tomato aspic or chicken croquettes (not that we would mind those options, hint, hint), the environment the Smiths have created honors tearoom tradition while offering a menu for 21st century tastes.
I can hardly imagine a visit to The Standard without sweet potato fries. Light and crispy, possibly double-fried and seasoned with coarse salt, they come with ramekins of honey mustard and mayo-based, chipotle-spiced dip, but I would forego both for the creamy horseradish sauce that accompanies the French dip. Other starters worth making room for include the plump crab cakes, light on filler and sidled up to a roasted corn salsa. The crab bisque—also generously crab-filled—is finished with a splash of Tennessee whiskey rather than the typical sherry, and a dusting of nutmeg, a very nice touch.
Salads include house, Caesar and Cobb, along with the notable Southwest Chopped Chicken Salad, which has no greens but instead tosses marinated, grilled chicken breast with chopped avocado, tomato, chives and bits of jalapeño. Dressed in a lime-cilantro vinaigrette, it comes with flaky, buttery cheese quesadilla points. The regular spinach salad has been temporarily removed from the menu.
The seven choices on the sandwich board cover the spectrum from tearoom to diner to pub fare. The French dip is terrific: thin slices of flavorful prime rib on a fresh, crusty baguette with horseradish sauce and au jus. The Reuben layers corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and a sweet Thousand Island between two slices of dark rye bread, grilled until the bread is delicately crisp and the cheese is gooey. The Southern Hot Brown is another reason to lunch at The Standard, which slightly modifies the Brown Hotel version by topping the open-faced composition of toast, sliced turkey and cheese sauce with strips of country ham rather than bacon. Chicken salad purists may not appreciate this version, which adds pine nuts and fresh basil; it is tasty, but croissants as sandwich bread are highly overrated, and the practice should be abandoned. The appearance of sliced pink hardballs on several sandwich plates inspired a collective gasp from the gardeners and cooks at the table. There is simply no excuse for using tasteless, trucked-in tomatoes, especially when it is peak season and the Farmers’ Market is just blocks away.
For those who enjoy a heartier midday meal, there are four hot entrées: chicken Madeira, pork medallions, salmon and New York strip. While we did not sample the entreés, the list offers a preview of what to expect when the Smiths open for dinner.
Among other priorities for the future, The Standard needs to revamp its dessert menu. It is a shame to conclude such a delightful lunch with substandard pies and cakes.
For now, Standard guests may be happy to wrap up their lovely meal the same way they began—with a big smile from Sharon Smith, the comforting embrace of time-honored tradition and another heaping plate of sweet potato fries.
The Standard serves lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday through Friday,