I firmly believe in fate. I believe that there are no coincidences and that things were meant to be the way they are. A case in point: When Teresa Wiles visited Nashville from Chicago a couple of years ago, she arrived here in May, which, weather-wise, is just about the best time you could choose for visiting Nashvilleespecially if you’re just coming off a cold, hard, snowy Windy City winter.
In Chicago, Teresa and her partner, Shelia McCoy, owned Leo’s Luncheonette, a 30-seat diner in Wicker Park. The Luncheonette served what one food critic dubbed “grunge gourmet.” Then Teresa decided she was fed up with the Chicago weather and packed her bags for Nashville. While working in the deli at Sunshine Grocery, she met Mary Anne Pitt and struck up a friendship. Mary Anne’s boyfriend just happens to be Kerry O’Neill, a successful manager in the music business, a financial planner, and an all-around nice guy. One day, Teresa made one hell of a sandwich for Kerry and, suddenly, a light bulb went on. “Eureka!” everyone shouted. One thing led to another, and on Dec. 3, Kerry O’Neill and Teresa Wiles opened Way Out West Cafe.
The name has absolutely nothing to do with the food that’s offered at Way Out West, which currently serves breakfast and lunch every day except Monday. Rather, the name plays off the restaurant’s location (on West End Avenue) and the partners’ fondness for all things Western. We’re not talking Ralph Lauren’s sissy-yuppie vision of Western. We’re talking Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Louis L’Amour, The Lone Ranger, Howdy Doody, and Toy Story’s Woody. The decor is Western kitsch, from the suede chaps and sombreros hung on the walls and the cheesy paperback Western novel covers displayed under the glass table tops to the taped music on the sound system, which ranges from Merle Haggard to Marty Robbins to the Flying Burrito Brothers.
In its former lives, Way Out West’s location, on the first floor of Continental Towers beside the 440 interchange, has housed Dynasty, Chez Bernard, and Demetri’s. Anyone who frequented any of those restaurants will recognize in the decor some unfortunate souvenirs of each, but Way Out West is striving mightily to establish its own identity.
That individuality is most apparent in the quirky menu, which has a slightly Southwestern bent at breakfast and displays a vegetarian sensitivity at lunch. The specials demonstrate Wiles’ fondness for ethnic influences from India, Thailand, Lebanon, and Mexico. When I asked her how she found resources and suppliers here, Wiles tactfully replied that she was supremely grateful for the Farmer’s Market. Me too.
O’Neill says he has no input whatsoever on the menu, and, given the results on the plate so far, maybe things should stay that way. On both of my visits, he was working the dining room, which was heavily populated with pals from Music Row.
Our first visit was a Sunday-morning breakfast; our party of four adults, four children, and a baby was wisely seated in the back room. There is a kiddie menu, but ours were not tempted by the chocolate chip pancakes. They opted to order from the grown-up stuff. Lauren and Joy were rewarded with two jumbo buttermilk pancakes (a half order for $1.75), which easily fed two small fry. I tried to trick Harry into trying the buckwheat pancakes but, when the dark brown-flapjacks were placed before him, he burst into tears and said he didn’t want chocolate pancakes. Caroline liked her scrambled eggs, potatoes, and toast ($3) but announced that she still likes her mom’s home fries better. Good girl.
The grown-ups went more esoteric, ordering from The Not So Basics side of the menu. The sweet potato burritos led to a love affair at first bitesweet potatoes mashed with caramelized onion and jalapeño peppers and subtly kissed with cinnamon, then wrapped in a flour tortilla and topped with just a bit of poblano sauce and farmers cheese. Sassy huevos rancheros will make you forsake Spanish omelettes, or you can be really bold and try the chorizo chilequilesa frittata-esque plate of eggs, corn tortilla strips, sautéed onion, and a bit of chorizo for flavor, topped with farmers cheese. The Southwestern dishes are spicy, but not sweat-inducing. If you’d like more heat, there are fiery condiments on the table.
We all tangled forks over the half-slice of potato, onion, and cheddar pie, which came with eggs to order, sour cream, and a habit-forming, tangy homemade applesauce. The double-crust was blue-ribbon flaky. Late-risers will be pleased to know that breakfast is served all day. The tab for eight was $46.55.
For lunch, you may choose, if you can, from 14 combination sandwiches, or you can create your own. (Why you’d want to do such a thing when Teresa already has the bases covered, I don’t know.) All great sandwiches begin with great bread, and these get the right start in life with multigrain, white, honey wheat, and rye from Bread & Company. Six of the 14 sandwiches are vegetarian, including a veggie Reuben made with baked tofu that will find fans even among the most devout meat eaters. Middle-of-the-roaders will favor the Georgia Reuben, made with turkey instead of corned beef, and there is a traditional Reuben for traditionalists. Our favorites by far were the O’Neill (named for you-know-who)meaty grilled portobello mushrooms, roasted red peppers, spinach, and sliced smoked mozzarella cheese on thick slices of lightly grilled multi-grain bread with roasted garlic and vinaigretteand Mare’s Best (named for Mary Ann)grilled eggplant and red onion, roasted red peppers, spinach, and provolone, topped with sundried basil-tomato vinaigrette and grilled on multigrain. I get weepy-eyed just thinking about these two sandwiches.
Least successful were the open-faced turkey, which was, like the legendary Dudley Do-Right, good but dull, and the West End, which soaked the bread with pastrami grease. In the interest of full disclosure, we must report that the West End was ordered to go. It wasn’t eaten until 30 minutes after it was made.
We liked the vegetarian chili, which featured fresh, not canned, beans, including garbanzos as well as red beans. The Southwest salad, with rice, kidney beans, corn, avocado, onion, cilantro, tomato, and farmers cheese, was tasty and filling. Still, I’d opt for a sandwich instead.
All sandwiches, available in half or whole sizes, and priced (whole) from $3 to $6, come with your choice of potato salad, tabouli, or cole slaw. (I’ve listed them in our descending order of preference.) We hardly had room for dessert, but the boys managed to polish off a piece of pecan pie in no time at all. The chocolate zucchini cake with walnuts was moist and rich, but it needs a lighter frosting. Lunch for 11 was $96.88.
Wiles and O’Neill are considering doing dinner at Way Out West, maybe on Fridays and Saturdays, starting in March. But don’t wait for the dinner bell to ring. The chow line opens at 7 a.m. Head west and check out what the Windy City blew in. Happy trails are just ahead.
Way Out West Cafe is located in the Continental Towers building at 3415 West End Ave. (298-5562). Open for breakfast and lunch, 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Tues.-Fri., and 7 a.m.-4 p.m. Sat. and Sun. Full bar. Visa, MasterCard, and AmEx accepted.