Rumours Has It 

12 South establishment features fine wine, good food and quirky charm

12 South establishment features fine wine, good food and quirky charm

Rumours Wine & Art Bar

2304 12th Ave. S.

292-9400

What is the formula for transforming a busy street from a means for traveling between locations into a desirable location in its own right? Urban planners would recommend providing a mix of essential and leisure services in a safe and aesthetically appealing environment. These ventures are typically undertaken by independent entrepreneurs, whose limited capital prevents them from moving into proven areas. Instead, they gamble on potential and hope that their willingness to be pioneers will be repaid by locals and, eventually, visitors from other parts of the city. Development happens one baby-step after another, until suddenly the area morphs into a desirable neighborhood, one with hair salons and clothing boutiques, yoga studios and art galleries, restaurants and gourmet markets, coffeehouses and antique stores.

The transformation of 12th Avenue South between Linden and Kirkwood is a case in point; the process that has taken it from a thoroughfare linking downtown and the southern suburbs to a destination in its own right has happened in just five years. What was once a desolate, crime-riddled stretch of cracked sidewalks, empty lots, shuttered buildings and shady enterprises is now 12 South.

Will and Christy Shuff staked a claim to the neighborhood when it was still in nascent stages of development—Christy opened Rumours art gallery in April 2002 in a small bungalow that had previously housed Jay's Fish, a business popular with gamblers and the vice squad.

In February 2004, the couple opened 12South Market and Deli in a former convenience store that was convenient primarily for criminals. The two businesses were within shouting distance of one another, helpful given the professional and personal demands on the young couple, who shared the care of their first child and had another baby on the way. It was during that pregnancy that Christy had a dream about opening a wine bar. "I think it must have been because I was wanting a drink so badly," she laughs now. It wasn't a glass of wine she was craving. "Except for the teenaged experimentation with Boone's Farm, I had never drunk wine," she confesses.

Around the time of her dream, the gallery's next-door neighbor, 12South Mercantile, relocated up the street, next door to Frothy Monkey. Hoping to make the gallery more profitable, Shuff had the "A-ha!" moment: open a more user-friendly business next door that would draw traffic to her section of 12 South. The obvious choice was right there in her dream—a wine bar. Not only might it attract neighborhood residents, but as the first wine bar in the city, it had the potential to draw visitors from surrounding areas.

Sometimes dreams do come true, as evidenced on a recent balmy Saturday night, when the bar was ringed two-deep, the tables inside the small house were all occupied, the three coveted outdoor tables also taken. The overflow either squeezed onto the benches that rim the perimeter of the patio, or stood against the whimsical carved-wood fence, keeping an eye out for tables with drained glasses and cleaned plates.

That she knew nothing about wine didn't deter Shuff. "I got my hands on everything I could to read and talked to everyone I knew who knew anything about wine. There was a lot of tasting involved. "

One of those people was Whitney Ferre, owner of Creative Fitness Center on Linden Avenue, just off 12th. The center offers the opportunity for even the most artistically challenged to satisfy their creative urges, providing materials and instruction in everything from pottery to kite making. Ferre and Shuff became friends soon after Shuff opened the art gallery, sharing business and mothering advice. (Ferre now has three children under the age of 5.)

When Shuff decided to open the wine bar in the gallery space, she proposed that she and Ferre combine the gallery and Creative Fitness Center into one space next door. After discovering that Ferre had lived for some time in Spain and had a passionate interest in wine, one thing led to another, and the two are now partners in the side-by-side businesses, Rumours Wine & Art Bar at 2304 12th Ave. S., and The Art House at 2306 next door.

Thanks to Nashville liquor laws, Shuff had to modify her original idea of wine bar—a large and diverse selection of wines by the bottle and glass complemented by cheese, fruit and bread plates—to a restaurant with a focus on wines and wine-friendly foods. She hired Michael Gilbert, who most recently worked in the Caffe Nonna kitchen under the tutelage of owner Daniel Maggipinto. Shuff asked Gilbert to keep it simple, seasonal and fresh.

Gilbert didn't have much choice but to keep it simple. The kitchen is "the size of a shoebox with an Easy Bake oven," he jokes. Due to the space restrictions, Gilbert limits the quantity—though not the quality—of the items on the menu.

The most popular regular item on the menu—chalked daily onto a blackboard, displayed by the server to each table as needed—is the cheese plate ($11). A large black platter is the canvas for a delectable composition of slim slices of Asiago cheese-bread, four types of cheese (hard Spanish Manchego, creamy French St. Andre, Drunken Goat and buttery Danish Havarti), a tangle of greens, a pool of honey, seasonal fruit and the Rolls Royce of the nut world, marcona almonds. I would be perfectly happy with the cheese plate, supplemented by the olive plate ($4), while working my way through the wine list, but for folks who insist on dinner, there are other options. Another daily item, Gilbert's signature crab cakes ($13), are commendably free of filler, studded instead with chopped raw veggies and served with two sauces, neither of which is cocktail.

With the opening of the patio, Gilbert has temporarily bid adieu to hot soups and heavy pastas like ravioli, moving on to more salads, seafood, lightly sauced pasta bowls and Asian-inspired dishes—typically four to five choices a night. Portion sizes hover between small plates and conventional entrées, consistent with their prices, $12-$14. Don't expect the meat-starch-veggie trilogy; instead, a filet of beautifully seared salmon topped with red pepper guacamole lies on a bed of greens, a skewer of teriyaki beef bisects a round of basmati rice, five large sweet and tender scallops rest on a crispy polenta cake, kicked up with a dollop of arrabbiata sauce. Desserts—made by bartender/manager Anne Wilson—also change nightly and rely on whatever is market fresh.

Shuff observes that the crowd is equally divided between diners and drinkers, and of the latter—divided again into Sideways cultists and novices. The wine list, which has just changed with the season, has something for everyone. One side is devoted to white, one to red, with about 30 in each category. On the red side are Pinot Noir, Syrah and Shiraz, Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and, for summer, Chianti and Valpolicella. Representing the whites are Pinot Grigio, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Chardonnay, alternative whites, sparkling wines and champagnes. Almost all are available by the glass; the costlier ones are poured through the Cruvinet tap system, which keeps wine fresh by replacing air in an opened bottle with nitrogen. Each wine is accompanied by a brief description (helpful to Boone's Farm graduates), and the staff can provide assistance, having sampled all the selections over the three-month compilation period for the new wine menu.

During four visits over a five-week period, I witnessed a promising learning curve in execution. My first time there with a party of four was a succession of missteps and disappointments from the moment we arrived until we left, a perfect storm of overwhelmed kitchen, depleted stemware and wines, inadequate staffing, no apparent manager on duty, and the inexplicable absence of either owner on a Saturday night. Subsequent visits have found either Shuff, Ferre or both on site, steering a steadier course while providing a familiar face. Still, part of Rumours' appeal to its large contingent of 20- and 30-somethings seems to be its loosey-goosey approach—seat yourselves, hop from bench to table, from bar to bench, and count on your server to find you somewhere. True to its owners' creative natures and bohemian-chic style, Rumours is more of an organic journey than business plan, and that is an integral part of its quirky charm.

Being a charter resident or business owner in a suddenly hot neighborhood is exciting; it's even more gratifying to see your gamble paying off. It can also be challenging, trying to nose safely out of your side street during rush hour, navigating cars seeking increasingly elusive parking spaces, and snagging a bar stool or table at Portland Brew, Frothy Monkey, Mirror, Mafiaoza's and now Rumours. Is a Preferred Residents Pass out of the question?

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