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Playing it safe in Green Hills

Playing it safe in Green Hills

Location, location, location—the most basic rule of business success. You might have the greatest widget in the whole world, but if people can’t get there to buy it, you ain’t gonna sell it.

Why, then, does one of Nashville’s most densely populated neighborhoods, a place of overtly conspicuous consumers, have so few restaurants? Admittedly, within the vaguely defined borders of Green Hills, you can eat fast food, cheap food, pricey food, good food, bad food, Mexican food, Southern food, Indian food, Italian food, Chinese food, Japanese food and barbecue. Still, in all of Green Hills, you will only find one sit-down, full-service restaurant that serves a mostly American menu, maintains moderate prices, and offers a bar. A place where you can get a half-roast chicken for $7.85, check out several vegetarian options, try the best grilled burger in the neighborhood, and find a Cakebread chardonnay on the wine list.

That probably explains why, any time you arrive at Green Hills Grille, you will have to wait for a table.

But that’s just part of the story. If this immensely popular eatery didn’t have the food, the service and that ambience to draw diners back again and again, it would have gone out of business faster than you can say “H.R.H. Dumplin’s.” It’s not as if Green Hillsians can’t hop into their Benzes and their Suburbans and scoot over to Houston’s or Dalt’s or J. Alexander’s. It’s not as if they can’t just drop by Clayton-Blackmon for a dish of chicken spaghetti to heat up at home. But Green Hills Grille has not only succeeded in giving its customers what they want; the Grille has also developed some real brand loyalty.

You might think it’s a no-brainer, but that would be insulting to Philip Hickey, the man who struck gold on Hillsboro Drive six years ago. I have a hunch that Philip spent some of his formative eating years at Houston’s, which offers the perfect balance of friendly service, an attractive room, and a menu that includes everyone’s favorite something.

Three years ago, Hickey merged his place with Atlanta’s Innovative Restaurant Concepts. Sounds scary, doesn’t it? It should—IRC also owns the Rio Bravo chain. I was shocked and amazed to learn that Green Hills Grille married into that family, but it is reassuring to note that Hickey has kept a close eye on his baby. One of the best things I can say about eating at Green Hills Grille is that it doesn’t feel like a chain.

I must confess that, even though I’d had lunch at the Grille, until two weeks ago I had never eaten dinner there. When I made my confession, my friends acted as if I’d just announced that I’d once been married to Fidel Castro.

Our party—six fabulous babes, if I do say so myself—met at the Grille at 7:30 on a Thursday night and spent our 30-minute wait in the pleasant bar. Once we were seated in the back room, it was all our waitress could do to break in long enough to take our orders. My guess is that they put us back there for a good reason—the din of six yakking wives/mothers must have been nearly deafening.

The wine list is pretty much like the menu, a safe list of everyone’s pick hits, and it’s not exorbitantly marked up. There are Sundial, Estancia, Kendall-Jackson and Franciscan chardonnays, Ferrari Carano Fume Blanc, Napa Ridge and Clos Du Bois Pinot Noirs, Stone Creek and Columbia Crest merlots, Guenoc cabernet—you get the picture. We ordered a bottle of red and a bottle of white.

Appetizers are not Green Hills Grille’s strong suit, but they’re probably not the reason anybody eats there anyway. The appetizers aren’t bad; they’re just the same old same-old—chips and salsa, a chicken quesadilla, a hot queso dip and spinach-and-artichoke dip. Bonus points for the big crispy chips and the variation on the chicken fingers, which are rolled in shredded coconut before frying. If you’re needing something to still the hunger pangs before your entrée arrives, ask for extra servings of the good, chewy warm bread and the delicious herbed butter.

Like Houston’s, Green Hills Grille has become famous for its salads. According to manager Wes Smithing, the Grille’s most popular entrée salad is the Chop Chop Salad. Its name describes it pretty accurately—the lettuce is chopped fine, like cabbage for cole slaw, with smoked turkey, provolone, artichoke hearts and crunchy chick-peas, all tossed with an Italian dressing. Maribeth liked the concept but found it a little difficult to keep all the itsy-bitsy pieces on her fork. It should be great for dieters. Judy loved the Red Mesa grilled chicken salad, particularly the corn and black bean salsa and the crunchy jicama. I’ve had the Chinese grilled chicken salad twice at lunch and loved it both times.

The fish of the day was trout almondine, fresh and nicely cooked. We spritzed on some extra lemon juice, and it was almost perfect. What’s more, it was reassuringly low in fat.

There are three pasta dishes—we sampled the one with marinara sauce. Be aware that this is a roasted red pepper marinara, so it’s sweeter than the plain tomato style. Mary also found the sauce little too salty—a complaint that cropped up more than once, but then we girls are sodium-sensitive.

With no menfolk at the table, we paid scant attention to the red-meat options, but they are there—a 7-oz. strip steak, a 12-oz. strip steak and an 8 oz. beef tenderloin. Carnivores with a hankering for pork can also choose the full pound of baby back ribs.

The roasted half-chicken was the heartiest item we tried, and it was enough for two meals, even if it did taste more baked than roasted. The absolutely lump-free chive smashed potatoes may have been reconstituted, but it’s the smashing, rather than mashing, that accounts for the smooth texture.

The envy of the table was Melissa’s grilled vegetable plate. Big pieces of eggplant, peppers, squash and onion, along with huge mushrooms, were dressed with a tangy balsamic vinaigrette and heaped on a platter of greens with roasted corn and red chile tortilla strips.

We wouldn’t be real girls if we didn’t order dessert—just to taste. The crème brûlée did not pass muster at our table, and Mary, the Queen Baker, swears the chocolate fudge brownie came from a mix. The Heath Bar Crunch Pie and the cool and creamy key lime pie both earned two spoons up. Dinner for six, minus the wine, was about $120.

Green Hills Grille is family-friendly. There are five choices for the tykes, and free balloons are provided. If you don’t want to wait for a table, arrive before 6 p.m. and you’ll beat the rush.

Diners go to Green Hills Grille to eat, not to experiment—to be fed, not to be challenged. They go because they know they’ll get good food and good service at a good price, and they are rarely disappointed. If you have an unhappy experience, just tell your server, and you’ll get your money back. You betcha.

Green Hills Grille is located at 2122 Hillsboro Dr. (383-6444). Open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sun.-Thurs.; 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Fri. & Sat. All major credit cards accepted.

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