It’s the first day of summer, and visible waves of heat are roiling up from the parking lot behind 3000 West End Avenue. The temperature is inching toward triple digits. Sweat pours down the bare backs of landscapers armed with large shovels. They’re turning over dirt in bordered plots where shrubs will soon be planted. Inside the building, more workers, clad in jeans, sleeveless T-shirts and do-rags on their heads, are grouped by specialty: carpentry, tile work, plumbing, electrical. Power tools buzz and whir, hammers pound, metal screeches against wood. Leather booths are wrapped in protective sheets of heavy plastic, work boots thump over the wooden sub-flooring that will eventually be covered with wall-to-wall carpet, kitchen equipment lays unassembled and disconnected.
Standing amid the frenetic activity leading up to the opening of BrickTop’s Nashville restaurant—the first opened June 15 in Naples—is co-founder Joe Ledbetter, cool as the proverbial cucumber and impeccably attired in a white polo shirt, creased khakis, leather loafers and no socks. This ain’t his first rodeo; it was at this very address, 29 years ago, that Ledbetter opened another new restaurant. Houston’s not only became a beloved Nashville institution, but grew into a very successful national enterprise, with 35 other restaurants operating under that name and several more, such as the Palm Beach Grille, tagged with more regional monikers.
While the address and concept are familiar, Ledbetter notes that the circumstances are vastly different today than they were back in 1977, the year he was struck by the notion that he should open a restaurant. He was working for JC Bradford at the time. “My mother, my wife, my friends, my associates all said, ‘Don’t do it, this is crazy!’ Two years ago, when I decided to sell my interest in Houston’s, they said the same thing—‘Don’t do it, that’s crazy!’ So, I guess the first idea wasn’t so crazy after all.”
Certainly, taking a Western Auto store and turning it into Nashville’s first fern bar sounded a little nutty, but there was a method to his madness. “At the time, T.G.I. Friday’s had a stronghold on the market, but they were pretty much geared to the singles crowd. I felt like we could broaden that base and appeal to a larger audience: business, families, old and young. We wanted to offer reasonably good food, good service and do it consistently. That was the Houston’s trademark, and to some degree that will be BrickTop’s. But I want to be perfectly clear—we are not repeating Houston’s. That’s why we tore down the building and started from scratch. We wanted to start over, start something new.”
BrickTop’s concept may be brand new, but the design and décor are classic: rich maple wood, leather-covered booths, low, dark ceilings with lantern lighting for warmth and intimacy. The bar will be to the right of the entrance, where the Houston’s bar had been, but on one level, not two. The eastern wall of the bar will be split by doors that open onto a patio, and two large windows on either side can be fully opened when the weather permits. The western wall of the restaurant, or what general manager Adam Strecker calls “the Walgreen’s wall,” no longer has windows, an effort to prevent the late afternoon burn that came with the setting sun.
In addition to the seating along the walls, floating booths fill the center of the room, just a few feet away from the large, open kitchen. To the left of the kitchen, the servers’ station—visible from the main room through a window—is walled with pure white tile. “We want everything to look very clean, and we want to make a statement that we have nothing to hide,” Strecker explains. That policy is further enhanced by the large window that runs one length of the main kitchen wall. Diners who park in the back will be able to watch the chefs and cooks at work as they walk to the front door, much as Jersey shore boardwalk strollers can eye saltwater taffy being pulled.
The prep area is a smaller room within the kitchen, though it also has a window running along the front side. Through that window, one of Nashville’s most familiar and beloved faces will be visible: Mack McGee, who spent 32 years one block away at the recently closed Vandyland, was one of BrickTop’s first—and most important—hires. “I grew up going to Vandyland,” Ledbetter says. “In fact, I still called it Candyland. When I heard that it was closing, I started eating there a lot more often. One day, it just occurred to me that Mack would be a great fit for our store. I gave him Adam’s card and asked him to go see him. Mack came over that very afternoon. We wanted to find a position that would suit him, where he would be comfortable. He will be making sauces, dressings, dessert items. We’ll see. He has taken a month off, and is really enjoying himself, but we’re looking forward to getting him over here in the kitchen.”
Since last August, recipes and products have gone through a painstaking process of elimination and selection in the test kitchen in Boca Raton. “We tested 12 different versions of Caesar dressing,” Strecker says. “We tasted and tasted different ribs before we chose the purveyor we’ll use. The same with the hot dog, before we decided on Big City Red out of Minnesota. Our hot dog is not your ordinary dog. It’s a Kosher beef dog on a poppy seed bun, with mustard and the pickle relish we’ll make here, plus sauerkraut, chopped tomatoes and olive relish on the side to add if you’d like. It comes on a tray with fries, coleslaw and a deviled egg.” He points out a very small freezer, used to hold the ice cream that will be made fresh daily, an essential ingredient in the sure-to-be-popular banana split.
The BrickTop’s fare is described on two sides of the menu, thoughtfully printed in large type. On the left is the core menu, available daily at lunch and dinner: appetizers and salads, sandwiches, house specials, flatbreads (sort of a triangular-shaped pizza) and sides. On the right are the daily specials, which will change out from lunch to dinner: a soup, an appetizer, fresh fish, a specialty burger, a house special and vegetable selections. Wines by the glass—a 7-ounce pour—are listed on the left side, with a selection of bottles on the right. Four brews will be drawn from taps: Sierra Nevada, Miller Lite, Yazoo and another still to be named. No bottled beer will be served.
Construction and equipment installation are scheduled to be complete by July 10, and Ledbetter and Strecker plan to be open the following week. “If I thought I was trying to reinvent the wheel, I’d be nervous,” Ledbetter says as he surveys the work-in-progress. “But we’ve done this before, and I think we know what we’re doing. I know people loved Houston’s, but we felt like it was time for a change.”