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VOL. 43 | NO. 6 | Friday, February 8, 2019

Raley sees the light with distinctive Liberty Common

By Hollie Deese

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Liberty Common owner Terry Raley

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

Terry Raley says he knows that it takes more than great food to make a memorable meal.

When he opened the doors on December 28 to Liberty Common, a new French restaurant across from Ascend Amphitheater, he knew everything had to be perfect when it came to the guest experience, from the impeccably placed tiles to the totally temperate dining room, no sweaters required.

Of course he got caught up in details like the temperature of the lights. He ended up wrapping photo gel around the bulbs so they would cast a warmer glow. Lighting, he says, is his first thought when opening a new restaurant. It’s all part of how the place will make the diner feel.

“A room has to have a very distinctive sense of place,” he says. “I went to Balthazar (in New York) in the late 90s, and the way the lights were done by Mr. (Kevin) McNally, who opened it, everybody looked very, very sexy. There was this amber glow. It looked like there were candles on the ceilings and on the walls just because everything had this beautiful amber hue about it. I’ve been interested in lighting ever since.”

Liberty Common is a brasserie that actually feels like one, with coarse marble, copper elements, opal glass sconces and abundant tile. Jeffrey Rhodes is the restaurant’s executive chef/partner.

“I didn’t want to do a carbon copy of a typical steakhouse brasserie, New York City hybrid. I wanted it to feel like something that was also uniquely Southern, so the booths are yellow instead of maroon. I feel like we took the best of what those places have to offer and we just kind of modernized it a little bit. I think it works.”

Raley opened the cocktail bar Holland House in 2009 on a comparatively limited budget of less than $200,000. It forced him to put in sweat equity from the get-go and what he didn’t know he learned pretty quickly.

The carefully designed interior of the new Liberty Commons restaurant, cafe & bar at 207 First Avenue S., across from Ascend Amphitheater.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

“I just got used to sourcing all the lights and any other architectural elements and just kind of peeping around on lists to see if I could find something that somebody was trying to give away,” he recalls. “I found a whole bunch of barn wood from a guy that did displays for the CMA Fest.”

By the time Holland House was finished, most of the carpentry and all of the painting had been done by Raley and crew.

“We had things that I had ordered in boxes, and electricians would come in and I would just tell them to hang this light there, hang that light there. There were no real architectural plans telling me where to put anything,” Raley acknowledges.

He admits the experience was a bit shaky, but it was done under budget and looked pretty darn good.

Next up for Raley was Pharmacy Burger Parlor. There was no designer involved with that one either. With the East Nashville burger and beer garden he was more concerned with gelling the exterior and the interior.

“I don’t think anyone at that time had done a beer garden yet,’’ he adds. “Not at least one that I felt looked authentic. So you had this German beer garden that also needed to be landscaped in a way that a landscape architect might do. It’s just a lot trying to build a beer garden on a slope. I just had to learn on the fly but that was done for not much more than what Holland House cost.”

He formed his own company in 2014, Amaranth Hospitality Group, and opened Butchertown Hall. On that one he had a little help on the design from Powell Design and Build.

Pastries near the bar area of Liberty Commons restaurant cafe and bar

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

“That was sort of the beginning of me getting a little bit more interested in look and feel and having a little bit bigger of a budget to work with,” he explains. “By the time we got to this one, I had already sourced the copper lamps that are hanging at Liberty Common. I had to get an importer’s license for those.”

The lights were the benchmark of what he wanted the place to be, and he felt like if he had those then everything else could be designed around them. They sat up in his attic for about a year and a half before local company Southern Lights Electric helped get them UL listed and rewired them for American standards.

“Things just kind of went from there. It was the first time that I actually got to project manage finishes 100 percent on my own and I feel like that made all the difference. Not because I feel like I do a better job. I don’t feel like that at all. I had a lot of fun with it, but I do feel like it’s a warm place and it’s a room that feels good.”

All of the thought that goes into the opening of a restaurant is not just important to stand out in a sea of restaurant openings Raley says – it’s essential.

“If you’re not setting yourself apart, the chances of success are definitely going to be greatly diminished. I had that in mind while doing this, that we cannot be just another restaurant opening. It’s gotten to the point where people just kind of skip over that page in any publication.”

Raley says there is no rhyme or reason why certain restaurants succeed and others do not. But he does add having that sense of place is certainly a piece of the puzzle.

“It’s not enough to have an X factor, I think you have to have an X, Y, and a Z. I’m always thinking in the back of my mind, what else did I not think of? Is there anything else? There was so much more pressure, I think on this restaurant for me than anything else prior.”

Expect more of the same on Valentine’s Day, but with champagne.

“I actually love Valentine’s Day,” Raley admits. “I’m the guy that loves most of the things that everybody else hates about being a chef or an owner. I like it where you have lots of two tops. I like creating an atmosphere and I love dates. I’m like the guy that you want to wait your table when you’re on a date.”

He’s even handled more than a few proposals, including several at Butchertown Hall, where there have even been two weddings of couples who had their first date at the restaurant. He anticipates the same at Liberty.

“We’re in the hospitality business, we’re not in the restaurant business, and it’s always trying to be up on it to make sure that everything is right and that’s what I wanted to do here,” Raley explains. “It’s having that lighting right, the music at a decent volume. It’s having the temperature right, clean bathrooms. All of these things are the sum of your parts of which you’re going to be judged on.”

Another new restaurant owner, chef John Stephenson of Hathorne, looks to his staff – bar, kitchen and floor – to make for a stellar experience from Day 1.

“To keep your staff you have to have a really good culture and we do,” Stephenson says. “We’ve let go of over 23 people already and we’ve only been open two months. So we roll out the bad apples really quickly. I call them zombie employees because not only are they dead and kind of not very great, but they also can infect your other employees with bad attitudes and bad habits.”

What’s left are the employees who are there to work and help each other make for a great service, all the time.

“There’s so much competition now that, whereas before you could kind of skate on something here and there – maybe every single thing on the menu wasn’t great or maybe the servers were a little lackadaisical or whatever. But since there’s so much competition and you’ve got so many choices, you really get one chance with people. And if there’s something wrong with the atmosphere, the service, or the food, they have plenty of other options to go to.”

Because gone are the days restaurants would get a bit of a pass during the first few weeks of operations as they work out any kinks. Now it’s essential to have all areas of service working together and working really well.

“It’s lively, but it’s not as loud as other restaurants,” Stephenson says of Hathorne. “We have taken pains to install sound mitigation panels in the ceiling. The lighting is good, it’s not a dark wood restaurant. It’s bright and airy. All the menus are written in a font that you can read. But I think we’ve addressed a lot of the complaints that diners have about new restaurants in Nashville. The noise level, the space, how the space looks, and also our seating is super comfortable.”

“Every new restaurant is different,” Raley adds. “You never really know what to expect. With the sheer amount of restaurants that are opening, until people come and visit you and realize it’s a completely different restaurant.

“It takes time obviously, especially in the first quarter, to get the word out.”

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