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VOL. 41 | NO. 5 | Friday, February 3, 2017

Restaurants keep Valentine spirit alive by creating an experience

Popping the question? We’ve got answers

By Hollie Deese

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Something began to shift in Nashville’s dining scene about a decade or so ago.

A once-minimal restaurant landscape started to expand, slowly at first with a new wave of pioneers joining the Randy Rayburns and Jody Faisons – City House in Germantown, Watermark and Flyte in The Gulch, the beginnings of Strategic Hospitality’s reign all over.

Margot McCormack was making a name for the slow food movement in East Nashville, while Christy Shuff was combining art and wine at Rumours across the way from Colleen and Michael DeGregory’s Mirror, where blue cheese polenta fries attracted media attention.

It was pre-Yelp, and it was an exciting time to be a diner in Nashville. Those days were just the beginning of what has been an explosion of choices for eating out in every category – burgers, barbecue, ethnic and a surprisingly sophisticated array of truly fine dining, perfect for Valentine’s Day.

National Restaurant Association figures show the Nashville area has gained 490 restaurants since 2010, bringing the total number to 5,395 as of the fall. That’s a 10 percent increase during a time when the national market grew .1 percent.

With so many new places to try, how does a hot restaurant stay that way? Ben Goldberg of Strategic Hospitality says it’s all about offering comfortable places to dine, hang out and have a memorable experience.

“There’s no business plan or strict methodology to it,” Goldberg says. “We just create spaces where we want to go. And I hope that it’s not only on Valentine’s Day that people think of them [Strategic owns several restaurants in town]. We want to provide a really thoughtful, wonderful, nice experience for people each and every day.”

Goldberg says marriage proposals happen at their properties all the time, including at The Catbird Seat where almost everyone is gathered around the chef and the meal is a shared experience. That leaves little room for error.

“If I was proposing at The Catbird Seat I would be so nervous because all eyes are on you,” Goldberg explains. “You’d better say ‘yes’ in that scenario because there’s a bunch of other people just staring at you.”

Enjoying a romantic evening together at Watermark Restaurant are Frank and Paula Wilkens.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

For the most recent proposal at Catbird, the chef was able to stash the wedding ring inside a small cookie jar that was being used to serve that evening’s final course. She went to reach for the cookies and came out with the ring.

Staff members were important to making sure the bride-to-be had a memorable evening. Goldberg says he depends on staff to make their own decisions to make the night special – like knowing it would be OK to let the couple leave the restaurant with the cookie jar as a keepsake.

“We were not there. I didn’t tell them to give them the cookie jar, but that’s an example that the staff we have is so great that they recognized the importance of a moment like that and know the cookie jar probably means a whole lot more to them than it does to us,” he points out.

“Now every time they look at it in their kitchen, they’re thinking about the fact that they’re going to get married and the fact that they had, hopefully, a wonderful experience at the restaurant.’’

Strategic’s latest restaurant, Bastion, opened in May in the WeHo district, following the accompanying bar’s opening earlier in the year. Bastion is led by chef Josh Habiger, who first impressed foodies while at Catbird Seat. Up next is Henrietta Red for Habiger, a partnership with chef Julia Sullivan in Germantown.

“The restaurants that we try and create are comfortable environments that sort of force you to talk and interact with each other,” Goldberg adds. “We recognize that people that go out to eat and drink are not there only for food or beverage, they’re there for this overall experience.

“So, we hope that we create this overall experience that is warm and welcoming and polite, but forces interaction between you and your date, and others within the restaurant, to talk and hang out and get to know each other.”

Do you see what I see?

When Hughes Brown and his father opened Watermark in The Gulch in 2005, Ru San’s had been there about six months, and Sambuca had just opened 30 days previously. Bar23 was there too, but the district was not even close to what The Gulch has become today.

For the first few years, Watermark would close up shop on the Fourth of July for a staff appreciation party with a chance to take in the skyline in celebration.

“We could sit on our patio and see all the fireworks downtown,” Brown says. “And now I can’t even see downtown.”

Patrons dining at Watermark Restaurant in The Gulch.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

And this fall, the view will be totally different again as Watermark moves from its original location to the only retail space in the new Bridgestone Headquarters building in SoBro between the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Encore condos.

“We’re excited,” Brown says. “Obviously, there’s so much going on downtown now compared to what it was when we opened 10 years ago, especially in the SoBro side of downtown.”

According to the Nashville Downtown Partnership, 78 restaurants have opened downtown since 2014.

And he certainly isn’t worried about losing anyone who has depended on Watermark – where he estimates more than 30 marriage proposals have taken place – to celebrate their special evenings. As long as the restaurant continues to focus on the quality of everything from the food to the service, he knows the fans will follow.

“Probably what helps more than anything is that my dad and I have a vision for what we always wanted the restaurant to be, and we continue to see that through.

“That has been constant through the years. No matter the trends, no matter the other new restaurants that open, whatever it may be, our No. 1 job and focus is to put the best quality product out there we can.”

That means focusing 100 percent on the customers so they will tell their friends. And it’s that word-of-mouth advertising he hopes to always perpetrate.

“It’s an exciting time in Nashville, and it’s an even more exciting time in terms of the national food scene,” Brown adds. “It’s growing so rapidly, and it’s bringing us so many great, talented chefs and companies. It’s fun and exciting to go try new places but try to remember not to forget some of the restaurants that have been around a long time.”

Mood music

The annual Bankrate Be My Valentine Index shows dinner at a fine-dining restaurant will costs $40.23 per person, according to market research data from NPD Group/CREST, meaning that a nice Valentine’s Day dinner out for two is $80.46, excluding a tip.

At Flyte World Dining and Wine, a four-course meal on Valentine’s Day is $85 per person, another $40 for wine pairings, and right on par with many other local restaurants’ specials that night.

Of course, those restaurants probably won’t have a harpist on hand to really set the romantic mood as Flyte will.

“Our guests have really responded well to that,” says co-owner Scott Sears of harpist Kirsten Agresta “It just adds an unusual, unique and, of course, romantic vibe to the evening.”

Agresta has collaborated with JayZ, Beyonce, Kanye West, Alicia Keys, Carrie Underwood, Alan Jackson, Jennifer Nettles, Frank Ocean and The Roots.

“It’s crazy that she comes to our little restaurant to play,” Sears adds.

Last October was Flyte’s 10th anniversary and when it first opened at the corner of 8th and Division, Sears says people really questioned the choice of location. Not so much anymore.

“There was nothing here,” Sears explains. “People thought we were totally crazy. There were just a lot of adult bookstores and sketchy establishments. They’re all gone now. But I got to give Arnold’s credit. And actually, Watermark beat us to the punch just a little bit, too. They and Sambuca opened in the heart of The Gulch and were the first to really hit critical mass over there.”

Chefs graduate, move on

Sears adds the philosophy at Flyte has changed some over the years as chefs have changed, and the restaurant has had to expand their food sourcing in order to get the products their customers love. It is one thing, he says, that has been important in remaining successful – giving the diners what they want.

“I think being flexible for guests is really important, and it’s something we’ve always focused on,” he says. “We are always trying to provide an awesome guest experience from the moment they make a reservation. I get compliments from guests who just walk in the door who said, ‘We haven’t eaten a bite here, but we’re already so happy with the restaurant.’ Having awesome people is part of it.”

Hiring and keeping staff is difficult in Nashville right now, especially in the kitchen, Sears points out.

“We have had more turnover then we would’ve liked,” he says. “It’s largely due to cooks who begin working with us, who have a great working experience and learn and develop their skills, and then are ready to graduate to a leadership role. Obviously, we have limited numbers of leadership roles within the restaurant. So they move up by moving out.”

While it creates a challenge for hiring, Sears says it is really cool to look around the city and see all of the staff that have worked at Flyte that are now in leadership positions in other kitchens.

“It’s gratifying and it makes it sting a little less when someone that you’ve grown to care about is ready to move on,” he adds.

As for providing a wonderful guest experience a decade in, Sears says a renovation done in the fall was the best decision. It created a fresh look.

He and his staff also looked beyond their strong wine program to include craft cocktails and beers.

But it all comes back to the people.

“Part of the philosophy from the beginning was to try to hire great people and let them be great,” Sears says. “Don’t do a whole lot of micromanaging, let them express themselves in attire and communication with tables. We keep talent longer, and that makes employees visibly happier.”

Goldberg agrees – happy employees make for happy diners.

“If they show the guest how much they care and they love what they do, hopefully, that is a place that the guest wants to come back to,” Goldberg says.

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