In with new, enjoy the old this Valentine’s Day

Nashville's romantic restaurants offer options for this year’s big night

Friday, February 8, 2019, Vol. 43, No. 6
By Hollie Deese

The classic day for passion could find you and your loved one embracing a new chef or cuisine or a new part of town. What could be more romantic than discovering the burgeoning food scene together?

There were 133 new restaurant openings in Nashville last year, and 113 in 2017, the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp. reports. With many new restaurants coming on board or in the planning stages, success might well depend on maintaining a foothold on culinary integrity while taking into account the area’s dining history and character.

The opening of Hathorne two months ago in an old fellowship hall on Charlotte Avenue was highly anticipated as the first restaurant under the guidance of longtime industry veteran John Stephenson, who has been in the business for 27 years. He says he’s feeling the pressure to have a hit on his hands with so many other new restaurants opening.

Stephenson grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, and came to Nashville in 1991 when he was about 20 years old. His first real kitchen job was as a line cook at the newly opened Amerigo restaurant on West End, a natural fit since his cousin is the original owner and creator.

He decided to make food his career in 1999 and moved to London for a year, going to culinary school, traveling and working in a few different kitchens. Back in Nashville he had stints at the Wild Boar, Corner Market, Martha’s at the Plantation and Fido, where he was executive chef for 12 years, elevating coffee shop fare. After he left Fido, he helped reopen Family Wash in its new location.

With Hathorne, Stephenson has a chance to venture out with his own concept instead of helping someone else live out theirs. And the pressure is on.

“It’s definitely terrifying to do what I’m doing,” he says. “And I even considered getting out of the industry after the Family Wash. But when this opportunity, this property, became available, and I came and looked at it, it just seemed like this is what I had been waiting so long for.”

There will be no prix fixe menu on Valentine’s Day, just Hathorne’s regular delicious veggie-forward fare with some champagne specials added to the signature cocktail, wine and beer offerings.

Hathorne restaurant located at 4708 Charlotte Ave. was once the fellowship hall for a Methodist Church at that location.

-- Photos By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

Stephenson says he’s learned over the years to preserve what people love most about their favorite restaurants on such a special night.

“On Valentine’s Day you get these restaurants that you love, and they put out a totally different product, and you just want to come in for what you love at this place, not for a special menu,” he explains. “That’s my whole reason for wanting to have my own restaurant. I want to do what I’m passionate about and what I love and do it really well and then let people come to me for that.”

Large groups are welcome at Hathorne and are placed front and center at a large communal table, becoming part of the ambiance and vibe of the restaurant. They also have a private dining room that can hold as many as 20 people, and the room can be arranged into a series of two-tops for those one-on-one nights out.

“We just really feel like we’re set up for this neighborhood to really turn around – and this part of Charlotte is starting to kind of come alive again – and we’re right in the center of it,” he points out.

“That being said, it’s still the Nashville restaurant industry. We can do everything perfectly and still not make it in a couple years. But it’s not going to be for lack of doing everything that we think will make for a great dining experience here in Nashville.”

Service as an art form

Blake Venable, kitchen manager of Knoxville’s Kitchen 919, says there has been a shift in diner expectations over the past decade, and new restaurants need to adjust more than their food to accommodate them.

“I think for the longest time food quality and how good your food is was probably the most important aspect of the business. But I think it’s now shifted that service is. I think there is an art form behind it obviously, and I think people are better at it or more blessed in that arena than others,” he says.

Roast heirloom carrots are on the menu at Hathorne

“For the most part, anybody can put out good food. But how consistent is your service?”

Going above and beyond is the new way to stay on top of your game, he adds, and if a guest wants a certain type of dressing or fish that is not on the menu, they will run out to the store and buy it on the spot.

“I think that way the business has gone is if you’re not willing to go out of your way to make people happy and do whatever you can, you’re not going to stay in business,” he says.

The “Prohibition Lounge” bar in Kitchen 919 was designed to give guests the feel of being in a 1920s speakeasy while enjoying a drink.

-- Photo By Adam Taylor Gash |The Ledger

Kitchen 919 is in the former Orangery space, one of Knoxville’s most prominent restaurants for 40-plus years. The new owners purchased the space in 2016 and were scheduled to open in summertime, but after difficulties with construction and nearly $1 million in renovations, they opened in December 2017.

“I love being in this building,” Venable says. “It has such a rich heritage and a huge history and the fact that we’re blessed enough to be there is amazing for me. We are trying to capture what The Orangery had as far as a lovely place to come dine with incredible decor along with great food and great service. But we wanted to try and modernize that just a little bit and kind of put our own spin on it.”

On Valentine’s Day the restaurant will feature a four-course meal designed by the executive chef and owner for $75 a person, with the goal of putting out delicious, thoughtful food in a timely manner.

“It’s super important to us that we are consistent and that we are trying to capture that experience every time they come in, because you may not be seeing them again for another month or two,” Venable says.

Progressive Appalachian cuisine

Nashville, of course, isn’t the only Tennessee city with a vibrant, growing restaurant scene.

Kevin Korman moved his wife and small children to Chattanooga from Destin last April to head up Whitebird, the three-meal restaurant – breakfast, lunch and dinner – inside the Edwin Hotel with the directive to create an elevated Southern menu that tapped into the history of Chattanooga.

The restaurant is named for John Ross, the founder of Chattanooga. He was one-eighth Cherokee, and also went by the name Mysterious Little White Bird.

“They knew they wanted to tap into that Cherokee indigenous history of it, but that’s a very difficult thing to do,” Korman says. “We couldn’t really have a Cherokee food restaurant, so we went down the rabbit hole of digging a little bit more into the history of the area. What kind of preservation methods are there, and cooking methods and what kind of indigenous ingredients?”

The result is familiar Southern food with a twist he calls Progressive Appalachian.

“It is really taking all of the things that are local here, some things that have a little bit of that indigenous Cherokee quality to it, but mostly it’s Scotch-Irish, and German and Pennsylvania Dutch. And all of the things that those migrants brought as far as cooking methods and ingredients, and we just built the menu around that.”

This is Korman’s first time living in Tennessee, though his wife grew up in Lebanon. The couple met in Florida where he moved after getting sick of the snow in his native Baltimore. He was there for eight years before a recruiter reached out about the gig at The Edwin. After he and his wife and two small girls visited Chattanooga, they knew it was where they wanted to be, he says, even if the job didn’t pan out.

“I wanted them to have more than just the beach lifestyle and expose them to something more interesting with more culture,” he says. “Aside from the lifestyle standpoint of it, from a culinary profession or just hospitality industry in general, I really feel like Chattanooga is the next city that is going to pop, so I wanted to sneak in before it did,” Korman adds.

But the dining scene is not just growing for the sake of growing – Korman says everybody’s trying to raise the bar on what they’re producing, and tapping into the best ingredients local farmers are producing.

“A lot of what we do is telling stories, and a lot of it is connecting people. A lot of what is in our dialogue is talking about connecting, so just like a bridge does, it connects one side to the other. It connects middle class to upper class. It connects, ultimately, our guest to everything that Chattanooga has to offer.”

The regular menu is available on Valentine’s Day, as well as a prix fixe three-course meal specialized menu built around aphrodisiac ingredients with a beverage pairing. And this year, it also works out that their bi-monthly Chef’s Table falls on Valentine’s Day. It is a 10-course tasting menu with optional beverage pairing, but only eight people can be accommodated.

“This is the one night of the month that I get to actually get hands-on and cook, and it’s nothing that’s on our menu,” Korman acknowledges. “It’s really me just playing around with food and the guests get to be the guinea pigs in the best possible way. It just so happened that it fell on Valentine’s Day this month, so there’s going to be eight lucky guests that get a really great date night.”