Arnold’s Country Kitchen is the last place I expected a food writer to suggest for a recent lunch meeting in Nashville. The 30-year-old cafeteria is humble and homely and in a downtown location some might find a bit sketchy past sundown.
But unlike any cafeteria in the U.S., it’s a 2008 James Beard Award winner, American Classic category. The bronze medallion, embossed with Beard’s bubble-headed likeness, is suspended by its red neck silk in a frame on Arnold’s wall. It’s a trophy you’re guaranteed to see since you’ll be standing in line to get a seat here. The cafeteria is always crammed with customers.
The writer, Chris Chamberlain, advised we meet at 11 a.m., when Arnold’s opened, and when I arrived at 10:45, the parking lot already was half filled with customers waiting inside their cars. At five minutes to 11, most got out and cued up outside the door. When Chamberlain arrived 10 minutes later, the line inside already was 20 people deep.
“If you want a Nashville meat-and-three experience, there’s no better lunch here,” said Chamberlain, referring to the combination protein-and-three-side-dish plates served at such cafeterias. “If you like southern food, this is really your place.”
I do, and I love southern hospitality, such as line servers asking and answering questions peppered with “sir” and “hon.” Cordial to be sure, but they were in a hurry, so I politely chose quickly: fried catfish and sides of collard greens, pintos and fried tomatoes. Not in the mood for sweet tea, I chose lemonade.
After working nearly his whole life for other restaurateurs, Jack Arnold opened his own place in 1981. After attracting hordes of Nashvillians, it caught the attention of shows such as “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” and publications such as the New York Times, Southern Living and Garden & Gun (even MAXIM, according to Arnold’s Facebook page). And despite the Beard Award blessing, Chamberlain said it’s stayed the same for as long as he can remember.
“You’d think there’d be more places like this because the food’s so good and the experience is straightforward,” Chamberlain said, raising his voice a bit to eclipse the din in the packed dining room.
I was glad he sustained the conversation because it allowed me to nod, chew and savor the terrific food. “People look at it and think, ‘It’s just a cafeteria. What’s so hard about doing that?’”
Well, the fact that there are so few good ones around may provide at least a hint that running one well is easier than it looks. Louisville lost its two best cafeterias (Jay’s and The Colonnade) some time ago, and it’s likely we’ll not see another anytime soon since statistics show restaurant lunch sales haven’t been great for a long time.
On this day, however, it seemed no one had shared that stat with Arnold’s owners or the hungry hoard in the growing line now crowding the modest entryway.
“The unwritten protocol of eating at Arnold’s is to not stay long and hog your table,” Chamberlain said, implying it was time for us to leave. “When you come in, the people you saw at a table eating will usually be gone by the time you have your food and are ready for a seat.”
As we moved to leave, Chamberlain told me about a couple of places I should visit before reporting for an event we’d both attend that evening. Since Nashville’s restaurant scene is experiencing its own restaurant boom, I figured he might bear forth some trendy offerings. But again, his choices surprised me.
“You definitely want to go to Porter Road Butcher, which is about 10 minutes from here,” said Chamberlain, referring to the whole-animal butcher shop. “And you’ll want to go to Barista next door. It’s a cool coffee shop.”
Porter Road Butcher is one of a growing number of American meat shops where real meat cutting and sausage making happen on premise. A commonality 50 years ago, shops where meat is parceled out from huge primal cuts are rare now. The growth of supermarket meat shops, which buy nearly all their meat precut from massive butchering operations, nearly killed off local butcher shops that couldn’t compete on price.
Owners James Peisker and Chris Carter wanted to change that by serving locally raised meat cut to order. Both were serious chefs before opening Porter Road Butcher in late 2011, and their work has caught the attention of major food publications, even star chefs. Thomas Keller, the internationally renowned chef-owner of The French Laundry restaurant in Yountville, Calif., visited the shop on a recent trip through Nashville.
The small shop smelled of smoking meat—always a good sign—and after a brief chat with some counter workers, one offered to give me a tour of the place.
PRB’s small walk-in cooler was packed with whole hogs, massive beef sections and homemade sausages packaged for retail sale. Outside, on a private fenced patio, more sausages lay cloistered in a large smoker.
“Those all-beef hot dogs are the best. You grill them just until they’re hot, and you don’t even need a bun,” said my unnamed escort pointing to the red-brown sausages. He asked if I had a cooler to take some with me (Um, no, dang it!), and suggested, “When you come back, you’ve got to take some home. They’re amazing.”
The shop’s retail coolers also are filled with loads of goodies you’ll find in a good butcher shop, things like various confit, head cheese, paté, coppa, bresaola, tasso, prosciutto and corned beef—all done here. Next to that case is an exceptional selection of local cheeses made by the Bloomy Rind, as well as selections from around the country. (Favorable finds included some from Capriole Farms and Kenny’s Farmhouse cheeses.)
Without the will to torture myself looking at things I couldn’t take home, I walked to Barista Parlor next door. Fashioned out of an old warehouse, it’s a massive coffee house with Spartan but clever décor and seating including huge benches and tables made from rough-cut logs. Near the middle of the room sits a service island where patrons place their orders. Given that it was late in the afternoon, the crowd was thin, but Chamberlain assured me later, “the place gets packed.”
I’ll be sure to see that—and more—on a return trip to Nashville.