The menu at Merchants, a lively two-part restaurant — a cool contemporary dining room upstairs, a casual place at street level — on an intensely touristy stretch of Broadway in Nashville, Tenn., says "Est. 1892." That's stretching things a bit. The Merchant's Hotel was constructed on the site that year, and went on to host such country music luminaries as Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, and Dolly Parton before the neighborhood went to hell in the mid-20th century and the place declined into a flophouse and possibly a brothel. An optimistic entrepreneur reopened it as a restaurant in 1988. Since then it has had several owners, with the most recent bunch taking over last year.
They seem to have found a winning formula. While the upstairs offers olive oil-poached halibut and filet of beef with crushed fingerling potatoes and pickled onion rings, the bar-and-grillish (and cheaper) downstairs specializes in salads and sandwiches, plus main dishes like fish tacos and smoked brisket with homemade cornbread. The fried green tomato appetizer, served with rather spicy homemade pimento cheese, is particularly popular.
But even better (especially if you can talk them into giving you some pimento cheese on the side) is the fried green tomato sandwich. This might be called a BAT, consisting of leafy arugula, smoky country bacon (nice and crisp), and the green tomatoes, plump, acidic, and crisp-fried, on multi-grain bread. Little wisps of raw red onion add texture and a dressing of malt vinegar-spiked mayo etches a fine sharp line around the other elements. It's a great mouthful of southern flavors. — Colman Andrews, 6/13/2011