From a day-jaunt to Nashville, Tenn., my family could not stop talking about one restaurant: Merchants. Although I was not present on this culinary trip to the South, the expertise of my food-obsessed family was not something to be overlooked, so I decided to do a little digging. What I found was promising, and worthy of a little spotlight.
Merchants Restaurant opened in 1988, in the former Merchants Hotel. Constructed in 1892, the original hotel sported three stories with a pharmacy on the first floor, manufacturing company on the second, and a wholesale drug company on the third (famous for producing what was known as “blood medicine,” a combination of alcohol and opium). The European plan offered in the hotel included 25 cents for lodging per day, and another 25 cents for each meal. Rooms contained a bed and a fireplace, and privacy was a maybe, maybe not situation. Vestiges of the original hotel rooms remain in place for viewing, as well as the preservation maintenance of original marble counters and tile work in the building. Among those who’ve stayed at the hotel include Nashville greats such as Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, and Roy Acuff.
Today, the restaurant uses two floors for its dining purposes, housing a more casual setting and fair on the lower floor and a more refined space on the upper. Lower floor wait staff dons suspenders, bow ties, casual white collared shirts, black and white converse sneakers, and newsboy caps or fedoras. Upstairs, suspenders remain, but in black, along with a long white button-down, thin black tie, tie bar and black trousers. The downstairs dons café style tables and bar seating, booths, and an emphasis on unpretentious dining and drinking. Upstairs, tables with dining room chairs and floral arrangements prevail, along with chandeliers and low-lit lighting.
The “Down” and “Up” menus are also different, below serving soups and starters, salads and burgers, sandwiches, entrees, and deserts. Above, courses come in “One,” “Two,” and “Three,” with vegetables and potatoes (ehem, “spuds”) a’ la carte, and separate small sections for Black Angus and All Natural-Beef.
Executive chef Jason Brumm, a native of Colorado, made his name in beach resorts of Northwest Florida. Known in Nashville for his former Gulch restaurant, Radius10, which closed in 2009, he spent his next couple years working in Washington D.C. for P.J. Clarke’s, before his return to Nashville. Although Brumm has a variety of regional experience, the restaurant’s page explains, “he’s found his true love of all things Southern—namely his food and his wife, not necessarily in that order.”
Just after Brumm was recruited back to the Nashville area, he explained his plans for the restaurant to the Nashville Post, “I plan to not only embrace southern cooking traditions, as I always have, but also bring some of my new perspectives from other parts of the country,” he said. “The mountains in the west, the Big Apple, and our nation’s capital have all given me dishes and techniques I will incorporate into the Merchants menu. The classics never go out of style.”
My family is testament to the fanfare following he’s generated. Upon seating (downstairs for lunch) the table was topped with small bowls of ranch-flavored popcorn, an adorable and unique touch replacing the usual bread offering. Some favorites included the Duck Fat Tator Tots (they recommend you go for the full serving over the half, they’re just too good to stop); Fried Green Tomatoes, which although perfectly cooked and delectable (says the fried green tomato obsessed that is my mom), were most definitely trumped by the house pimento cheese they are served with (“It was definitely the steal of the plate,” she said); and the Soup n Sammy, a grilled cheese with white cheddar, smoked gouda, and crispy bacon, served with tomato soup and house-made potato chips. Other suggestions include the Sweet Tea Pork Loin, Deviled Eggs, Johnny Cash’s Iron Pot Chili, Chicken Fried Chicken, and “anything with the Pimento cheese.” The dark wood, winding staircases, and bar in the front and center with surrounding seating made the experience unique, cozy, delicious, and a planned-repeat (many, many times).
Oh, and another tip, I hear the cocktails are out of this world.
Tyler Sullivan is The Daily Meal's assistant editor. Follow her on Twitter @atylersullivan