January 1, 2013

Place Setting: Music City Masterpiece

Hermitage Hotel's Two Distinct Dining Experiences Offer Farm-Fresh Ingredients With a Side of Nashville History

  • By: Lauren Walser

Had I wanted a drink from Oak Bar inside Nashville’s Hermitage Hotel decades ago, I would have had to order it from a small service window in the hallway and retreat to the hotel lobby to enjoy it. My male companion, however, would have been welcomed inside this former boys’ club, where I imagine he would lounge in one of the deep leather chairs, sipping any number of bourbons offered on the lengthy drink menu.

Fortunately for me, Oak Bar ended its men-only policy in the 1970s, and when I visited my dining partner and I were both greeted warmly as we ordered a round of martinis. It was Saturday night in Nashville, and happy hour was in full swing.

This small but impressive bar was the first stop on our short tour of the two dining options inside Hermitage Hotel. An elegant downtown establishment, it was built in 1910 and today is a member of Historic Hotels of America, a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. And at 102 years old, the hotel has aged beautifully, thanks in part to a one-year, $20 million renovation completed in 2003.

Before dinner, we wandered the lobby, watching the setting sun cast a glow over the hotel employees bustling around, preparing for a wedding reception. Then we descended an unassuming set of stairs for pre-dinner drinks at Oak Bar.

It took a minute for our eyes to adjust to the dark, moody interior. But as we snacked on the complimentary artisanal popcorn, we took in our surroundings. The clientele may have changed, but it felt like little else has, with the original oak-paneled walls and, yes, the ladies’ window, which now frames a small mirror.

The drinks were stiff and the bartenders friendly, regaling us with tales of the bar’s history. For example: Rumor has it that there was once a tunnel leading from inside the men’s restroom directly to the state capitol building down the street, so that legislators could easily slip out for a quick midday refreshment.

After we finished our drinks, we thanked the bartenders, then rounded the corner to the night’s main attraction: dinner at the Capitol Grille.

The dining room was simple and elegant, with crisp yellow tablecloths gracing the tables and old photographs of the city hanging on the walls. We were led to our table, and our server came with a basket of fresh honey-and-wheat bread, two menus, and a story: Many of the ingredients featured on the menu, he explained, were harvested directly from the Land Trust for Tennessee’s Garden at Glen Leven, a roughly 66-acre plot of land just four miles from the Hermitage Hotel’s doors.

The farm, it turns out, has a long history in Nashville, stretching back to the days before the Civil War. It stayed in the family of Thomas Thompson, one of the city’s earliest settlers, until 2006, when his great-great-great-granddaughter donated it to the nonprofit Land Trust for Tennessee. Three years later, the Land Trust granted a portion of the land to Capitol Grille’s executive chef, Tyler Brown, to create a period garden for his kitchen.

Brown, who had limited gardening experience, is now the master of his organic plot: Alongside his kitchen staff and volunteers, he grows heirloom vegetables and runs a small herd of cattle. (He hopes to feature more heritage-breed beef on future menus.) “It’s been interesting,” he told me later in a phone conversation. “As a chef, I can control many things within the four walls of my kitchen. But in the garden, dealing with Mother Nature, it’s been tough realizing just how little control I have out there.”

Brown changes the menu frequently—at least twice a season, depending on Mother Nature’s behavior—but each dish is a tribute to Nashville’s southern heritage. “Everything on the menu has a story behind it,” Brown says.

It was hard to choose what items to try, but I finally decided on the baby spring lettuce with beets for my first course and, for the main course, the gnocchi with spring vegetables—asparagus, peas, leeks, morel mushrooms, spinach—and house-made ricotta. My dining partner selected the sweet onion bisque and the beef sirloin with pickled cauliflower, and we split a side of green beans with mushrooms.

Everything tasted fresh and delicious, and for the first time, I realized I liked beets. “We get a lot of compliments on those,” our server said knowingly.

I didn’t doubt it. And as we climbed the stairs toward the lobby and back into the streets of Nashville, I felt full and satisfied. I had a new favorite vegetable and a deeper connection to the city’s history and heritage.

Lauren Walser served as the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

The National Trust's African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund has awarded $3 million in grants to 33 places preserving Black history.

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