Brown’s Diner: Where I swing

 

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at the bar at Brown’s

It’s an acquired taste. Brown’s is a Nashville institution. A bar and music joint that used to be a trolley car. Then, fairly new, but still decades ago, they added a large dining room.

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Brown’s Diner’s best beer: Budweiser

It’s a bit dusty. And might be scary if the lights ever came on bright. The bar chairs list to the right and left. Some of them require hanging on.

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Brown’s bar stool

But lived-in and wonder-full is how I see it. The regulars have been coming here for dozens of years. The musicians who play here span Nashville icons and famous favorites, top-notch session players, and everything in between. What kind of music? All and anything.

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David Olney at Brown’s

My partner, Duane Spencer, and I play every first Sunday. We’re Duette.

Us Browns

Duette at Brown’s

Ron Kimbro is behind the bar. He’s been serving up beers and cheeseburgers for many a year. But the best things he serves are bits of wisdom, snide remarks, jokes, and poker-faced jabs at stupid questions from the other side of the bar.

The small “stage” area, with its ancient PA system, is strewn with old mic stands, half-useful guitar stands, speakers looming & hung lopsided by chains, music stands, and a variety of well-used stools.

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Duette‘s set-up at Brown’s

The window shelf alongside the stage area is a collection of old batteries, ashtrays (altho smoking is not allowed inside), left behind set lists, and indescribably doodads.

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stage window at Brown’s

Christmas lights light the stage.¬†The walls are covered with album covers (Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and Frank Sinatra are among them), and the yearly “Brown’s Diner group photo,” where all the regulars squeeze into the frame to make their presence known.

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Brown’s stage

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Duette‘s set-up at Brown’s

Yes. Music. And then there’s the food. Brown’s is known best for its cheeseburgers, rated among the best in town year after year. We love them. Order them with “everything:” onion, lettuce, tomato, mayo, ketchup, and pickle.

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Brown’s cheeseburger

 

My other fave order is their grilled cheese sandwich. They have chili. Soup in the winter. Fries. And beer. Those are the highlights and kinda about it. Beer. No wine. No cocktails. And the beer selection is extremely modest. But it suits the patrons JUST FINE. (Get a pitcher and sit outside, you can still hear the music.)

It’s easy to just drive by the place (@21st & Blair). It looks so unassuming. But step inside and you’ll never be the same. Get bit by the Brown’s bug (not a real insect) and you won’t be able to resist coming back and back.

See you there? Right!

*****

Duette doing our “Four Tops Medley” at Brown’s. Ever hear of a video selfie? ūüôā

 

Fav Nashville Eats: Noshville

Noshville, Nashville

Noshville, Nashville

I can’t remember ever eating matzoh ball soup in my 30 years of living in NYC. But it’s my standard order at Noshville here in Nashville. And it’s delicious.

matzoh ball soup w tuna sandwich

matzoh ball soup w tuna sandwich

Here’s the sad part. Noshville on Broadway in Midtown is closing by the end of the year. A high-rise is going to push over the popular, busy, comfort destination– grabbing its footprint, and the rest of the buildings on the block, including Manuel’s former design headquarters, and JJ’s Market (a cafe full of relaxed people gazing at their computers while sipping coffee or beer amidst the eclectic collection of tables and chairs).

bye bye Noshville's block

bye-bye Noshville’s block

Do I need to mention that Midtown is already overly-jammed with businesses and cars (without parking spaces)? And now more opportunistic landscape transformation will wave bye-bye to history and old friends. They do say that Noshville will return in the new grand 17-story tower– but it will take about 3 years. I’ll believe it when I see it. Noshville in Green Hills will still thrive– 1/3 the size of its more bustling sibling. Here’s what I’ll miss: I’ll miss sitting at the counter hearing the latest from one of our favorite servers, Linda. At that counter we’re usually elbow to elbow with Vandy students and professors on a Sunday afternoon sipping mimosa’s or bloody mary’s with eggs over easy, toasted bagels, and reuben sandwiches.

Noshville counter

Noshville counter

I’ll miss that standard order of mine: Noshville’s “soup & sandwich”…matzoh ball soup (small bowl comes with 1 large matzoh ball) and a half tuna sandwich on rye toast. It’s a perfect meal.

tuna on rye toast

tuna on rye toast

I’ll miss the mini potato pancakes that accompany eggs (mine, scrambled soft with Canadian bacon). And Duane and I have a new favorite: the “salad sampler” with scoops of coleslaw, tuna salad, chicken salad, or egg salad.

salad sampler at Noshville

salad sampler at Noshville

Another of Duane’s regular orders is the chili dog. My mom goes for the hot pastrami sandwich. My sister, the open turkey sandwich with gravy on the side (French fries for her, instead of mashed potatoes). I’ll miss the “amuse bouche” pickles that we always feel funny troubling our server to bring us, until we discovered a couple of months ago that we can go get them ourselves from the huge bin of pickles with stacks of bowls and tongs nearby. We crunch and slurp up a bowl of these once-barreled-on-Delancy-Street favorites.

pickles

pickles

I’ll miss the wall photos of the Statue of Liberty, Grand Central Station, Sinatra and Sammy and Dean, and NYC-centric movie posters.

breakfast at Noshville

breakfast at Noshville

I’ll miss the slabs of lox and the carousel of cakes. I’ll miss our usual hang. Our comfy place. Our old reliable. When Noshville is reborn in a new modern building in some year in the future I wonder if (and hope) it can bring back all the spirit and personality it has naturally originated over the years.

Noshville booths

Noshville booths

Yes, we like the food. But it’s the atmosphere, too, that makes us want to be there.

Noshville tables

Noshville tables

Fav Nashville Eats: Christmas in Chinatown

Good Fortune

Good Fortune

I always wanted to do it. Go out to a Chinese restaurant for Christmas dinner.

You know, there’s always the standard, traditional, you-gotta-do-it Christmas dinner. Turkey. Goose. Roast Beef. All great stuff. But sneaking off to a Chinese restaurant instead …makes you kinda giggly.

For the 2nd year in a row my mom, sister (Nina), Duane, and I have done just that. The first year we didn’t know where to go and just followed the local online suggestions. We went to Chinatown in Green Hills. LOVED IT. We’ve been back several times throughout the year. The hostesses & the waitresses know us now. And we have our favorite waitress, too, but love them all.¬†Everyone who works at Chinatown is especially friendly and all of them smile so very easily.

So this Christmas we knew exactly where to go. We also heard that reservations might be a good idea altho we never made them before. But we did this time and it seemed to work a little magic for us in the overly stuffed entryway crowded with guests trying to get in, picking up a take-out order, or just making an attempt to get to the desk to check in for their reservation. This is a very ambitious group and you have to be sure to bring your patience when arriving at Chinatown on Christmas day.

Crowd waiting for tables

Crowd waiting for tables

We got to our table and our favorite waitress ran over, obviously in a frenzy (but with an enjoying-it smile), already apologizing for delays. But she got our hot Chinese tea, beers, crispy noodles & dipping sauce, and scallion pancake out right away.

Noodles & Dipping Sauce

Noodles & Dipping Sauce

I love Chinese oolong tea.

I love Chinese oolong tea.

Then we ordered our Chinatown favorites (read: best things on the menu according to us): Mongolian Beef

Mongolian Beef at Chinatown

Mongolian Beef at Chinatown

Shrimp w Black Bean Sauce

Shrimp w Black Bean Sauce at Chinatown

Shrimp w Black Bean Sauce at Chinatown

(We passed on our other fav: Pineapple Shrimp in favor for:)

Shrimp Lo Mein

Moo Shu Vegetables (you know, the one with the pancakes)

Nina likes it.

Nina likes it.

Let me divert here for a minute…my family LOVES Chinese food the way we knew it & tasted it made by Chinese people in New York restaurants. They called it Cantonese, but I’m not sure if that is indeed what they cooked in Canton (egg foo young, shrimp in lobster sauce, pepper steak, wonton soup, fried rice, lo mein, chicken chow mein, spare ribs, shrimp toast). Still, that was Chinese food to us.

Fortune Cookies at Chinatown are from Brooklyn, NY

Fortune Cookies at Chinatown are from Brooklyn, NY

Nashville’s Chinatown delivers some of this nostalgic taste plus their spin on classics, and many of their own signature dishes. They take it all many steps higher. WOW. ¬†i.e. the Pineapple Shrimp. You have to try this. Little squares of pineapple (like those little math block squares) and chunky shrimp dusted with a mystery coating and fried or saut√©ed (hard to tell which). It’s a surprise with every morsel. WHAT IS THAT FLAVOR? I think it’s heaven.

Just Give Me A Shrimp And I'm Happy.

Just Give Me A Shrimp And I’m Happy.

At this restaurant, you don’t have 5 entrees on the table all basically tasting like soy sauce. Every time you try a new dish you’re sampling a whole new flavor.

We liked it.

We liked it.

It’s a year-round regular stop (for dinner or lunch). It does not disappoint. And if you go next Christmas, make a reservation. I’ll see you there for sure.

Profound.

Profound.

Heavy.

Heavy.

[If you’ve got a minute (well, actually 4.5) I’m betting you’ll love this little film. It’s about eavesdropping at a restaurant– but it kinda connects.] CLICK:¬†Table 7

Fav Nashville Eats: Wendell Smith’s

Wendell Smith's

Wendell Smith’s

If a place has some character, serves good food (read: GOOD food…not necessarily complicated food, but GOOD), and the prices are reasonable…it gets my attention. Sure I love to sample what chefs create, but if I’m not in a sampling mood and just want something comfy and consistent and in an atmosphere where I relax easily…then I go to the ole reliables.

I lived in NYC for many years and one of my all-time favorite reliables was the local diner. Any one of them!

Malibu Diner in NYC

Malibu Diner in NYC

NY diners are usually run by Greeks with a menu that includes some Greek specialties, but the big draw for me was the all-day/all-night breakfast. Sure they had classic sandwiches, big burgers, a zillion salads, sometimes even lobster tails, steak, plus a lit-up carousel filled with mile-high cakes and pies (these I never ordered) (too much sweet for my timid sweet tooth). Gimme the eggs; I want the home fries.

Here in Nashville, diners aren’t on every other corner like they (used to be) in NYC (even there, they’re disappearing). But I’ve happily connected to 3 restaurants that do the diner thing and THEN SOME.

Today I’ll just start with one. Wendell Smith’s. To say I’ve discovered Wendell Smith’s just goes to show you what a Nashville greenhorn I am. When you walk into Wendell Smith’s for the first time you realize everyone in there has been going for YEARS. That maiden visit I almost felt like an intruder. But they greet you friendly enough. And now Wendell’s tickles me every time I walk in their door.

From what I understand the restaurant started in the 1950’s. The place still looks like the 1950’s including some wear and tear from the passage of decades. But that’s all added charm.

Wendell's menus

Wendell’s menus

It used to have a drive-up window that they closed in to add more tables. A friend’s mom and dad met at that drive-up window years ago!

Wendell’s is not necessarily known for its breakfast food. It’s a meat and 3 with a changing daily menu. Their permanent menu has the eggs and omelets, burgers, and sandwiches, and things like tuna-stuffed tomato.

Wendell's cheeseburger

Wendell’s bacon cheeseburger

But I’ve got my favorite breakfast dish and order it almost every time: 2 eggs, scrambled soft, home fries, and sliced tomatoes. (Okay, occasionally I get the cheese omelet.)

Wendell's eggs, tomatoes, home fries

Wendell’s eggs, tomatoes, home fries

Wendell’s is big on tomatoes. They ALWAYS ¬†have big, ripe fresh tomatoes on hand. And they sell them by the pound, too.

Local tomatoes by the pound

Local tomatoes by the pound at Wendell’s

On some days they have Polish Sausage on the meat and 3 menu. Duane will always order that. And if their yumfest fried chicken is on the menu I’ll skip my breakfast for that. I also LOVE their turnip greens.

Meat & 2

Meat & 2

Meat & 3 Menu

Meat & 3 Menu

The place gets packed at lunch (when I seem to usually have breakfast) but each time we go there’s a booth available.

Wendell's at lunchtime

Wendell’s at lunchtime

ADDED BONUS: Wendell’s waitresses are the best in town. Serious career waitresses. They already know what we’re gonna order. And we love that feeling of being regulars.

Wendell Smith’s is true Nashville.

Wendell's is Open

Wendell’s is Open

Wendell's

Wendell’s

Easy Like Sunday Morning

Easy Like Sunday Morning

Easy Like Sunday Morning

The first time I went to Pinewood Social I thought they were a little bit too much taken with themselves. Cooler than cool. And when a vibe is off-putting it doesn’t matter how great the menu or mixology is– I’d just rather not be there.

But now time has passed. And the cool sheen has calmed down. And I was out at the theatre with a friend and there weren’t many places open for dinner after 10 pm. So we went to Pinewood…to be Social.

Unfortunately, our dinner plans went awry since our pre-theatre intended-to-be-small appetizer with a drink turned out to be big appetizer. So we weren’t that hungry at 10. ¬†The only menu item at Pinewood Social that appealed to me was apple pie √† la mode. Which was “okay.” BUT the drink I ordered (which seemed a good pairing) STOOD OUT (in a good way).

Go get this drink if it’s the only thing you ever order at Pinewood Social.

It’s called: Easy Like Sunday Morning (you can’t help but hum the song in your head as you sip).

It’s a cortado (a coffee I first encountered in Burgos, Spain: espresso with milk in it). To the cortado they add: a healthy dash of Fernet Branca (that herby-bitterish-spiky digestivo) and demerara (a kind of unrefined sugar). It’s served in an on-the-rocks glass with a pretty cappuccino-like milky pattern on top.

THIS DRINK IS DELICIOUS. I have trouble writing about it without wanting to simultaneously drink it.

Sometimes trendy, cool, full of themselves places really come up with great stuff. (And our server was as nice as can be.)

I’ll be back to Pinewood Social. For an Easy Like Sunday Morning. And now I’m curious to sample a different menu item to pair it with. Like maybe the goat cheese omelet, or the lobster roll.¬†Or the smoked trout dip or apple salad. (I sound kinda won over, don’t I?)

Fav Nashville Eats: Caffe Nonna

Caffe Nonna

Caffe Nonna

So where do you go out to eat Italian food?

Sometimes someone will ask me that.

I’m usually stumped. I don’t often eat out “Italian.” I’ve got a kitchen-full of Italian food and students coming over to cook it with me! So when I go out you’ll find me at a Japanese, Indian, Middle Eastern, Greek, or Chinese restaurant. A pub/sports bar or a meat n’ 3. ¬†A place with a Southern/or Southern re-invention menu. A bakery. A casual American joint.

BUT. I do occasionally get the urge to eat out “Italian.” Usually when I’m hanging with my mom and sister. We each have geiger-counter-style Italian palates that act like false-o meters. The food has got to have the right taste (even if it’s not the sauce you would make at home) — it’s gotta be in the proper “realm” — it has to hit the true Italian “note.”

One place we can rely on is Caffe Nonna in Sylvan Park.

We were there recently and hadn’t been for more than year. One of the waiters recognized us as soon as we walked in and welcomed us as if we were regulars. “Good to see you again! It’s¬†been a while!”

The place is tiny. And full of people. The lighting glows intimately. The room hugs you with warm colors and old world decor. You immediately feel at home.

Caffe Nonna

Caffe Nonna

Their menu has lots of entrees but we get caught up with the pasta choices. Choose from a list of pasta shapes and a list of pasta sauces. Mix and match. That’s immediately such a fun game. Italians are very particular about which pasta shapes go with which pasta sauces. Certain dishes never change: Penne all’Arrabiata, Fettuccine alla Bolognese, Linguine alle Vongole, ¬†Spaghetti alla Carbonara, Bucatini con le¬†Sarde, Fettuccine Alfredo, etc.

I think every other time I’ve eaten here I picked fettuccine with bolognese sauce. This time I went for fettuccine with white clam sauce. I loved NOT choosing the proper linguine or spaghetti. It’s an exotic treat to match fettuccine (the “wrong” pasta shape) with clam sauce! My sister got the same. My mom went for fettuccine, too, but with the bolognese sauce.

While we waited for our dishes we nibbled on bread dipped in seasoned olive oil (they don’t do this in Italy but it’s tasty.)

dip some bread in flavored olive oil

dip some bread in flavored olive oil

When our dishes arrived they looked wonderful. They smelled wonderful. And they were very healthy portions. Each bowl had a tablespoon in it. We each pulled out the spoon and set it aside. You really don’t need a spoon to eat long-stranded pasta. (I’ll tell you how if you think you do.)

The waitress asked if we wanted grated cheese. My mom took some (she thought they put too much but liked it anyway).

fettuccine alla bolognese

fettuccine alla bolognese

You’re not supposed to have cheese on any pasta with fish/clams, etc. in it.

fettuccine with white clam sauce

fettuccine with white clam sauce

But I was feeling rather decadent and asked for some cheese. So did my sister.

fettuccine with white clam sauce and cheese on top

fettuccine with white clam sauce and cheese on top

The pastas are seriously yummy. And I was surprised to find a bit of cream in the “white” clam sauce (which is usually white because it’s not red, but is actually clear with olive oil & white wine). If you would have told me cream was in the sauce I wouldn’t have ordered it. But tasting it (and eating ALL of it) I loved it. In fact, I’m stealing that idea!

empty dish of fettuccine with white clam sauce

empty dish of fettuccine with white clam sauce

My sister and I toasted our wine glasses a few times (my mom sticking to water). Nina had a Pinot Grigio, I loved my Barbera D’Asti. ¬†(The way I pair wines is like this: I pick a dish I want to eat. And I pick a wine I want to drink. They don’t necessarily have to go together but somehow they do….like fettuccine with clam sauce.)

Nina & I toasting our wine

Nina & I toasting our wine

Nina--wine finished!

Nina–wine finished!

Chef Dan even came by the table to see how we liked our dinner. Before we were done we were talking about coming back (that’s like talking about what’s for breakfast tomorrow while you’re having dinner tonight). And we will be back. Thanks, Caffe Nonna!

Caffe Nonna

Caffe Nonna

 

Quail Eggs. Too delightful…too delicate not to like.

 

quail eggs

quail eggs

I’ve been a giddy bird watcher for years.

Actually I started watching birds in perhaps an unlikely place. Not the mountains, or the shoreline, or at lakes or in woodlands, but in NYC. You’d be surprised. Central Park–that huge piece of greenery in the middle of uptown separating the West from the East (or the East from the West deepening on which side of town you live)–held an oasis of a party during migrating seasons. In spring and fall an Audubon-like atrium popped up in Central park and us bird watchers were enthralled.

At the boathouse (where you can rent a row boat and paddle on the park’s friendly duck-filled lake) a large, thick book was stored. Birdwatchers would note what they’d seen that day in the park. When you first arrived you’d check the book to see what you might want to look for and where (the rambles, the reservoir, near the carousel). Best part was when you had a new species to add to the list.

I never saw quail there. They have other habitats to haunt. But I do see quail eggs often at the K & S markets in Nashville. And I do harvest them from the refrigerated counter to carry home.

In addition to bird guides that tell you the size, feathers, call, mating habits, nest-shapes of every bird species, are also bird-egg guides. So if you come upon a nest with blue speckled eggs you’ll know Robins are percolating there. Quail eggs would make the “Top Ten Beautiful Bird Eggs” list. Ecru, sepia, tan eggs with spots of black and brown and amoeba-like designs. Inside the hard shell is a tiny replica of the hen’s egg.

My favorite way to cook them is sunny-side up. You get a tiny sunny-side up egg that tastes delicate and light. A little salt. And that’s it. I think of them as garnish. My favorite place to place the garnish is on asparagus.

roasted asparagus with sunny side up quail eggs

roasted asparagus with sunny-side up quail eggs

First: Heat the oven to 400 degrees F. Line a sheet pan with foil. Lightly oil foil. Cut off woody ends of asparagus. Rinse under cool water. Lay them out on the sheet pan. Drizzle some olive oil. Season with salt & pepper. Roast until crisp-tender or your desired doneness. Just before serving sprinkle some grated parmigiano on top.

Meanwhile, get out a medium mixing bowl. If it has a lip for pouring all the better. But if not, no prob. Gently break each quail egg and gently drop the egg into the bowl. The pack I get at K & S has 10 eggs. Use them all. Now, I say “gently break” but it’s a combination of gently and earnestly. Quail egg shells tend to be harder than hen egg shells. Sometimes I even use a serrated knife to get the cut going then break the shell.

Heat a little olive oil in a large saut√© pan. Then gently pour each egg yolk into the pan (it will naturally be accompanied by some egg white). You’ll see the little perfect sunny-side up eggs form quickly. Sprinkle with salt and spatula them out to top the asparagus. Hmmm-mmm!