During my trip to Nashville for the 2011 Summer NAMM show, my colleague, Ian, and I found a pretty good place to eat in downtown Nashville on the touristy Broadway St. called Merchants Restaurant. We went there for dinner after doing a little driving around the greater Nashville area earlier in the day.
The Merchants Restaurant is housed in a building that dates back to just after the Civil War. In 1892, what was once a pharmacy on the street level, a hardware manufacturer on the second level and a wholesale drug distributor on the third floor, the Merchants Hotel came into being. Each room was 25 cents and with the European plan you could also get a meal for a quarter. Over the years with it's close proximity to the Ryman Auditorium and the honky tonks up and down Broadway, the Merchants Hotel became the place for country music's elite to stay when they were in town.
Once the Grand Ole Opry moved out to Opryland in the 70's, the area up and down Broadway became rather seedy with strip bars replacing the old honky tonks. The Merchants Hotel became just as seedy, becoming a flop house hotel and a front for downtown prostitution. When the city of Nashville moved to shut down the adult clubs and take back Broadway as a tourist destination in the mid-80's, Merchants reopened as a restaurant. As Nashville began to grow again in the 90's and professional sports began to come to town, more upscale restaurants came into town pushing Merchants into the afterthought category for fine dining in town. After floundering for nearly a decade, two brothers who grew up in Nashville, Max and Ben Goldberg, bought the Merchants Restaurant in April of 2010 and gave it a clear vision path of what it is today.
The Goldbergs are no strangers to the restaurant and hospitality industry. They already had created and oversaw some of the better niche restaurants and bars in the greater Nashville area such as Aerial, Patterson House and the somewhat kitschy Southern-fried food outlet named Paradise Park Trailer Resort. As their executive chef at Merchants, they brought in Clayton Rollison who previously was the sous chef at the Capitol Grille at the Hermitage hotel, and before that had worked at Gramercy Tavern in New York City after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America.
The first floor of Merchants Restaurant is more of a bistro with black and white tiled floors, waiters in bow-ties and suspenders and sort of a quasi-art deco theme to the place (below left). It's a little more rowdy and loud in the main floor part of Merchants, sort of like the people that are walking by on Broadway.
The second floor is the fine dining area where there's dark green wall paper, dark wood paneling, subdued lighting and the waiters are all in suspenders and long ties. The downstairs menu is different from the upstairs menu. Downstairs in the bistro, Merchants features sandwiches, burgers, appetizers, salads and basic entrees such as pan roasted chicken, fish tacos, smoked brisket and rainbow trout. Upstairs, it gets more eclectic with sockeye salmon, a low country shrimp platter, a rack of pork and various types of aged steaks.
It was less than a 10 minute walk from our hotel straight down 4th Street to the corner of Broadway (see map). Lower Broadway is now this huge tourist and entertainment district, similar to Beale Street in Memphis. It features restaurants, bars, honky tonks, tourist traps and most anything that you'd find that has to do with country music. This was the first and only time I was on Lower Broadway during our trip to Nashville.
We got into the restaurant and went to the servers stand toward the back of the bistro, in a lobby area with an elevator and a wonderful winding staircase. I had made reservations for us at 8 p.m., but it was evident that we probably didn't need them as some people were coming in and getting seated upstairs right away. We waited in the lobby area for about 10 minutes while they got our table fixed up.
When we were taken upstairs via the elevator we were asked if we wanted a table near the windows or one in the middle of the dining area. Considering the tables near the windows were smaller - and that the shades were drawn - we opted for one of the larger tables in the middle of the room. Our waiter, Porter, came over to greet us and he had a helper in tow with him most of the evening. We knew the service was going to be very good.
I started out with a beer to wet my whistle and I asked Porter if they had Sweetwater 420, the great pale ale from Atlanta. (I had found a liquor store in Nashville earlier in the day that had Sweetwater 420 and I thought some of the bars or restaurants would have it, as well.) He said he did not, but they had a local pale ale - Yazoo Pale Ale - on tap. I decided to give that a try and it was pretty good. Ian took a glass of the Oak Knoll cabernet for his initial drink.
Because Merchants has a number of different steaks to choose from, I didn't even consider getting anything else that evening. Ian was pretty much thinking along the same lines. They featured natural raised beef from farms in Kansas and Oregon, as well as good ol' Angus beef including a 14 oz. New York Strip and a 16 oz. Delmonico ribeye, both of which were aged for 28 days. It didn't take Ian and I very long to figure out what we wanted - he took the ribeye, I got the strip.
Some interesting sides are available at Merchants. Sweet potato hash was on the menu, as were duck fat fries. There was poached asparagus in a truffle cream sauce, as well as gnocchi mac and cheese. I went with the sweet potato hash for my side and Ian got the duck fat fries. For a starter, I got the iceberg wedge salad and Ian went with their Caesar salad.
Porter brought out our salads and I had him put a lot of ground black pepper on my iceberg wedge. I usually joke with wait staff people that I like a lot of pepper on my food and that they'll end up getting carpal tunnel from twisting so much pepper out of the pepper cellar. After I stopped him, he said, "Boy, you DO like a lot of pepper! I ought to just leave this thing at the table."
My wedge salad was outstanding. It had fresh chunks of tomatoes, real bacon and chunks of avocado that were swimming in a creamy buttermilk/bleu cheese dressing. It wasn't all that large, but the taste sensation was excellent. Ian proclaimed his Caesar salad as being very good, as well.
Just before Porter brought out our steaks, I had ordered a glass of the Kenwood cabernet from him. Ian got another glass of the Oak Knoll. Porter's assistant brought out our glasses of wine, then for some reason, Porter brought Ian out ANOTHER glass of wine. He sort of stopped and said, "Oh, boy. I messed that one up. I thought he was getting the Kenwood for you (looking at me), and I was going to get the Oak Knoll for you (looking at Ian). I guess he got them both. Oh well, I'll leave this one for you and if you want it, fine. It's on the house."
Ian said, "I doubt it will go to waste..."
Porter and his helper brought out our steaks and the presentation looked delectable. My New York strip (below left) was sitting on a small bed of the sweet potato hash. The steak was covered with a demi-glace sauce that was light, but had a good flavor with the meat. The steak was cooked perfectly to my liking - rare to rare plus - but the cut had a far amount of gristle in it. I'd say that about 20 percent of it was inedible due to the gristle. That's not to say the steak wasn't outstanding, because it was. I've had enough steaks to know that you get a gristly one from time to time, even at the finest restaurants.
The sweet potato hash was pretty pedestrian, I'd have to say. There wasn't much flavor to them and they just sort of sat there in dull fashion on my plate. The steak definitely trumped the side. Now I wish I would have gotten some other side instead of the sweet potato hash.
Ian's Delmonico ribeye (above right) was a full 16 ounces and literally eclipsed the duck fat fries that it sat upon. He likes his medium rare and he was happy with how it turned out. It was obviously juicy when he would cut into it. He said it was tender and very flavorful. "A good piece of meat," Ian observed.
After dinner, Porter tried to entice us with Merchants dessert tray. Although the desserts looked tempting, there was no way that I was going to be able to have anything else that evening. I was full and looking to wind down for the evening.
Merchants Restaurant went through some hard times, but the Goldberg brothers have turned it into something special. They're doing their best to make it a destination for not only the tourists, but to bring back some of the locals who have gotten away from the downtown area for being too touristy. If the food and service is any indication, Nashville has a gem of a restaurant in Merchants.