After getting into our hotel on the first Saturday night of our vacation, Cindy was looking something up on line. She finally said, "OK, here it is. I want to go here for breakfast tomorrow morning." She was on the web site of the Loveless Cafe located on the southwest side of Nashville. It turned out that it was about a 10 to 15 minute drive from our hotel. I told her that we could certainly do that before we went on our way to Florida the next morning.
The Loveless Cafe is a culinary institution in the greater Nashville area. Even though I'd heard of the place, I had sort of forgotten about it. But seeing it on the Internet again, I remembered seeing it highlighted on food and travel shows on television and articles that I'd read in magazines and on-line. I remember reading that their salt-cured country ham was world class.
Lon and Annie Loveless lived in nearby Lyles, TN - a small town in Hickman County where Lon was once the sheriff. In 1936, they opened the Beacon Light Tea Room in Lyles selling fried chicken and biscuits. When Lon retired as sheriff, the Loveless' bought a house and motel a few miles away. The house had a large wooden floor and it was known as the local "fun house" where people would come and dance in the 1940's. The Loveless' began to make their fried chicken and biscuits and sold them out of the front door of the house to travelers who would eat the food on picnic tables in front of the house. The Loveless' eventually expanded the house to include inside dining.
The kitchen and restaurant was run by Annie Loveless, but Lon Loveless took care of the small hotel on the grounds of the house. It quickly became known as a "no tell" motel with garages attached to the rooms where people could drive in an conceal their cars. The Loveless Cafe and Motel became a favorite of the stars of the Grand Ole Opry - both for the food and for the discretion shown by the Loveless' with the motel.
Due to Lon Loveless' declining health, the Loveless Cafe and Motel was purchased by Cordell and Stella Maynard in 1959. The Maynard's continued with Annie Loveless' fried chicken and mouth-watering biscuits for 14 years.
In 1973, the Maynard's sold the business to Charles and Donna McCabe. The recipes stayed with the restaurant and the McCabe's ran the place until Charles died in 1982. Their son George had grown up with the business - mowing the grounds, cleaning hotel rooms, clearing tables - since he was 12 years old. George partnered with her mother and took control of many aspects of the business, closing the motel in 1985, starting a mail order business for their country smoked hams and homemade jams, and turning the restaurant into a nationally known destination.
It was during the McCabe family's ownership that a young 18-year-old girl by the name of Carol Fay Ellison came to work for the restaurant in 1979. She started off as a dishwasher, but quickly figured out her way around the kitchen. Carol Fay soon became known as the "Biscuit Lady", the person responsible for making the famous biscuits at the Loveless Cafe. Carol Fay was sort of a character and she appeared on a number of national network and syndicated shows demonstrating how she made the biscuits. She quickly became the face of the Loveless Cafe, continuing with the company when George McCabe sold the restaurant to health care realtor Charles Elcan and his wife Tricia, and managing partner Tom Morales in 2003. Sadly, Carol Fay Ellison died in 2010 at the age of 48 after a short illness.
After the new ownership group took over, they knew that the whole place needed a massive overhaul. The Loveless Cafe was closed in January 2004 and underwent extensive renovations. The old hotel rooms - once used as storage for the McCabe's - were turned into small shops and private reception rooms. They built a smoke house, as well as a large barn in the back to handle weddings and corporate events, and expanded the kitchen to provide more menu items and housemade desserts. Today, the Loveless Cafe serves about 450,000 people annually.
And because of that we didn't know if there would be a line when we set out for the restaurant just after 7:30 that particular Sunday morning. The Loveless Cafe is located on Tennessee State Highway 100 just east of the northern point of the famous Natchez Trace Parkway. (see map) We pulled into the parking lot about 15 minutes later and found only a handful of cars in the parking lot. We walked in and saw that there was no one waiting in the lobby area. In the lobby, there are dozens of pictures from celebrities - mostly older Country and Western stars - plastered on the walls. The Loveless Cafe has hosted musicians as diverse as George Jones to Paul McCartney and from Kenny Rogers to Robert Plant, as well as a slew of mainly "B" grade stars of television and movies. I certainly didn't see many pictures of contemporary C&W artists on the walls. But, then again, I wasn't looking hard.
A guy came out to greet us and he showed us to a table in the small dining area to the right of the lobby. We were given menus and a bit later our server, Amber, came over to greet us. "Y'all ever been here before," she asked in a slight Southern drawl. When we told her that we hadn't, she gave us a hearty welcome. She told us a bit about the menu and some of the things that they were famous for, then she told us that she'd get some biscuits out to us in a moment.
The biscuits came out - 4 of them - and they were accompanied by small plastic containers, each with a different type of preserve - peach, strawberry and blackberry. Now, I'm not much of a biscuit kind of guy - I find them to be rather dry and boring in taste. But there is something about the ones at the Loveless Cafe that make them light and moist. Adding the blackberry jam to the biscuits made them more than tolerable for me.
The small dining room we were in opened into a larger dining room - quite possibly part of the room where they used to hold dances in back in the 40's. It was a long and narrow room with artwork on the walls and French doors along the east side. Slat wood ceilings and large decorative beams hovered above the dining room.
They served breakfast all day at the Loveless Cafe. (The supper menu begins at 11 a.m.) It's an extensive menu featuring just about anything you can think of for breakfast. At the top of the menu are two dishes featuring Loveless Cafe's famous country ham. But purchased ala carte, a half cut went for $6.95 or a full cut for $10.95. I wanted to try some of the ham, but I was think more along the lines of getting French toast or an omelet and $6.95 to try the ham was sort of expensive.
Cindy was also thinking about getting the ham and when Amber came back to take our breakfast order she got the half slab of ham with two eggs over easy. She had her choice of grits, a hash brown casserole or home-fried potatoes for a side. I wanted to try their grits, but she ended up ordering the hash brown casserole.
I ordered the French toast and I asked Amber if I could get some blueberries with that. (I figured a place like the Loveless Cafe - which had blueberry pancakes on the menu - probably had fresh blueberries.) She said, "Ohhh, blueberries with French toast. That sounds great!" I told her that I wanted a small cut of the ham. "OK, tell you what. Why don't you get the full cut with your eggs," she said to Cindy. "Then you can just split the ham in half," she explained to me. "It's cheaper that way." I also wanted to try some of their applewood smoked bacon.
In one of the all-time quickest turnarounds from ordering to having the food to the table, Amber brought out our food. Cindy's plate featured a full cut of ham that dominated the plate. It was probably about 1/4" thick and was served with a small bowl of the red eye gravy - drippings from the ham, sort of like an au jus for beef.
The French toast featured three thick cut slices of bread, batter, griddled and sprinkled with powered sugar. An ample amount of blueberries in their natural juices came with in a small bowl along side the syrup. Three thick cuts of the applewood bacon was on the side. Amber wanted to know if we wanted more biscuits and I was tempted because the blackberry jam was pretty damn good. But we said "No thanks" because there was a lot of food on our plates.
I cut some of the country ham off of what was on Cindy's plate and put it on the side plate that I had from the biscuits. The ham was somewhat salty and a little tough. It was, well, just all right. Honestly, I couldn't really tell if it was outstanding or not. To me, it just tasted like any other ham that I'd get anywhere.
The French toast was, also, just all right. It was a little mushy - especially in the middle of the slices - and rather bland in taste. The blueberries helped tremendously, but I wasn't quite blown away with the taste as I thought I would be.
Cindy, too, thought the ham was "OK". She also couldn't figure out why people would make such a fuss over the ham, so much that it's shipped all over the U.S. She did like her hash brown casserole, however. It's made with cheddar cheese, cream of chicken soup, onions and sour cream. (Click here for the recipe.) I'm guessing you can add ham to it and make it a meal, if you want.
My hands were sticky and I needed to use the restroom to wash up. I went down the hallway toward the restroom and on the right was a large window that looked into the area where they baked the biscuits. I can almost imagine the show that Carol Fay Ellison put on for the customers at the Loveless Cafe behind this big window. A young lady was making the biscuits this morning, placing them in large pans. A young man was manning the oven, putting in and pulling out the trays of biscuits.
After getting back to the table, a man - who I guessed was a manager - came over to see how our breakfast was. After we told him it was fine, he asked where we were from. After we told him we were from Iowa, he asked if we were in town for awhile. I told him that we were just passing through going to Florida, down to Destin. He said, "Oh, y'all are going to the Redneck Riviera! You'll have fun down there!"
After settling up with Amber, we took a look around the grounds of the place. To the immediate west of the restaurant, the open pit smoke house that was built about 10 years ago was up and running. The pit master was in there smoking pork ribs, pork butts and turkey legs. The barbecue is ready at 11 a.m. each day and there's a couple parking spots near the building that are designated for people just stopping in to get barbecue only out of the smoke house.
I wanted to pick up a jar of the blackberry preserves and they have a gift shop across the parking lot from the restaurant and smoke house. Cindy also wanted to pick something up for my cousin's wife since we were going to stay at their house for a couple three days when we got down to Florida. The sign on the door said that they opened at 8 a.m., but the place was locked up tight.
We walked around behind and on the side of the restaurant to peer into the small shops that were part of the old motel which were also closed on that Sunday morning. I don't know if the owners of the Loveless Cafe run these shops or if they lease them out to people. But when the Loveless Cafe gets cranking, the overflow of people will spend their time looking through the shops waiting for a table.
I will say that the Loveless Cafe was pretty interesting. But the breakfast was pretty average and I'm still trying to figure out what was so special about the ham. The service we got from Amber was very good and I suppose it was worth the trip this one time to see what it was all about. But I can probably say that it didn't grab me enough that I'd have to absolutely go back at some point.