When we were in Nashville as part of our vacation last fall, I wanted to take my wife to the Parthenon - a replica of the ancient Greek temple that was originally built in 1897 for the Tennessee Centennial Exposition. I had been there once with a colleague when we were in Nashville for a trade show a few years back, but we had never gone into the place to see the 42-foot high statue of the Greek Goddess Athena. But before we got there, we passed an interestingly looking restaurant on Elliston Place near Vanderbilt University that piqued my interest with a stone front and "Steak" and "Sea Food" neon signs in the front windows. After wandering through the Parthenon, we headed back over to Rotier's Restaurant to get some lunch. (see map)
I knew absolutely nothing about Rotier's but found out that the place has been a favorite hang-out for locals since 1945. A who's-who of Nashville celebrities and Vanderbilt students have passed through their doors for the burgers and home-style cooking Rotier's is famous before. A third generation of the Rotier (pronounced ro-TEAR, as tear drop) family now run the restaurant that was started by John and Evelyn Rotier just after World War II. The Rotier's bought a little tavern on Elliston Place - the former Al's Tavern. Al's Tavern was a gambling den and had a number of pinball machines. But it was also only one of three places at the time on the west side of Nashville that served food. To keep the business going after they first bought the place, Evelyn would work the day shift while John would work the evening shift.
Once gambling machines were outlawed in Tennessee, the Rotier's expanded the restaurant and the food they served. They became known as a "meat and three" place - "meat and three" is a Tennessee expression for meat and vegetables. They continued to serve their burgers, but homemade comfort food items were added to the menu.
The spunky Evelyn Rotier was the task-master of the place, correcting the diction of an employee or of a viewpoint of a customer, hiring and firing grill cooks, and not putting up with any guff from mouthy customers. But at the same time, she would be the first to give out a free meal to needy people or playfully dote on the babies that customers would bring in. She spoke her mind and was loved and feared at the same time by her regular customers.
The Rotier's three children - John, Jr., Margaret and Charles - all worked in the restaurant for their parents. John Rotier, Sr. passed away in 1981 and Evelyn kept on working in the restaurant until she retired in 1996. Evelyn passed the restaurant along to her three children to run, but John, Jr. passed away just after Christmas in 1999. Margaret - now Margaret Crouse, and Charles Rotier continued to run the place and today are helped out by their children Jacob Crouse and Charlie Rotier, Jr. And even though she wasn't working at the restaurant any longer, for a number of years Evelyn Rotier would still stop in from time to time to check on things and get caught up with gossip from regular customers. She passed away in 2014 at the age of 94.
A heavy rain storm had come up when we were in the Parthenon and we had to wait to get out to our car. Once that passed around 1:30 in the afternoon, we drove over to Rotier's and found a parking spot out front. We walked in and were greeted by Margaret Crouse seated at the cash register near the bar, just like her mother did for years and years. She told us we could sit in a booth in the bar area up front. The booth was, well, it was old. And it was also sort of tight. These were booths designed for very skinny people, not for a big guy like me. Still, I was able to fit in with not a lot of discomfort.
This was an old school bar. Not very big, but cozy and welcoming enough. The bar seated, maybe 8 patrons. Vintage beer signs, American flags, old pictures and bits of kitsch were on display throughout the bar area. Up front by the front door, a vintage Galaga video game stood like a sentinel. (I tell people I flunked a summer college course one year because I decided to play Galaga at the Airliner in Iowa City instead of going to class.)
The dining area in the back was equally small and cozy. There were tables back there that would have been a little more comfortable to sit in rather than the booth, but we were fine where we were. More vintage beer signs, mirrored signs and pictures hung on the wood paneled walls in the back dining area.
We were given menus by one of the servers. She was a young lady, I'm guessing late 20's, early 30's. She had a slight Southern drawl and kind of a sassy, yet playful demeanor. We ordered up a couple of the Yazoo Brewing Company's pale ale, brewed locally in Nashville.
By the signs in their windows, you'd think there would be a lot of steaks or seafood on Rotier's menu. There isn't. There's a 10 ounce New York strip steak and a hamburger steak on the menu, as well as a fried fish platter and a fried shrimp dinner. Sandwiches included an open faced hot beef sandwich, a classic BLT, and a corned beef or turkey reuben.
Their signature burger is a burger on French bread. I ordered one of those topped with a housemade pimento cheese. Housemade potato chips came with my burger. The French bread was a little too much bread to go with the burger. The burger, itself, was thick and juicy with a good flavor. The French bread - too much of it - didn't really do anything to enhance the taste for me.
Cindy got the grilled cheeseburger on rye. Instead of the housemade chips, she got the onion rings that came with a housemade remoulade sauce. I wish I would have gotten that instead. The burger was grilled, then placed on rye bread with cheddar cheese and they grilled the bread. The burger came with a fresh leaf of lettuce, a sliced tomato and a sliced onion. Cindy thought the burger was delicious.
But the thing that really stood out for us was the housemade remoulade sauce. She let me try a couple of the very good onion rings with the sauce. It had a spicy bite that wasn't overpowering as much as it was sort of refreshing. I could tell there was fresh horseradish in the sauce as it gave me sort of a head rush when I first took a bite of an onion ring with the sauce on it. We were trying to figure out what was in it and Cindy flagged down our server. "We don't want to take any secrets, but we're trying to figure out what is in this delicious sauce," she said.
The waitress told us, "Oh, I just made it today!"
I said, "Oh, it's very good. Some of the best remoulade I've ever had."
She thanked me and said, "It's nothing really special. I just start out with Miracle Whip because it's easier to mix stuff in. Then I add fresh horseradish, then Worcestershire sauce, garlic, cayenne pepper, white pepper and some Creole mustard just to add some color to it." I have to note, she never did give us specific measurements, so if we wanted to make it at home we'd have to do it by taste.
While the French bread burger was unique, I wish I would have gotten what my wife got - the grilled cheeseburger on rye. (They also have classic-style cheeseburgers at Rotier's.) It was just too much bread for me and it masked the good taste of the burger. The remoulade sauce was a big hit with us, it went tremendously well with the good onion rings they served. The service was prompt and efficient, our waitress was fun to talk with. As we paid, we spoke briefly with Margaret Crouse as she pointed out the significance of some of the artifacts and pictures on display around the bar area. Rotier's Restaurant was a pleasant find, one that I wasn't really looking for, but very glad I did.