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VOL. 37 | NO. 32 | Friday, August 9, 2013

'A part of their life forever'

Middle Tennessee's most romantic dining experiences and the restaurateurs who create them

By Hollie Deese

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When music executive Tony Brown wanted to propose to his wife, he turned to one of his regular haunts for the big event, Giovanni Ristorante.

He’s not the only one. The West End restaurant has been host to a number of proposals since it first opened in 2008.

“We are very romantic,” says manager Cristian Barz, who cites the Venetian decor, soft piano music and Murano chandelier as creating a certain mood that is only enhanced by their Northern Italian cuisine.

“And of course when you add the red wine …” he adds, leaving diners to fill in the blank for themselves.

So what does it take for a restaurant to become ingrained in the lives of its customers, for a lifetime, and in such a way that the place is chosen as the spot where one becomes engaged, celebrates accomplishments and milestones?

Wendy Burch, co-owner of F. Scott’s Restaurant and Jazz Bar, jots notes for each reservation, noting special occasions, requests and more.

F. Scott’s accommodates special requests as much as possible and thrives on creating special moments for their diners, in part because of the landmark’s 28-year history in Green Hills.

When people celebrate at F. Scott’s, Burch is very aware they will remember it forever, for better or worse. So it had better be good.

Nashville Originals Week

Aug. 19-Sept. 1

Look for special menus and pricing from more than 55 Nashville Originals restaurants, a group of restaurateurs that have come together to increase the visibility and viability of locally-owned establishments.

One of the group’s founders, Randy Rayburn, will be extending specials at Sunset Grill and Midtown Café to two weeks, while also extending Midtown’s current “Salute to Julia Child” event, with 10 percent of proceeds from the special menu benefitting the scholarship fund at Nashville State Community College’s Randy Rayburn School of Culinary Arts.

“It makes us a part of their life forever,” she explains. “I’ll be in the grocery store, and people will tell me that F. Scott’s was their first date, or where they were proposed to. Even myself, we had all our family birthdays growing up there for years, and it’s really special. You are a part of that celebration for life.”

When Burch and partner Elise Loehr bought F. Scott’s 10 years ago, they primarily built on the restaurant’s existing goodwill.

“One reason we bought F. Scott’s was because we felt they already had a great reputation and a great staff,” Burch says. “We’ve had a lot of great chefs, from Margot McCormick [who now owns the iconic Margot in East Nashville] to Jason McConnell [who has something of a food empire in Williamson County].

Nashville’s Giovanni Ristorante, 909 20th Ave S., offers patrons the romance of a night in Venice, including a dazzling Murano glass chandelier.

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“We kept the things that we thought worked, like the jazz, and we spent a lot of time educating our servers and staff on the wine and the menu.”

Why service really matters

Most restaurateurs agree that forging meaningful relationships with diners is a process that can be made or broken by the staff.

“We have a lot of long-term employees who have bought into the culture that we try to coach, which is comfortable and casual but not condescending,” says Randy Rayburn, who has opened 13 restaurants over the years, including Sunset Grill, Midtown Café and Cabana.

“A restaurant’s atmosphere is determined by its active management,” he adds. “When you open a restaurant, the best way in my opinion is to start top-down.

“But to succeed long-term, it has to be bottom-up. You have to maintain a quality staff and retain the good people. And the people who are drama kings and queens need to be kicked off the bus.”

Rayburn’s staff must work hard to earn his trust, but once they do he leaves them alone and empowers them to make their own decisions – as long as they use their head and their heart.

Capitol Grille in The Hermitage Hotel changes its menus to fit the season and uses all local, fresh ingredients, featuring its own grass-fed beef.

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“The key to my success is surrounding myself with caring, long-term people,” he says. Rayburn has staff that have been with him 20 years or more, and some of those people’s children now work for him, as well. He even met his Cabana managing partner, Craig Cliff, when he was a busboy at F. Scott’s in 1987.

“They are the core, and restaurants who have staff that buy into the culture and philosophy survive, and the ones who don’t, eventually perish,” he says.

The experience, the memories

Of course, romance means different things to different people. At The Catbird Seat, diners sit close together in a U-shape surrounding the chef, which might seem counter to the dining a deux experience.

But in a small room where the entire meal is the experience, it is incredibly intimate.

“You are not going to be familiar with every single thing that is being put in front of you, and if you are with your wife or girlfriend, you are experiencing these things together for the first time,” says Benjamin Goldberg, founder and co-owner of The Catbird Seat’s parent company Strategic Hospitality, which also owns The Patterson House, Aerial and Paradise Park. Previous projects include Bar Twenty3 and City Hall.

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“At The Catbird Seat, the coolest part of the experience is the interaction, not only between each other but with the chefs and with the people next to you,” Goldberg adds.

“It’s a really small, intimate room, and you get to talk and banter and share experiences together as the evening unfolds. You are getting this experience that you would not be able to get otherwise, creating memories that you are sharing together.”

Is this a special occasion?

When a customer makes a reservation at Nero’s in Green Hills, the host or hostess checks to see if the event is a celebration. If so, confetti and staff-signed cards are placed on the table.

“We don’t do this all of the time, but nine times out of 10, we will put champagne glasses on the table, and if we see they are drinking, we’ll serve them a split of champagne,’’ says owner Judy Griswold. “If they aren’t drinking, we pull the glasses.’’

Sometimes the staff gets no notice that an ordinary dinner party is about to turn special. Recently, Nero’s general manager Hal Buck was asked by a patron to write, “Will you marry me,’’ on his date’s piece of cake.

“The cake the woman had ordered was her favorite, a warm chocolate torte, but if anything was written on it, it would melt away,’’ says Griswold. “Hal had to come up with something on the spot.

“Hal brought out the dessert and a card, and put both of them down, and inside the card it said, “Will you marry me?’’

As for other special events, Nero’s has three private rooms that host rehearsal dinners for as many as 100.

“We try to make it as romantic as possible,’’ Griswold says of parties and of the restaurant as a whole, which includes fireplaces in the winter and live music in the bar.

Another West Nashville favorite that promotes a romantic atmosphere is Sperry’s in Belle Meade, now 39 years old. Its country club setting and well-trained staff offers patrons comfort and luxury.

Sperry’s, best known for steaks, served Prince William when he was in town as a young man and named its blue-cheese filet for him (that’s what he ordered).

Fresh ingredients, adventures with wine

If the food isn’t up to par, the restaurant won’t have the opportunity to cultivate a relationship with diners. No matter how fabulous the atmosphere and service, bad food is a deal breaker.

In Nashville right now, local-sourced ingredients offered on a seasonally-changing menu is the hottest ticket in town.

Capitol Grille in The Hermitage Hotel has seen its fair share of marriage proposals, thanks in part to the seasonally changing menu from chef Tyler Brown, who grows his own fresh ingredients at the Farm at Glen Leven, just five miles from the restaurant. He also raises heritage breed cattle, which provides the restaurant with prime, local, grass-fed beef.

Burch has the same philosophy at F. Scott’s, continuing the restaurant’s farm-to-table philosophy when she came on board.

“The menu is always a new experience and the wine list changes constantly and seasonally,” she says.

“Chef Kevin Ramquist spends so much time in menu planning and researching what is new and interesting. We’ve been around a long time, but I still think we’re doing the most progressive menu items and wine lists around.”

Traci Hilton and husband Brent live down the street from Margot in East Nashville. While it is convenient enough for them to hop on their bikes and ride over whenever they want, it is the adventurous food and wine menus that keeps them coming back to celebrate most of their special moments, including job promotions and even their engagement.

“The layout is intimate and cozy, and I love their wine list,” she says. “They have some fun wines that are pretty inexpensive, but they are not everywhere. They’re not the same old stuff you see on every list. And everything that is growing in my garden now is on the menu there.

“They work with local providers of meats and cheeses and I love that. That to me is one of the best parts, getting to look at the menu first. It’s really hard to choose sometimes because everything is really unique.”

By topping off good food, great wine and exceptional service with any special touch that makes diners feel truly welcome, chances are customers will add you to their short list of special occasion places in town.

“Customers go where they feel comfortable and are treated with courtesy and professionalism,” Rayburn says.

“Restaurants that succeed beyond the opening bring together all of the elements inside their four walls that they can control. A customer’s response to whether it is warm and intimate – or cold and sterile – is influenced by all of the factors leading up to them walking in the door for the first time, and the resulting experience they have with the environment, the food, the perceived value and the level of service.”

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