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A Return to Rotier's
I grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, and more than most people I experience my home town through my stomach. When people come to visit the sights run out quickly. I show them the Parthenon and our beautiful highway system, and then decide that, rather than force them to tour the Country Music Hall of Fame or Andrew Jackson's house, we should break for lunch.
The town has a surprisingly high immigrant numbers, from Mexican to Vietnamese to the nation's largest Kurdish population (who'd have thought?), and though that last group doesn't feed us the first two dos. Immigrant culture in Nashville is most clearly expressed with banh mi and chuletas de puerco, and while that may not be the best way I doubt it's the worst. But when I come home I want to eat southern—something I hardly did in high school—and for eating southern there are a few notable establishments. I visited a couple of old favorites this winter break, and decided that simplicity and a lack of natural light are crucial to a good meal in one's home town.
For weeks I looked forward to lunch at Sylvan Park Restaurant, a meat and three famous for its pie. I had only eaten there once before and remembered less the meal than the man at the next table with a throat cancer voice box, but local color was what I sought, so my first weekend home I made plans with a friend to check the place out. She had an uncle in from out of town and so brought the whole family along, and I felt no anxiety about my choice. Sylvan Park would perform. I ordered a plate that was not just southern but drrrty south: country fried steak, mac and cheese, whipped potatoes and congealed salad, something I'd never eaten, something my mother doesn't cook, but which seemed too country to be denied. Turns out it's just jello with fruit, which reminded me of my grade school lunchroom. The food was served on cafeteria plates and tasted about cafeteria quality; my friend told me later that her mother, when they climbed into the car to drive away, said "I'm not sure I'll go back there." I can still taste that steak, which was something like gristle topped with dog food, and the sharp sugar granules in the too-sweet chess pie, which doesn't come close to my grandmother's or, for that matter, my own.
The Loveless Cafe is one of the most famous restaurants in Nashville—or rather, just outside of it—known mostly for its killer biscuits. Since all of my best memories are channeled through restaurants, I remembered well the last time I went there: the Saturday I took the SAT. Nothing could ever taste as good as a farewell to standardized testing. I had a pulled pork sandwich, some hushpuppies and the ubiquitous mac and cheese, a side so crucial that it's not uncommon for some less reputable cafes to class it as a vegetable. It was nice to have an excuse to drive a little outside of town, but the restaurant was too kitschy, too aware of itself, for it to feel exactly right. The portraits of Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton, the tacky signs, and the bizarre cross made out of MasterCard logos were charming, but the Loveless merch store next door made them all seem affected. The biscuits were mighty but besides them, and it hurts to write this, the food was no cheaper and no better than you could get at the West Village's Pink Teacup. (I hope no one from home reads that, because it's likely I'll be barred from the state.)
The problem with Sylvan Park and the Loveless is that, though they are classic Nashville, they are not my Nashville. Besides those fabulous chuletas it's hamburgers that dominate my memories of home, from Bobby's Dairy Dip—which is no longer closed during winter, but which is so important a part of summer that to go at Christmas would require apostasy—Brown's Diner—which is run out of an old trailer on concrete blocks—and Rotier's. A classic Vanderbilt haunt, Rotier's is just down the road from the aforementioned Parthenon, and though they have a full meat and three menu—as well as mysterious entrees of pasta dishes and chicken gizzards—it's known for its grilled cheeseburgers and milk shakes, which consistently win best in the city despite not being on the menu. Word is that the staff doesn't like making them, and doesn't want to encourage their sale.
I hadn't been for about a year when I went over break, and besides the removal of ashtrays nothing had changed. The restaurant was still dark, the booths were still battered, and the one cute waitress still had the same gravel voice. She took our orders and we all got the same thing, then ate and ate until our stomachs were greased and our heads were frozen from the ice cream. Sometimes it's important to pay seven or eight dollars to feel sick, if only because in New York it would cost twice that to be uncomfortably full. The important thing about going home—to the South or not—is that nothing should ever change. As long as I keep ordering the same thing, Rotier's never will.
—W. M. Akers | 2008
Sylvan Park Restaurant
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