Loveless Cafe, Nashville TN

Apart from waking at three in the morning feeling pretty awful, I really enjoyed the trip that Marie and I took to Nashville a couple of weeks ago. We got to visit some friends and meet some of their buddies at a party, and see the last vestiges of fall color, and the hotel where we stayed was not at all bad. I guess one other downside was that I neglected to consider that we might have done better to check the Tennessee Titans’ schedule, and not book a hotel that was on the other side of the Adelphia or, what the heck’s it called now, LP Field, from our lunch plans.

Out on the west side of town, a good ten miles out I-40, the Loveless Cafe has been a must-visit destination for almost sixty years. It has been on my own shortlist for more than a year, and a recent feature in Southern Living has sent mobs back to their door. I had the foolish notion that if we got there around eleven, we might beat the crowds. I’ve since learned that there’s always a line here, especially on Sundays. We had an hour’s wait, but didn’t mind very much. Well, that’s not completely accurate. We actually met up with our friend John, who lives just north of the metro area in the town of White House, and he got here twenty minutes ahead of us and put his name on the list. He had the hour’s wait and we just had forty minutes’.

It wasn’t a bad wait. In the early 1950s, Lon and Annie Loveless turned their property into an old motor court motel surrounding their house on Highway 100. It’s no longer active that way; the old rooms have been converted into shops. Most of these sell knicknacks and tourist geegaws, although the building on the west side of the property does a roaring trade in jams, preserves and vegetables like pickled beets. There’s a Harley store in one of the old rooms on the east side. It was closed Sunday morning, but it’s obviously in the right place; the Loveless Cafe brings in about as many bikers as they do traveling retirees in RVs, many of them set to ride the 444 mile Natchez Trace Parkway into Mississippi. After a quick look in the country store for me to buy a bottle of Boylan’s birch beer and for Marie to buy some things for our pantry and some gifts, the three of us sat in the gorgeous sunshine and caught up for twenty minutes or so before we were buzzed to come get a table.

It’s pretty clear that we can’t experience quite what the Loveless Cafe used to be. The usual comment that I’ve seen around is that it, like many other restaurants, has lost a little spark in all the years of expansion and repaving and ownership changing hands. On the other hand, while we may never know how the Loveless might have tasted in its heyday, what they serve up in the present is still very good, and every order gets a plate of some knock-you-on-your-backside tasty biscuits and a few jams, including a very good blackberry. Since Annie Loveless first got the idea to make a little extra money by serving some biscuits on her front porch in 1951, and the restaurant, today, makes a lot of hay over it, they obviously see that they’re putting their reputation on the line with them. I’m glad to say that these are among the best biscuits that I’ve ever had. I may have enjoyed a better biscuit sometimes, but not often.

Marie had fried chicken, as she often does, accompanied by sweet potatoes, which she never does, and a bowl of quite wonderful tomato soup. John chose to have breakfast and had all the usual trimmings. I suppose I was distracted by what a nice day it was and what a pity we had to spend it indoors, despite all the wonderful decorations, including a collection of garish and loveable portraits of country music celebrities done in a style somewhere between Esther Pearl Watson and the late Reverend Howard Finster, because I had been secretly hoping that somebody was going to order their famous country ham so that I could ask to pilfer a bite. I completely forgot.

Myself, between a delicious burger the night before and a not delicious but necessary chicken sandwich at three or four in the morning, I was still pretty full and scaled down my plans. I had already, cunningly, elected to avoid the menu envy that I always get by simply avoiding a main entree and just having a four-veggie plate. As I wasn’t as hungry as I could have been, I downscaled that to a three-veggie plate, and I still couldn’t finish even that, leaving the hashbrown casserole, the least of the three but still quite tasty, mostly untouched. But the biscuits, the fried green tomatoes and the pickled beets were all just wonderful.

At this stage, with hour-long waits and regular national media attention, the Loveless Cafe is far less something for the locals and more a major tourist attraction. Their formula certainly works; it strikes me, now that I’ve visited it, that Cracker Barrel, which started in the late ’60s just down the road in Lebanon, seems to have modeled its whole operation after Loveless and added the words “old-timey” on some labels. Well, and they give tables a peg game instead of some superb biscuits. I’ll take the biscuits; even if not particularly hungry, they’re a heck of a lot more welcome than any damn fool game.


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