(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
I got to thinking at lunch today about one of the Nashville institutions that’s a hugely important part of the country music industry. That would be meat-and-threes.
By that, I mean very informal lunch joints that offer a meat entrée, such as fried chicken or meatloaf or roast beef, and a choice of two or three vegetables for a fixed price. I’ve heard a claim there are a hundred such places in Nashville, but that may be exaggerated. They are all over the place, though. They’re usually open only for lunch. Lunches are generally priced at between $6 and $8 with a glass of iced tea, although the other day I broke the $10 barrier for the first time for a meat-and-two plate at the Copper Kettle. Even the upscale Belle Meade Buffet isn’t that expensive.
The only other things usually on meat-and-three’s menus are cornbread, biscuits, rolls and desserts, usually ranging from banana pudding to apple or peach or berry cobbler or fruit pies, although Sylvan Park excels in different pies, particularly the chocolate meringue. Salads, except for slaw and the occasional cottage cheese salad, are usually nonexistent at a bonafide meat-and-three, although they do proliferate at related institutions such as cafeterias and buffets.
Meat-and-threes for many years have been an informal gathering place for people in the country music business. They’re the only true industry hangouts. A lot of deals have been brokered over fried chicken and fried okra. The beginnings of songs have been launched over meatloaf and mac and cheese. Some music contracts have gravy stains on them. Although the majority of music executives prefer the Palm or Sunset Grill or Midtown for lunch these days, many of the key industry figures and artists and pickers still favor the meat-and-threes. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve gotten onto from random meat-and-three conversations. At any meat-and-three, you will always see several friendly faces. I could always count on running into the late Merle Kilgore in the Pie Wagon.
One thing that got me to pondering the importance of m3s (can I call them that?) is that I just met a guy online who has launched an m3 Nashville blog, which seems to me to be a good idea. Jim Scott’s mand3.com has thus far posted reviews of different m3s by ordinary citizens, and some reviews are pedestrian and some are good reading, and it’s a promising start.
There is also the communal aspect of m3s. Great m3s such as Arnold’s Country Kitchen and Sylvan Park have family seating, which means you sit wherever there’s an empty seat and introduce yourself to everyone else at the table and join in the conversation. You never know who you’ll run into. I once sat down next to a Roy Orbison sideman I had been trying to track down for several months.
I just got back from lunch at a new downtown Nashville m3 that seems very promising. It’s named 417 Union, and it recently replaced the late, lamented Satsuma Tea Room at the same address. Following the Satsuma Tea Room is a tough gig. The old Satsuma was a Nashville institution for I think eight decades or so, and when it folded its tent not too long ago, a lot of downtown diners mourned the loss. It called itself a Tea Room, but in most ways it was really an m3, and it served that function, sometimes well, sometimes erratically. I have its cookbook somewhere here in my office, and it has a lot of exotic old recipes.
One of the greatest charms of the old Satsuma, besides its faded décor from the long-ago past, was its often whimsical service. There were a number of … senior lady waitpersons working there and they were very friendly, but they were often preoccupied with other matters. I was never sure what those matters were, but some of them muttered under their breath a lot. It got to the point that I wondered every time I ordered whether I would get what I asked for, or if it would be a Surprise Lunch. I might order the fried chicken and mashed potatoes and okra and be served instead corned beef and cabbage and banana pudding. Or I would order the turkey casserole and suddenly get a vegetable plate and Jell-O salad or a banana salad with poppy seed dressing or a frozen cranberry salad with marshmallows plopped down in front of me. You know what? I would always eat the Surprise Lunch. I figured it was karma. It was meant for me. On some level, it was what I needed.
Now the new m3 at 417 Union tries to fill those ancient, creaky shoes. It’s a nice-looking, comfortable room and the food is pretty good, based on just one visit. Pork chop is crisp and moist, mashed potatoes are a tad dry and lumpy, lima beans are tasty, corn muffins are toasty and service is great. And it has happy hour on Thursdays and Fridays, which is a new concept for m3s, which traditionally shut down around 2 p.m.
Probably the greatest of all Nashville m3s ever was Hap Townes, which was launched in 1921 by a man appropriately named Hap Townes. He started it as a food cart in downtown Nashville.
The old stone building Hap Townes finally occupied had an open kitchen so you could view what was being done to your food. And it was mostly good. I never did look up their scores from the city health inspectors, but I would now and then avert my gaze from the kitchen proceedings, but Hap was mostly on the up and up. When it shut down, it was like a death in the family for the country music industry.
Hap was perhaps best known for his Tennessee Stewed Raisins. Here’s his recipe, as recorded in Jane and Michael Stern’s book, Real American Food:
2 ½ cups raisins
3 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons flour
Place raisins in a heavy saucepan. Barely cover with water and bring to a boil over high heat. Turn heat down to medium and cook until water is below first row of raisins. Add butter, stirring until melted. Mix flour and sugar and add to raisins. Cook 2 minutes more, stirring. (If watery, bring back to a boil. If stiff, add water.) Add lemon juice and serve hot. Serves 6-8.