19 December 2009

The Loveless Cafe

On a dark highway on the far edge of Nashville’s influence, next to a gas station, sits the Loveless Café. Its old neon sign reminds us of the days when travel lacked the chain store monotony of today’s restaurants and lodging. People used to cook and serve food to people. No promotions from corporate headquarters and no market-research-tested food – just food. A sign on the door said they were closing at 6:15 for a staff party and when I looked at the clock just inside the door it was almost 630. The hostess looked up at the clock – just tilted her head a bit – looked at me, shrugged her shoulders and said “Just one?” She sat me at a square table in a corner, out of the way of the few remaining tables with customers, giving the bus staff and others space to clean up and be done.
There’s no need to gush over the food, but it’s necessary to commend the restaurant for continuing to serve traditional, unadorned southern food, almost untouched by the recent decades of bad food offered up by chain restaurants. I don’t know if it’s the burden of health department regulations or the staggering cost of insurance, but it seems difficult to open up a restaurant that serves good, plain, inexpensive good. The entrepreneurial spirit has been largely squelched by the fear of litigation, the threat of a food-borne illness, and the prohibitive cost of addressing those two concerns. One of the things I love about traveling to Asia is seeing the vigorous entrepreneurial spirit surrounding food. If someone wants to open a noodle shop in Vietnam, they do it. Put out a few low, plastic chairs and hang a sign. It was a lot easier to do that in the USA fifty years ago, and the Loveless Café is an enduring legacy of one’s ability to “serve food to travelers.” Maybe it’s easier for an enterprising young couple to take jobs managing a chain restaurant these days. How many banks are will to loan money to a restaurant that plans on serving fried chicken and good biscuits? And will private equity put its money into a place selling baked ham for $9.95?
Macaroni and cheese, green beans, creamed corn, hush puppies, sweet potatoes, cole slaw, baked beans, stewed tomatoes – these are the sides of old that ensured a diner would leave a meal full and content. And biscuits, good, plain biscuits. And when I ate my biscuits with gusto, spreading thick preserves and sorghum molasses on them, the waitress brought a few more. The biscuits were small, hot, and light, less flaky and a little more billowy than a hand-rolled one I’d make, and they were fresh and good. The fried chicken dinner (choice between light or dark meat – I chose dark) was hot, crispy, and juicy on the inside. Good fried chicken doesn’t taste greasy – it’s a delicate combination of texture and taste, held together by the coating on the chicken. Dinner came with two sides – the fried okra was hot, crisp on the outside, and fresh with a light batter coating, fried in oil, and heaped in a small bowl. The sweet potatoes were okay, but not as good as my lunchtime serving earlier in the day at Vanderbilt’s University Club, where the brown sugar, butter and salt were in such perfect proportion that I had to go back for seconds. The pie selection was broad, but I settled on blackberry cobbler. Southern desserts are a bit sweet for me, but this delicious blackberry cobbler was balanced with a depth of flavor that seemed to be a combination of orange zest and ground clove. Served in a ramekin with a shortcake topping, the cobbler was stained and thick with whole fruit, sweet to a point that nearly sent me into a sugar coma, but the small scoop of vanilla ice cream luckily prevented that!
I ate quicker than I normally would when dining alone, knowing that when the last few tables cleared out the restaurant staff would begin their holiday party. I left the restaurant in a good mood, content after a nice Southern dinner. The old neon sign still shined in the night, beckoning travelers to stop and refresh themselves with old fashioned food and hospitality.

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