At City House, Tandy Wilson reflects on the restaurant that kickstarted Nashville’s red hot dining scene
It’s 11 am on a Friday and Tandy Wilson, Nashville’s homegrown James Beard award-winner is chopping garlic. Wilson has been working in professional kitchens for half his life, and for half of those years he has steered City House, one of Nashville’s most beloved restaurants. But these days he tells his trainer, who he works out with three days a week, that he’s not really into pumping iron, he just wants to be fit enough to cook professionally until he’s at least 60. That’s a lot of garlic.
As City House crossed into its tenth year in 2018, Wilson has already reached a milestone for any restaurant owner, much less one in a boomtown that welcomed 112 new places to eat and drink in 2017 alone. And while many other restaurants certainly helped build the food-loving foundation in town—such as Margot Cafe and Bar where Wilson worked as sous chef for two and half years—few restaurants have helped make Nashville a food destination like City House.
Back when the restaurant opened in 2007, the neighborhood was on the edge of transition when the occasional gunshot blended with the sounds of new construction and housing rehabs. In the midst of it, City House became the type of place to welcome everyone from Bill Clinton, chef Thomas Keller, and Taylor Swift to Terry Jackson, a local nurse who liked the restaurant so much on his first visit, he booked his table (number 31) for a standing reservation every single Sunday for several months— which turned into several years.
Meanwhile, Wilson had to learn how to manage pressures, anxieties, vices, and the physical toll on his body that the industry and success bring.
But first, like many restaurant owners, Wilson simply worried: “Are people gonna come?”
The Early Days
Alisa Martin still remembers her first City House meal at the soft opening ten years ago: red wine-braised squid with cannellini beans. Martin had worked with Wilson at Margot. A couple years later she also joined the team as a bartender, and she’s been at the restaurant ever since. But what does Wilson remember about opening night? “Nothing,” he says after a pause. It flew by like a wedding night with a mix of excitement and nerves. “This is my first head chef job,” he says.
City House’s initial menu included variations of dishes that have become favorites: wood-fired pizzas, roast chicken with pancetta and orange zest, and trout stuffed with peanuts, raisins, and breadcrumbs. Listing the menu helped trigger Wilson’s memories like steps in a long lost recipe. He recalled the entire restaurant singing happy birthday to his father. But he also remembered one of his guys undergoing an unfortunate incident with the meat slicer. “This guy was bleeding so much, we had him sitting down in the walk-in,” Wilson says. “We really needed another person desperately at that point. We called the culinary school, and they sent a guy named Jesse who ended up staying for the next six years.”
City House had a comfortable vibe from the start. It was unlike anything Nashville had seen. As a Southern restaurant with Italian influences, it was farm-to-table before it was cool and introduced the city to nose-to-tail cooking. But amid the Southern food revival, it also had a cozy wood-burning oven and a genuine tinge of the familiar. It offered country cooking, essentially, whether Southern or Italian, with just enough challenges to keep diners curious.
“No one was serving pig ears and tongue,” Martin says. “I had my first tongue before I worked there.” People started to talk.
Belly Ham Boom
By 2010, Michael Stipe of R.E.M. was standing in Wilson’s restaurant chatting with him about wine. Two years later, Wilson bounced through the city in a pickup truck with Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys for a Bon Appétit magazine spread that proclaimed Nashville the “coolest, tastiest city in the South.” And for food lovers, City House had became stop number-one. “I’m not cool,” Wilson says, trying to explain it. “So there’s no way it has anything to do with me.” Indeed, the restaurant still has lighting a thousand shades brighter than a sexy lounge or rock club. It has stark, utilitarian bathrooms. And the plain white stucco walls with patches of exposed brick hold nary a piece of art. But the early decision for no art (predicated by budget) also inadvertently keeps it from feeling dated. The restaurant stays current with a solid cooking foundation paired with an unassuming, no-fuss way as evident in Wilson’s T-shirt and pencil-behind-the-ear dress code.
I took a job as a food writer in Nashville the same month City House opened. It quickly became a favorite for the meals, but also for intangibles like anticipation hanging in the air with the smell of garlic and a soundtrack of silverware clinks against the Drive-By Truckers and James Brown. In City House’s early days, I had embarked on an ill-advised run of dates with younger musicians. One of my best friends, Ann, offered some tough love. “New rule,” she said. “If he can’t take you to City House, you can’t date him.”
Her advice said as much about my choices as it did the vibe of the restaurant. It has never been an expensive place. You can roll in wearing jeans for a pizza or dress to the nines for celebrations and multiple courses. Either way it’s quality, always.
A little while later I accepted a date with another musician. “Let’s go to City House,” he suggested on our first meeting. I ended up marrying him.
Wilson’s eyes lit up when he heard the story (one of many he’s heard of first dates or proposals and new babies). “That’s what you want to be remembered for,” he says. “There’s more pride in that than any of the prestige because that means we’re part of the place—the community.”
In the early days of the restaurant, City House didn’t have a built-in neighborhood; they had to work for their clientele. “There were fewer people in the city to kind of scrounge around for,” he recalls. “A lot of people weren’t super-willing to drive over here from different neighborhoods.” But in making it comfortable for all types and ages of people rather than a certain crowd—hip or not—it made the restaurant easier to fill. And more interesting to visit.
All the while, the accolades kept piling on. Wilson had established early rules for the restaurant’s cooking to keep himself and staff in the lanes (like no gratuitous black pepper or rosemary just because a dish is savory). “As you start to feel confident, you can start to shed rules and be more creative and still be who you are,” he explains. “But you don’t want people to come in not recognize anything and wonder where the hell they are.”
He also had some rules for how to be, which the fourth-generation Nashvillian considers emblematic of his hometown, a place known for a friendly, collaborative spirit. “You don’t talk too much about yourself or other people,” he says. “We don’t make too much of a fuss or bother anybody.”
By 2012, City House’s belly ham pizza, with a runny egg for sopping had been named on top 10 lists across America. It became Wilson’s hit song, and a guy can get tired of playing it even when it’s what the people want. “There was a period where I felt like I had to take it off the menu” he says. “Then I realized it is not a dish that defines the place. It’s a dish that allows people to relate to the place.”
A Beard Nod
As City House’s success grew with Nashville, Wilson also received several nominations for a James Beard award. But just like a social media feed shows only the highlights, Wilson’s behind-the-scenes footage would have revealed him as a self-proclaimed wreck. “I was falling apart,” he says. “The wheels were falling off.” It called for a change that would go well beyond menus, schedules, farmers, or staff. “I’m an alcoholic,” he says. “I’ll be six years sober next month.” Alcohol, of course, is pervasive in the restaurant business. “What nobody tells you is when you get to be the person in charge, there really isn’t anyone to tell you ‘don’t pick that bottle up anymore.’ And so you pick it up all the time,” Wilson said. The stress exacerbated the drinking, which exacerbated the stress. In addition to the physical affects of alcohol, he had bad knees, and a bad back. He says his creativity suffered too. “I’m lucky enough that I had loved ones and friends who didn’t want to see that happen to me. Steph (Stephanie Melidis Wilson, his wife) jumped in there and didn’t leave my side. But wasn’t going to accept that from me,” he says. “At the end of my drinking, I had no creativity left. It was completely gone, and it stayed off for probably like another year. So I’ve really been at this for like five years. I mean, we did good things in those first five years, but I don’t think it was at all reflective of how we work now.”
Though he doesn’t put the onus solely on alcohol, he has learned without it to move beyond the edge of his training to find his own path. By 2016, Wilson traveled once again to Chicago for his ninth nomination (fourth time as a finalist) for the James Beard award. Since the restaurant doesn’t have TVs, Martin took her laptop to City House to stream it from the pickup window of the pizza bar. As Wilson’s category came up, staff, former staff, and diners crowded around the screen. “They announced it,” Martin says, “and the whole place erupted. It turned into a celebration of screaming and laughing and hugging.”
The Next Chapter
A few weeks after the tenth anniversary, it was business as usual at City House as the bar started to fill up and a couple of regulars arrived with a late Christmas gift for Martin. These days, City House is a true neighborhood spot surrounded by condominiums and streets peppered with new restaurants, including Kuchina & Keller by Aaron Clemins, Wilson’s long-time sous chef who stayed with Wilson from the beginning until opening his own place late last year. Clemins and chef Sal Avila are two of several chefs and front-of-the house staff who have contributed elsewhere to the city’s ever-growing food scene.
At City House, the regulars started with a special—cotechino sausage made with pork and pie spices. Wilson had smoked it sock sausage-style with farmer Troy Smiley and then brightened it on the plate with satsumas and parsley. Northern Italy meets the South. Soon after, another couple arrived. They had the hip, young professional look of new Nashville. One of them had visited City House for the first time just a couple weeks prior. He had tasted a dish he loved and wanted to introduce it to his dining companion. So, they ordered the belly ham pizza. And then they ordered more.
This dish has been a regular on the menu at City House since its first year of operation. The sauce is best if made one day ahead.
This story was originally published in the March 2018 Issue.
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