In the Field

Celebrating a Nashville Restaurant’s 35 Years

By: Erin Byers Murray

Randy Rayburn dishes on the anniversary of Midtown Cafe

For 35 years, Midtown Cafe has stood firmly rooted to its nook between West End Avenue and Broadway, unchanged despite Nashville’s near-constant evolution. Now surrounded on all sides by high-rises, the single-story dining room and bar that opened in 1987 consistently draws locals—and, these days, plenty of tourists—looking for a taste and a glimpse of old Nashville. The lemon artichoke soup is a constant, as is Randy Rayburn, who’s been the proprietor since taking it over from original owner John Petrocelli in 1997. 

A lot has happened under the roof there, so as the restaurant celebrates its milestone anniversary, Rayburn and co-author Karren Pell have released Midtown Café’s 35th Anniversary: Stories, People, Recipes, which is chock-full of history, characters, and Nashville lore. Pick up a copy at the restaurant ($15) and swing through this month to toast one of Nashville’s longest-standing restaurants. 

Hands twirling a forkful of pasta at Midtown Cafe

TLP: The book is such a treasure trove of Nashville food history. Had it been in the works for awhile?
RR: Karren Pell started working with me 37 years ago in 1985 at Tavern on the Row and later Sunset Grill, working as a bookkeeper. She wanted to do this book, originally, when Sunset Grill was opened, really over a decade ago. But unfortunately, the big recession and the flood and everything—it dramatically impacted my restaurants. She eventually moved to Montgomery, Alabama, to get a master’s degree in literature and occasionally she’d drive up and we’d work on it.

We wound up talking about it last year because it was an emotional, cathartic time. It was spring, we had survived the pandemic. We knew, with the 35 years of Midtown Cafe open, that we should celebrate that. I let Karren do her thing and interview all of our friends and people that we’ve been involved with, and the book really came from that. The whole purpose of this book is to remind locals: Do not forget those who brought Nashville to where we are today.

TLP: I enjoy how you frame the book around the people. What made you decide to organize it that way? 
RR: Well, so many articles and writers focus on menus or theme or the design of a restaurant, but it’s the team, it’s the players who make it fun and unique. It’s such a manic, adrenaline-fueled business and you often find great personalities who become your adopted brothers and sisters. That’s what makes the restaurant business fun and the stories that you share and laugh about at the end of the day.

TLP: Give us a quick snapshot of Nashville’s food scene in 1987.
RR: You had Jody Faison, who still had Faison’s. You had Sperry’s and Mario’s Italian. There were a handful, maybe a dozen decent restaurants. Hotels were just beginning to come into town. [International] restaurants were few and far between. F. Scott’s had just opened and I brought in Anita Hartell as chef. All that’s to say, it was a mixed bag. Things were rolling and evolving but frankly, that was the beginning of it all. 

A plate of fried green tomatoes topped with poached eggs and hollandaise.

TLP: What do you think is the secret of Midtown’s longevity?
RR: It’s lasted this long because of the crew. What I learned—eventually—is that when opening a restaurant, or taking one over, you have to start with a top-down approach. But soon thereafter, you have to flip it over and make it bottom up so that it’s the staff’s restaurant. You have to empower them to make decisions and to do the right thing for the customers so that it is theirs. I don’t make decisions about who stays here. My management team does. And that’s why I have people who have been here 17 years, 20 years. They have a sense of ownership. 

TLP: Will we find the famed lemon artichoke soup recipe in the book? 
RR: Over the years, you know, that has become one of the signature dishes of Nashville. Bernie Arnold [a now deceased local food editor] once asked me for the recipe to run in the Nashville Banner. So, I gave him one. It was real close to the actual recipe, very close. But I’ve never given out the actual recipe because I want people to come into the restaurant and buy a bowl. In the book, we have recipes for our shrimp and grits and chicken croquettes—there are only about 13 because it’s meant to be focused on the people. 

During October, look for greatest hits menu items and other specials at Midtown Cafe. They will also donate 35% of proceeds from all lemon artichoke soup sales to the Nashville State Community College of Culinary Arts.

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