Growing up in Franklin during the late 70’s your choices for dining out were pretty limited. I have vivid memories of the McDonald’s on Highway 96 West with its Benjamin Franklin décor, celebrating our namesake, and it was a treat to be able to go there every Friday night and unwrap what I thought at the time was the best bite on earth! Being a child, my palette wasn’t developed nor a priority, it was more about skirting the chore of washing the dishes after a home cooked meal.
I’ve since learned from a childhood friend that the best burgers in town during that era came from Happy Burger on Columbia Avenue or the Green Acres Market on Carter’s Creek Pike, but unfortunately, I missed those opportunities.
By the 1980s, our family hot spot was Bonanza on the opposite side of town, with its mega salad bar, giving Shoney’s a run for their money with theirs right next door. Then there was Quincy’s on Hillsboro Road, “Home of the Big Fat Yeast Roll”, where I had my very first job at the age of 15. However, the restaurant of choice for us as teenagers was Mr. Gatti’s or The Red Geranium serving up the only pizza in town – although for us it wasn’t about the food, but the gathering.
My mother loved Miss Daisy’s Tearoom at Carter’s Court, but at the time I was too young to appreciate what I was missing. Although, I’ll readily admit that “little yellow cookbook” is one of my favorites today.
We did have barbecue … and two staples of our community were One Stop Café, serving up delicious barbecue and corn light bread out of a small window in the back of the store, and Herbert’s Bar-B-Q which introduced me to the idea of putting barbecue on a baked potato.
Once liquor by the drink was passed, the bulk of the offerings started to morph including the arrival of Choices and Bennett’s Corner (complete with a full bar), owned and operated by Calvin and Marilyn Lehew – the same folks behind Carter’s Court and Miss Daisy’s Tearoom. I can’t be sure, because I was too busy having babies, but in my memory, the other popular liquor by the drink destination was our first Mexican restaurant (this is where I could be wrong) called El Palacio that occupied the building on the corner of Harpeth Industrial Court and Franklin Road.
In the late ‘80s/early 90s the selection of restaurants began to change as the community started booming with growth. In 1991, I started what would become a very rewarding 12+ year career at the O’Charley’s on Hwy 96 East – back at a time when we were open later than anyone else in town. Then, after Cool Springs Galleria opened, we experienced a huge influx of chain restaurants … something that surprisingly still continues.
Are you aware that Williamson County is now home to almost 500 restaurants? The good news is we have many hometown favorites that are unique to our community – things you won’t find anywhere else. And since Franklin has been my home for the last 40 years, I’ll stick with what I know, hence the term “Franklin Originals”.
As our Main Street was revitalized (thank you Heritage Foundation, Rudy Jordan, the Lehews and all who played a role) retail businesses and restaurants started opening to very eager residents – long before the tourists started coming in droves. But we’re here to talk about food …
In 1984, the corner of Fourth and Main saw the opening of not only the aforementioned Choices and Bennett’s Corner, but also the longest-tenured restaurant in Downtown Franklin … Merridee’s Breadbasket.
With their signature blue and white checked motif and baskets that hang from the rafters, they have been serving up delicious baked goods, homemade soups, quiches and fresh salads – including their very popular chicken salad for more than 33 years.
Its namesake, Merridee McCray, whose grandmother served as the head cook for the Pillsbury family, passed away in 1993, however this beloved establishment has been in the very capable hands of owner Jim Kreider and his exceptional team ever since – garnering Merridee’s the attention of Southern Living, Food Network’s “Best of Bakers” and of course holding the title of “Best Bakery in Williamson County” for the last 10 years in our Sizzle Awards.
While we’re in the area of Fourth Avenue another not-to-miss destination is Puckett’s Grocery & Restaurant, the flagship store for owner Andy Marshall (after selling the original in Leiper’s Fork). Known for its barbecue, smoked low ‘n’ slow over cherry wood, and the traditional Southern sides like squash casserole, not to mention the daily selection of cobblers served at lunch and dinner. They also have a very popular breakfast menu. Have you had Bubba’s Eggs Benedict: split biscuits, topped with your choice of bacon or sausage, covered with two fried eggs (cooked to order) and smothered in white pepper gravy?
Positioned right across from the Williamson County courthouse, the bustle starts at 7 a.m. and continues to hustle way into the evening when the room becomes a music venue showcasing local and recognized artists and serving an elevated menu to cater to the nighttime crowd, i.e. a black angus ribeye, filet mignon, the Whiskey Platter with your choice of salmon or chicken, just to name a few.
And while there are five other Puckett’s serving up the same delicious menu, let’s remember … it started all right here in WilCo.
A different concept (and reality) in the Puckett’s brand is Puckett’s Boat House right down the street on East Main by the Harpeth River. This opportunity presented itself in 2012 and was a way for Marshall to develop a seafood concept that was reminiscent of the Gulf Coast and the Big Easy – complete with oysters and other seafood fare.
This restaurant spans almost a block and offers the same tried and true live music opportunities as with the other locations. One big difference is the option to dine al fresco by the river and enjoy the San Destin Salad (my go to option). And you can’t go wrong ordering The Rusty Bucket: A fried sampler of shrimp, oysters, and catfish strips served with hand-cut fries and hushpuppies.
Right outside of “town” down Highway 96 West in Westhaven is the last of Marshall’s offerings in Franklin with Scout’s Pub. A departure from his norm, this modern pub concept offers a versatile menu complete with libations for a friendly neighborhood gathering spot. It has become a destination for those who live in Westhaven and well beyond. The menu includes salads, burgers, pizzas or main entrees like Coconut Chicken Curry and Orzo Chicken Pesto.
Another place that serves as a dining destination and live music venue is Grays on Main. The iconic marquee on our award-winning Main Street pays homage to the pharmacy that served our community for decades. The owners, Joni and Michael Cole, totally restored the three-story space to offer a different type of experience through its fresh spirits, flavors and sounds.
Grays is a bit set apart from the norm, in that its locally sourced, seasonal, ingredient-driven menu of elevated Southern fare, seems almost as important as the handcrafted bar menu, reflecting the drink culture of the 19th century influenced by “The Golden Age of the American Cocktail”.
The signature Pimento Cheese Balls are a crowd favorite on the “Shareables” selection, but I fell in love with the Gulf Shrimp and Grits (Smoked Gouda grits, collards, Tasso ham, hominy, okra, tomato white wine butter sauce) on my last visit.
Head towards Five Points from Gray’s and hang a right on Fourth Avenue and the sidewalk widens … all the way to the front doors of the Franklin Mercantile & Deli, owned and operated by Corrie and Graeme Asch since 1999.
“The Merc” as it is lovingly referred, offers a very relaxed and comfortable atmosphere with its hardwood floors and mix matched tables and chairs along with art from local artists adorning the walls. The large chalkboard menu hanging above the counter touts all the delicious breakfast and lunch offerings – from sandwiches, wraps, paninis, salads (including a salad bar) and soups. Hands down, their tomato basil soup is the best in town!
Little trivia for you … Did you know that at one time, Graeme and Corrie Asch, his brother, Darryl and wife, Annie McCreary, and their parents, Marcia and David Asch, had three separate food and beverage businesses in downtown Franklin? Marcia and David owned a coffeehouse in California and when they moved to Franklin in the early 1990’s, they replicated Jammin’ Java on 5th Avenue, followed by Franklin Mercantile and McCreary’s Irish Pub.
Stretching their efforts across three businesses and a city block was a little daunting (to say the least), so they closed Jammin’ Java; Graeme took over the Mercantile and Darryl ran his namesake until 2009 before he changed career paths and sold to its current owner, Natasha Hendrix.
Hendrix had worked with Darryl for 13 years at all three of the Asch family ventures, so it was a natural fit when the opportunity arose to purchase and operate McCreary’s Irish Pub herself. She had always wanted to have her own business.
McCreary’s Irish Pub isn’t a huge place, seating only 40 in its narrow, yet comfortable space. As to be expected, the Dublin Style Fish & Chips are a top-selling choice, but the Bangers & Mash, McCreary’s twist on a traditional Irish peasant dish (Three chicken spinach sausages stuffed with Asiago cheese, served with rustic mashed potatoes, homemade Irish soda bread and spicy mustard) hits the mark and begs to be washed down with a Guinness Stout draught beer.
Jason McConnell, the man at the helm of McConnell Hospitality Group, has four different concepts in downtown Franklin with 55 South (now open in Brentwood too), Red Pony Restaurant, Cork & Cow and an event space, the McConnell House. Two concepts are in what used to be just one space, previously known as Sandy’s Downtown Grille.
You enter the doors of 55 South on Main Street, where flavors are reminiscent of a trek down Interstate 55 that stretches from Memphis to New Orleans. The offerings here celebrate the downhome, Southern comfort food like po’boys and jambalaya, in a very casual setting. The talented chef also offers his take on “Nashville Hot Chicken” – as featured on Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” – yes, Franklin was on national television, again.
The bar at 55 South is a hot spot for local and tourists alike, but then again, so is the one located about 20 yards away at Cork & Cow. From the beginning, it has been referred to as a steakhouse, and while that holds true with the hickory and oak wood-grilled steak selection including a dry-aged New York Strip and bone-in filet, the menu also offers a grilled bone-in salmon steak served with honey Dijon cream, crispy shoestring potatoes and caper Gremolata as well as shrimp and scallop gnocchi.
McConnell has described his original offering, Red Pony, located on the opposite side of Main Street, as “an unpretentiously upscale and intensely local restaurant” housed in the 100+ year old building that spans two levels. Red Pony changes its menu six times a year keeping with the seasonal offerings, however, this is fine dining so the menu spans the gamut from Bacon Wrapped Rabbit to Elk Ragu, as well as more approachable choices for the unadventurous diners like beef tenderloin, and halibut with sides available like garlic cheese grits and scalloped potatoes.
Some might say that the building at 119 Fifth Avenue North was destined to serve Italian food, first as Antonio’s, then Palazzolo’s and for the last 10 years, it has been home to Zolo’s Italian Restaurant.
This intimate, candle-lit (some might say romantic) eatery is owned and operated by the Holmes family, who thinks and cooks like a big Italian family. They pride themselves in making almost everything from scratch. And while the expectation is that they have a pasta driven menu – and there are plenty from which to choose – they also offer a wide array of fresh seafood dishes and traditional Italian dishes like shrimp or chicken Picatta and eggplant parmesan. Of course, there’s cannoli and tiramisu for dessert, a wonderful wine selection and full bar – and being family-friendly, a special menu for the kids.
Running a very close second for oldest restaurant in the downtown Franklin area is the Bunganut Pig which opened in 1986, although we old timers just call it “The Pig”. The ownership has changed a few times over the years and the menu has too, but its English Pub fare still has its place with fish and chips, shepherd’s pie and … the indulgent Monte Cristo (a ham and cheese deep fried sandwich covered with powdered sugar and served with a side of honey or strawberry jam). The burgers are extremely popular – hand patted and stacked with toppings – but then again, so is the fried bologna. So many choices …
The footprint has expanded beyond the initial underground site, adding an upstairs (complete with billiard tables and another bar) as well as the beloved outdoor patio – which is a hotspot during the comfortable weather. Another notch in their belt is live music seven days a week.
Moving beyond Franklin’s original 16 blocks
As you leave downtown Franklin traveling on West Main, go one block past the Williamson County Complex (you know, where everyone goes to get their car tags renewed) and you will see Pueblo Real Mexican Restaurant on your right … where it all started for Jose Mata.
This flagship restaurant just celebrated 14 years in September of serving up authentic Mexican fare to very thankful patrons. Within the first few years, Pueblo’s footprint doubled due to its popularity. In fact, the community has embraced Mata’s food and exceptional service so much so that he’s expanded the brand, although under a different name, with Tito’s Mexican Restaurant (his nickname is Tito), in Franklin’s Berry Farms and in Spring Hill.
The menu offers traditional Mexican cuisine – burritos, fajitas, tacos and the like – and of course, you can start off with house-made chips and salsa. There is a lunch menu that offers a lower price point and more straight-forward choices, but the dinner menu expands on the selections.
Mata has added to his repertoire over the years to bring more elevated items, like my personal favorite, Pollo Popeye: a grilled chicken breast topped with spinach and queso (yes, that delicious melted white cheese) served with rice, lettuce, tomato, guacamole and sour cream. And as a father himself, he knows the importance of having a kid friendly menu, complete with American foods like burgers and fries, chicken nuggets and more.
There’s a myriad of options on flavors of margaritas (frozen or on the rocks) at their fully stocked bar. But be careful about announcing it’s your birthday because you will soon be wearing a huge Sombrero with whipped cream on your face!
What’s more Southern than meat and three, right? There are several restaurants in town that offer a meat and three selection, but there’s only a couple that make it their main focus, one of which is Bishop’s Meat & 3 on Mallory Lane (read the full story on their inception and anniversary on page 21) and the other that stands out is Cool Cafe on Hillsboro Road.
Tim Ness opened this jewel of a place more than 12 years ago and it has become a destination for his famous fried chicken (hot chicken available, too) and of course, “Pork Chop Tuesdays”. My dish of choice is fried pork chops with milk gravy, mashed potatoes (did you know they use the potato peels to make in- house chips?) and Brussel sprouts with a roll. Oh, my goodness, I can taste it right now.
At Cool Cafe, items are served cafeteria style, so you can see exactly what you’re getting. The line starts out with the cold salad offerings – including their stellar deviled eggs and broccoli salad – and then you get to choose from two-three meats of the day like meatloaf, BBQ chicken and of course, catfish on Fridays. Sometimes there are good ol’ Southern casseroles in the mix, but always 7 or 8 vegetables to choose from like fried corn, mac & cheese, white beans, turnip greens and fried okra, to name a few – all made from scratch.
The portions are very generous and you think, “Oh, I could never eat that much,” … but, somehow, I always come close to cleaning my plate. The goal is to leave enough room for dessert because Cool Cafe’s banana pudding is to die for as well as the fruit cobblers.
On Friday and Saturday nights, Cool Cafe morphs into another concept altogether as the lights are dimmed, the tables clothed, wine glasses polished at the full bar and the menu elevated as Steak Night at Cool Cafe comes to life.
Ness serves the best-of-the-best with his Halpern’s Premium Angus Beef and cuts the steaks in-house, then seasons and grills them to order in a rustic cast iron skillet. Apart from steak, there are also several other entrée choices ranging from fish to chicken, burgers and more, and … the unique and delicious sides like creamy mashed Brussel Sprouts, Sambuca spinach and cauliflower hash browns. You MUST try the lettuce wedge served with tomatoes, bacon, bleu cheese, complete with a signature deviled egg on the side.
Travel north down Hillsboro Road just a few miles and on your right, is a small strip (flanked by Publix) that houses Bricks Café. The name, one would assume, comes from the front and center brick, wood-burning pizza oven that creates the almost dozen pizza choices, however, there is so much more in the offerings of this multi-cuisine restaurant. It’s Italian meets Southwest, meets American and is a favorite neighborhood haunt for the residents of Fieldstone Farms, but also for many others.
My go-to here, especially for lunch, is the Bowtie Caesar Salad: bowtie pasta, grilled chicken and sun-dried tomatoes tossed in cilantro pesto and balsamic vinaigrette then placed atop a Caesar salad.
Also on the outskirts of “town” almost to Brentwood line in the Gateway Village is Sopapilla’s: A Taste of New Mexico that delivers authentic Southwest fare.
Owned by Steve Dale, who hails from Phoenix and Albuquerque and came to Nashville as a musician, and unlike many others, he found success in his craft as a bass player for the likes of Little Big Town. While on the road, missing the flavors from his home, he took it into his own hands to recreate dishes he loved and shared them with his bandmates. He eventually became a restaurateur. The food won out over music and he opened up his first restaurant in 2010 to a very appreciative clientele – so much so he’s expanded the footprint of his place three times since it’s opening.
The menu celebrates the Hatch Chili that until recently was hard to source locally. The flavors are elevated and selections range from blue corn chicken enchiladas to street tacos, with a choice of chicken, lobster or pork belly. And while the experience begins with the expected chips and salsa, this salsa is authentically Southwest and deliciously so. The meal ends, should you choose, with complimentary fried pillows of dough served with honey, sopapillas.
By now, I’m sure you’re starving (I know I am) but I have just a couple more places I have to celebrate as “Franklin Originals”, like … the Franklin Chop House on Murfreesboro Road on the east side of Franklin.
This community favorite has been around since 1995, serving up great American foods to a drove of loyal clientele. Housed in what was originally a Chi-Chi’s Mexican restaurant, there are no remnants of its past life with the familiar aroma of hickory wood wafting in the air.
It’s hard to not be biased, but I must say, Chop House is a family favorite – of all five kids and their spouses. After being around for more than 20 years and on “our side of town”, it’s one of those places that has so many things to choose from there is something for everyone to love and the staff (especially co-owner Mark Robbins and Gretchen, who has worked there since they opened) treat us like family.
The menu is filled with a myriad of choices: chicken, seafood, steaks (with prime rib on Friday and Saturday nights), pastas, salads, sandwiches or the daily specials that are announced on a gigantic chalkboard in the middle of the restaurant. It might sound overwhelming, but it’s definitely not – even with 15 side dish options! And every meal begins with the signature drop biscuits served with honey butter that takes mere seconds to disappear.
The walls pay homage to Franklin’s history and … if these walls could speak, they could tell the stories of many a business deal struck or family milestone celebrated.
Twenty years ago, another establishment opened its doors to Franklin within the Watson Glen Shopping Center … Nashville Pizza Company. The name is deceiving, especially since we’re supposed to be embracing “Franklin Originals”, but there’s a story here …
Stuart Hansen and Wes Alexander, fraternity brothers, moved from Little Rock, Ark., to open a similar concept to their hometown US Pizza Co. They selected a spot in Nashville, decided on the name, had all the paperwork and printing done and … the lease fell through. So instead of starting from scratch, they went with it … and have become a favorite haunt for Franklin residents – especially families – both at this location and the one in Grassland.
The pizzas are set apart by their crust, thin and crispy and made in-house daily and served by the piece or the pie. There are also salads, sandwiches, calzones and a to-die-for breadsticks covered with mozzarella, garlic and butter served with marinara for dipping. And one thing you can’t get anywhere else is their Creamy Italian Dressing that many people buy to take home.
My favorite pizza here is the Razorback – paying homage to Wes and Stuart’s home team. I always asked Wes to add mushrooms to mine, and he did. Always with his big bright smile.
Tragically, Wes passed away unexpectedly earlier this year. Wes was not only a friend to me, but a member of my extended family. He left his mark on my heart, but also this community. Wes was always ready to step up to lend a hand to anyone, especially the numerous non-profits who knocked on his door for help – mostly for donations of food for events and fundraisers.
In fact, all of the restaurants spotlighted here give back (tremendously) to our community in the same way. Don’t miss the opportunity as you visit (or frequent) these establishments to let them know how much you appreciate their food, their hospitality and the many ways they go beyond their brick and mortar establishments to give back to our community.
And for those places I might have missed, please accept my apology.