Monell’s in the Music City
This Nashville Institution Keeps It Real
Photo (above) by Suzanne Henkle
There’s a reason why Monell’s is a Nashville institution. Established in Germantown in 1995, it’s where old-timers break bread with the younger set at communal-style tables. All races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, etc. bond over signature skillet fried chicken and home-style biscuits. And no one—absolutely no one—jumps the line of people waiting patiently 25 minutes to 35 minutes to get into the restaurant.
RESTAURANT INC: THE COMMUNAL DINING CONCEPT HAS BECOME TRENDY IN RECENT YEARS. DID YOU PREDICT THIS AND IS IT SUSTAINABLE?
Michael King: I’ve always said you’ll find restaurants that will go to family-style dining only because rent is so expensive, and real estate is so expensive. Europe has it down pat and it’s very common there. (The) 9-11 (terrorist attacks in New York) really taught me how much people value the company of other people. When it happened, for the next eight months, we were so slammed. We did volume in lunches we had never done before. Customers needed the comfort of other people. Also, in 2008, with the economy going crazy, a lot of restaurants went up in price. I absorbed those costs, which meant that I had to work more hours. I knew people were going through the same thing I was going through. It made no sense to go up in price, and people appreciated it. We didn’t cut back on the quality of food. We just sucked it up and it really paid off. People saw that and appreciated it. They rewarded us with their business.
RI: ARE THERE ANY OTHER RESTAURANTS IN NASHVILLE THAT YOU FEEL EMBODY OLD-SCHOOL, TRADITIONAL SOUTHERN CUISINE?
MK: Arnold’s has been around longer than Monell’s. It’s cafeteria-style. Wendell’s Smith Restaurant has been doing it a lot longer, for 80-plus years. My favorite place to eat in Nashville is Calypso Café. It serves rotisserie chicken, black beans, greens and coconut muffins. That’s where I go for my comfort.
RI: WHAT NEIGHBORHOOD DO YOU LIKE THE MOST IN NASHVILLE?
MK: I love Germantown. I’ve seen it grow. We’ve gone from two restaurants when I opened Monell’s, now we have 25, including bars. If you ask old-timer Nashvillians, they will tell you Germantown used to be the sh_ts. Now there are $2 million and $3 million homes. It takes things like Monell’s or people like Berdelle Campbell and her husband, Ernest, who started the urban development of Germantown. They sacrificed years before people started moving over here. Germantown is my favorite neighborhood, not just because I live in it, but I just love the mix of it.
Oprah Winfrey and former President Bill Clinton found out first hand Monell’s doesn’t play favorites—and they don’t take reservations. There’s an even playing field here, explains owner Michael King, who once told a dismayed Winfrey over the phone, “You’re calling me at 12 o’clock noon on a Sunday after church in the South. … It’s a 25-minute, 30-minute wait.”
You’d think a place like this would be a dime a dozen in a Southern city. But there’s something about Monell’s that’s very special—beyond the 18 tons of fried chicken they sell a month—and it deftly connects old-school, Honky Tonk Nashville to its chic new image as a foodie paradise. We talked to Michael King about Monell’s legacy, Nashville’s sudden rise in the culinary industry and more as part of Restaurant Inc’s Great American Food Cities series.
RI: WHEN YOU’RE THINKING ABOUT CHILLING OUT FOR A DRINK OR LIVE MUSIC, WHERE DO YOU GO?
MK: I love going to an old honky tonk in the Gulch before it became popular, but I don’t go out much these days. I’m around people all the time, all day long, so when I want to chill, I want to be alone.
“I love Germantown. I’ve seen it grow. We’ve gone from two restaurants when I opened Monell’s, now we have 25, including bars.”
– Michael King, Monell’s Owner
RI: DO YOU FEEL NASHVILLE’S CULINARY SCENE IS GROWING TOO FAST?
MK: There’s plenty of business to go around, but some of the new businesses coming in are missing the mark. People in Nashville don’t want to pay $25 for a hamburger. I don’t know if they’re really reading the vibes of the people. As many restaurants that are opening in Nashville, others are closing in six, eight months because they did not feel the pulse of the people.
RI: HOW THRIVING ARE THE DISTILLERY AND BREWERY SCENES IN NASHVILLE?
MK: We only had Yazoo Brewing at first and they were pretty out there when it first started. And now we have 22 self-brewers and I am glad. You talk about a close-knit group. Brewers support each other. They work off each other. They egg each other on. They have a strong group, and I think that’s why they flourish. It’s fun with the distillery and the moonshine and all that because for years, there was only the Jack Daniels distillery. Now you have people taking chances and creating some really great new spirits that are amazing. Some people are willing to move the mark and challenge taste buds. I love the idea that we finally got moonshine approved because it’s a signature of the South.
Photo by Suzanne Henkle