Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Arnold's Country Kitchen
Nashville, Tennessee

A red, rectangular cinderblock building on 8th Avenue South in Nashville stands out among a collage of drab warehouses and vacant lots. What happens inside every weekday between 10:30 a.m. and 2:45 p.m. stands out as well. That’s when Jack and Rose Arnold and their energetic crew serve some of the finest southern home cooking imaginable—so fine, that in 2009 it earned the America’s Classics Award from the prestigious James Beard Foundation.

Operating for nearly three decades in the Music City, and noted for its traditional southern meat and three, Arnold’s Country Kitchen attracts a steady flow of devotees, from smartly attired business professionals to laborers in uniform.  At 1:15 on a Monday afternoon, the line of customers extends along a tight side aisle of the restaurant, out the door, and into the parking lot. Everyone, it seems, has a story to share, about the restaurant. One visitor to Nashville reports that an employee at the Renaissance Hotel insisted that she try Arnold’s. A young couple with toddlers in tow dines here often. “Everything they serve is uh-MAZE-ing,” she assures the others in line. The gentleman ahead of us, a Nashville native, heard about Arnold’s from friends. “They said, ‘You gotta go there.’” He scans the dining room, adding, “It’s gotta be good if it’s this crowded.” 

The line inches forward, past a long row of rectangular tables packed with diners, and toward a serving counter that houses a variety of southern favorites. There, men and women in white aprons serve fist-sized pieces of fried chicken, links of sausage with sauerkraut, and strips of liver and onions. They ladle macaroni and cheese, creamed corn, and candied yams. A young man carves a hefty beef roast. Women flip corn fritters on a steaming grill. The cafeteria-style set up also includes green salads, a variety of pies, and Arnold’s signature banana pudding.

About ten minutes after our arrival, we approach the steam tables, and face the most difficult decision of the day. Our eyes desire a taste of every dish available, but still satisfied from a late breakfast, we choose the “one meat and three sides” luncheon priced at $8.79. 

The tender and thin slices of rare roast beef earn the distinction of “phenomenal,” a label appointed by a customer who proclaims his satisfaction to fellow diners. Warm and seasoned, the au jus oozes from a pile of creamy mashed potatoes and puddles around the meat. Soft green beans with bacon, and pleasingly sour hand-cut turnip greens round out the plate. Smeared with butter, the warm corn fritters serve as my dessert.
The menu varies daily, and favors true southern staples like chicken and dumplings, country fried steak, carved ham, fried catfish, and barbeque pork. Arnold’s also features a variety of traditional side dishes including fried green tomatoes, fried apples, and black-eyed peas.

Framed, autographed celebrity photos and reviews of the restaurant decorate Arnold’s interior walls. But no embellishment could detract from the restaurant’s institutional feel. The place looks like a narrow mess hall, something reminiscent of an old church basement. Patrons even rub shoulders at the common tables. Lack of atmosphere aside, though, Arnold’s qualifies as fine dining. Here, the quality and the flavor define fine. Surely, however, some regulars would disagree with the label “fine dining.” For them, Arnold’s is nothing less than the “finest.”

from 2010

Saturday, February 23, 2013

In A "Days"

The busy Walnut Avenue exit off Interstate 75 welcomes us to Dalton, Georgia. Shortly past sunset, headlights form a wavering white streak along the hilly, four-lane thoroughfare. Colorful neon lights illuminate a rocky, mountainous landscape dominated by motels, restaurants, super-sized filling stations, and in this, the carpet capital of the world, rug stores. We pull in at 6:05 local time to the Days Inn, a finalist on my researched and prepared list of satisfactory north Georgia accommodations.

Pictures provided by management to online hotel sites show a spacious, almost elegant, lobby. Indeed, there’s plenty of space occupied by quality furniture. But what appeared on the net to be expertly crafted plaster-work is actually cheap fiberboard in need of a few cosmetic touch-ups. While I don’t consider this misrepresentation, and the durability of the building material will not affect the quality of my overnight stay, I’d say the lobby doesn't do the photographs justice.

We wait behind a drowsy fellow in sagging slacks who requests two rooms. He removes a collection of credit cards from his billfold and scrutinizes each one before pronouncing the MasterCard suitable. Then, as the patient front desk clerk attempts to finalize the transaction, the guest-in-waiting delivers a litany of health and mobility issues that will necessitate a change of rooms. I grow impatient and use the cell to dial the Jameson Inn down the road where rooms rent for $3 more with coupon tonight. The “Dreamium” bedding and homemade waffles appeal to us, so we make the three-minute journey there. The Jameson looks promising, with its almost blinding exterior lights against the white fa├žade. The grounds appear to be well kept. But, while my research indicates otherwise, the room we inspect feels cramped, dated, and dim. We leave without explanation and return to Days Inn.

This time, we encounter a height-challenged drunken guest in a cowboy hat appealing to the desk clerk for an outdoor smokers’ lounge. He solicits my opinion and I agree with the admittedly sane proposition. Smoking, in my non-smoking opinion, is best accomplished out of doors. This motel attracts laborers—many of them smokers—who travel for short-term jobs. This evening, groups of workers who have checked-in loiter on the balconies of this exterior corridor property, for lack of a better place to smoke. Silhouetted by a fluorescent glow, elbows resting on the railing, the men gaze at an endless flow of Walnut Avenue traffic as they puff on cigarettes and pipes.

Other workers assemble in small groups in the lobby, awaiting room assignments. They wear bulky boots, dusty jeans, and forlorn expressions. All of the young men look exhausted and sad, like convicted felons awaiting transport to prison. I assume the separation from wives, children, or sweethearts accounts for the somber scene. Any communication between the workers and the desk clerk is minimal. No smiles are exchanged among them. A slight nod of the head suffices before the clerk slides a keycard across the desk and points to the next customer.

For us, check-in is quick and cordial. Our second floor room, coupon priced tonight at $51.99, faces east and overlooks the parking lot. “We just remodeled six months ago,” the clerk announces, “and everything is new.” Well, the entry door looks old, but the weather-stripping looks new. Already, the carpeting and the furniture appear tattered. The bedding, however, feels plush, the lighting emits a cheerful white glow, and the television and remote cooperate. While I appreciate the fresh, just bleached scent of the towels when I enter the bathroom, I have issues with the toilet paper. It hangs under the roll, so with each tug, the end piece touches the presumably germ infested wall. But it’s good quality paper, and there’s plenty of it. So I’ll forgive this favorably rated and sufficiently clean Days Inn for their toilet paper blunder, even if the quilted sheets refuse to flush down the toilet.
from 2012