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

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