All conversations about the Nashville restaurant scene must begin with either Margot McCormack or Andre Prince Jeffries. Absolutely no other person in the history of Nashville has made a bigger or more lasting impact than those two women. Oh, you think Tandy Wilson at City House and his James Beard award defines Nashville cuisine? Guess what? He trained under Margot. You think Hattie B’s “made hot chicken what it is”? Hattie B’s opened in 2012. Andre Prince Jeffrie’s great-uncle’s girlfriend invented hot chicken in the 1930’s and her family has been making it for locals since at least 1945. More on that another day.
We are beginning with Margot only because I was at Margot Cafe & Bar on Friday. Actually, I’m there almost every Friday when I lead a walking restaurant tour for a company called Walk Eat Nashville. I get to listen to Margot talk about her experience in the restaurant industry, her feelings on how the industry is changing and best of all, I get to listen to her talk about how she cooks.
She really doesn’t stick to a script. I’ve heard her go off on our mayor for trying to privatize parking, teach a history class about Alice Waters, give a review of her recent trip to St. Louis and do a short comedy routine about the price of donuts. This particular Friday she talked about classic French dishes like the peach melba we were eating because the day before was Julia Child’s birthday. The peaches came from our farmer’s market, some of the last we’ll see this season. And the ice cream was homemade, leftover from dinner service the night before. Ice cream is churned on Fridays around 2:30. If my tour doesn’t make it to Margot Cafe & Bar by 1:45, we listen to Margot yell over the ice cream machine.
I think I have to tell you about the staff before I talk about more food because they’re such a dedicated bunch. Margot likes to say they work with her, not for her. Sally, the hostess, has been working at Margot since before it opened- she helped Margot renovate the building, which was formerly a Lion Oil service station. Hadley, the chef de cuisine, has been with her for seven years. Other writers have called him Margot’s secret weapon. I like to ask him when he’s going to open his own restaurant and he jokes he already has one inside of Margot Cafe & Bar. Grace, the pastry chef, is their newest addition. She has worked magic with butter both at Husk and with me on some weird catering gigs many moons ago. I thought I didn’t like pound cake until I had Grace’s at Margot’s Edna Lewis dinner. This year Margot and her wife Heather bought a beach house. They closed the restaurant down for a week in July and took the entire staff on vacation with them. I don’t know how to begin to explain how rare any of those things are in the industry.
Margot Cafe & Bar is full of rarities. Although the menu is inspired by French cuisine, it’s a decidedly relaxed place to dine. No one at Margot takes themselves “oui chef” seriously. When the restaurant celebrated it’s 18th birthday, the staff wore airbrush t-shirts with their names on them because what do you do when you’re 18? Go to the beach with your friends and get airbrush t-shirts, of course. All the food comes out on mismatched Grandma china, acquired over the years from flea markets and the dead relatives of longtime guests. And Margot can’t resist a good theme dinner, for example, Cinco de Margot.
Perhaps most rare of all, the menu changes every day. To my knowledge, Margot Cafe & Bar is the only restaurant in Nashville changing their menu every day, now or ever. There’s always a chicken, a fish, a steak, a vegetarian option and a homemade pasta, a few salads, etc., but what cut she uses, how she flavors it, how she cooks it, what it comes with- that all depends on what Eaton’s Creek Organics is harvesting, what catches Hadley’s eye at the farmer’s market, what they need to use up in the kitchen and Margot’s mood. If you’re thinking, Hannah, you love this place because the menu is one giant Pantry Raid, well YA GOT ME.
Recent favorites have included an endive salad with pickled red onions and goat cheese, Hadley’s hot water cornbread, okra fried whole over a plate of buttermilk dressing, pimento cheese served with watermelon rind pickles, housemade potato chips with aioli for dipping (always on the menu), and alllll the chicken, but particularly any form of airline breast with tomatoes. Okay I hear it now, I lean toward the “southern accent” part of Margot Cafe & Bar’s slogan, “French inspired cuisine with a Southern accent.”