Jerry Cunningham remembers the City Café’s first day in Brentwood.
At that time the restaurant was over in a little frame house on Wilson Pike Circle. His friend, mentor and longtime Nashville meat-and-three guru Hap Townes was with him.
Cunningham had become interested in opening a restaurant when he heard that Noble’s Corner, which used to be located in the Traveler’s Rest Inn in Brentwood, was shutting down. He figured that left an opening.
He was right.
“The first day we opened, there were people everywhere,” Cunningham says. “We were instantaneously popular because of the demand.”
Still, even with that motivating desire to get into the business, even with Hap by his side, Cunningham has to admit he didn’t quite know what he was getting himself into.
“We weren’t completely prepared,” he concedes.
Now, this past Friday night, Cunningham is no longer the novice restaurateur, but a 27-year veteran of the local food scene — the proprietor of what he says is “basically the oldest operating restaurant in Brentwood.”
He’s in the restaurant tonight to turn over his keys, to take the paintings off the walls, to say goodbye.
Anne Townes, Hap’s widow, sits at a table with Jerry and his wife, Beata. As Hap was with Jerry on his first day running City Cafe, Anne is with him on his last.
Jerry talks about the people who kept him in business for such a stretch of time, the “longtime loyal customers” who have become more and more like family over the years. They’re the ones who’ve been “the fun of the whole deal,” as he puts it.
“It’s a little bit bittersweet for me to tell some of them today … but that’s where we are, that’s what we’re doing,” he says.
Paintings that just a day or two ago hung along the wall leading to the food line or behind the cash register, now sit propped against tables and chairs. Longtime customers come in, unaware of what’s going on.
Three of those customers sit at a table a few feet from the partition that divides the waiting line from the dining room. Sam, Ann and Rita Hawkins have been coming to the City Café ever since Sam and Ann moved to town a while back. Rita is Sam’s mother, visiting from Memphis, but even she knows the restaurant well.
“Once or twice a week,” Sam answers when asked how often they come to eat here, adding, though, that there have been times “when we’d average more than that.”
The reason they keep coming back is pretty simple.
“Food and people, people and food,” Ann says.
Sam has known Jerry for a number of years. “Always calls you by your name,” he says.
Ann mentions something similar, how every time they enter the restaurant “it’s like you just walked into family.”
The couple had no idea Jerry was selling the place.
“Just found out tonight,” Sam says.
Rita, who swears she’s in her early 80s but sure doesn’t look it, says how much she appreciates a place that has food older people can relate to. Nothing too wild, just downhome cooking.
They’re willing to give the new owners a shot, hoping they won’t change things too much.
“We’ll try it out,” Sam says.
“We’ll try it and hopefully come back,” Ann says.
Sam, Ann and Rita are just the type of customers that made buying City Café seem like such a good idea to Rob Day and his partners.
Day, Mark Price, Frank Reeves and Jason Burns are City Café’s new owners.
Day says there’s a big difference between taking over a failing restaurant and taking over a successful one with a good following like the City Café.
One of the most attractive things about the business to him was the relationship between the restaurant and its customers.
“Jerry obviously has built a great rapport with his clientele over the decades,” Day says.
Price thought the same thing about the restaurant.
“Jerry has created a great legacy here,” he says. “The staff members, as well as, customers are like family.”
Price emphasized that he and his partners all live in Brentwood. They’re not just some outsiders moving in to make a few bucks and then get out. “We’re in it to stay and make a great thing even greater,” he says.
That goes for the staff — all of whom are staying — and for the food.
“This is a meat-and-three and this is gonna stay a meat-and-three,” Price says.
Dwight Frazier has been working at that meat-and-three for 12 years. He used to work at a different location of the City Café that Cunningham had once operated. Altogether, he says he’s been with Cunningham for 25 years or so.
He wears many hats at the restaurant, kind of doing whatever needs to be done.
“I work the line. I set up the cold bar. I work the cash register. I wash the dishes. I work as a team player,” Frazier says.
Cunningham’s decision to sell at this moment makes sense to Frazier. Frazier has seen how hard his employer has worked over the years.
“I think the time is right and the season is right,” he says.
Still, that doesn’t mean Frazier is free of mixed emotions about the change in ownership. His feelings about the City Café, after all, run together with his feelings about Cunningham.
“I can’t put it into words,” he says. “I’m happy for him as well. Don’t get me wrong, but my relationship with him goes beyond these walls and doors.”
Back at his table, Cunningham reflects upon the many customers that have come through his restaurant’s doors since 1989.
Beata has gotten a special thrill seeing how they have turned the City Café into a social gathering place, a place to meet and greet familiar faces.
“One of the neat things, when I’m here, is people will come in and start visiting with people all over the place,” she says.
Jerry points out the table where Eddy and Sally Arnold used to sit when they were both regular diners here. He was glad to have them, but he didn’t really treat them any differently than any other customers, he says. Famous or not didn’t really matter to Cunningham.
“We treat ‘em all the same whether it’s the construction worker, the VIP or the music star,” he says. “It’s all the same to us.”
The conversation turns to food, the thing other than a nice atmosphere and warm personalities that has kept people coming back to City Cafe. Cunningham says there’s been “very little change” in that regard to the restaurant since it opened. There are the mainstays like turkey and dressing, fried chicken and pot roast. There are some newer items like tilapia.
“The vegetables have pretty much remained the same,” he says.
The food just works for people. The restaurant works for people. It wouldn’t have made it 27 years if it didn’t.
“We did pretty good,” Cunningham says.
The City Cafe opened Monday under its new ownership.