Established & New Eateries Commit To Sustainable, Locally Sourced Ingredients
A t first glance, it might seem that two of Nashville’s most happening spots have nothing in common: One staked its claim at the city’s western horizons just one year ago; the other is an established East Nashville pioneer. One menu offers a fresh twist on Southern favorites; the other features French fine dining. One started out as a music venue with food before their neighbors started bringing their kids to dinner; the other had practically established its identity before its doors even opened.
Do the Stone Fox and Margot Cafe have anything in common? Of course, we’re talking about two wildly differing visions, but a Venn diagram of the two restaurants would find them overlapping perfectly in their commitment to sustainable agriculture, locally sourced ingredients, and the idea that fresh food is the only kind worth making—or eating.
The Stone Fox
A native Nashvillian, Emi Mimms learned her way around the kitchen at home and at well-known Nashville nosh spots.
“I moved back home after college and got a job at Bread & Company. After that, I started working with the Vanderbilt dining program,” she recalls. Mimms graduated from the School of Visual Arts in New York City, where her palate also got an education in one of the world’s tastiest cities.
The Stone Fox, which opened in September 2012, may be best described as “Southern fresh.” Although there is plenty of meat on the menu, it’s the produce that’s really on display—with burgers like the Fox on Fire, which is dressed with house-made spicy kimchi, pickled jalapenos, and smoked habaneros, or Elise’s Favorite, which goes beyond the expected lettuce and tomato to also include an onion ring, sliced avocado, and sweet pickles.
The latter is named for Elise Tyler, a co-founder of the Stone Fox along with her brother William. The Tylers grew up in Nashville and their hometown touch is one reason for the Stone Fox’s success.
“The gentrification of this whole area of Charlotte has been in the works for a long time,” says Mimms. “Elise and William had such a unique vision because they know this neighborhood so well. They saw this huge gap. There’s not another venue like this in Nashville.”
William Tyler is an indie-music guitar hero whose connections with Nashville’s music scene and beyond instantly made the Stone Fox one of Nashville’s most happening and eclectic stages.
“No two nights are ever the same,” says Mimms. “One night it’s country and the next it’s some crazy, wild go-go dance party.” Out-of-town bands that stop to play the venue are often given access to the house that Elise Tyler owns across the street. While the space is a godsend to ragged road warriors, the backyard’s box gardens are what interest the Stone Fox’s diners most.
The garden brims with heirloom tomatoes, greens, lettuces, pumpkins, and watermelons. The last of a season’s strawberries barely cling to their own vines, and baseball-sized onion bulbs burst through the soil, just begging to be sliced to top a hot, juicy cheeseburger. The small house is surrounded by a thriving herb garden. The beets from the garden are the main ingredient in the Fox’s garden burger. All of the vegetable scraps are used for stocks or recycled into the garden’s composting.
“I’d like to do it 100% from the garden if we could,” says Mimms about her kitchen produce. Produce that can’t be sourced from across the street can usually be found through local growers like Green Door Gourmet, located just down the road from the restaurant.
The Stone Fox was always poised to be a destination for Nashville rockers and their fans. But it’s become a neighborhood favorite for providing a fun space to eat, drink, and listen to music at a price point—($10 or less for lunch!)—that doesn’t exclude the working-class community who has called the Charlotte Avenue area home for years.
Back in the 1990s, if a young chef had suggested opening a fine dining restaurant in East Nashville, in a space built in the 1930s that was formerly the home of a gas station, they’d have been mistaken for a comedian or maybe even a crazy person. But in 2001, that’s exactly what Margot McCormack did. And it changed East Nashville and the entire local food scene forever.
McCormack’s love for cooking and food started in the kitchen of the Nashville home where she grew up—spending weekends with her mother, baking bread and frying doughnuts. She got her first restaurant job when she was a student at UT Knoxville and started working for restaurateur Jody Faison when she returned home after graduation. Faison encouraged McCormack to be curious about ingredients and to experiment with new flavors. The experience eventually inspired her to attend the Culinary Institute of America and become a chef.
After completing the two-year program, McCormack headed to New York City, where she settled down in the kitchen of Danal in the East Village. At Danal, McCormack learned a menu of rustic dishes from France and Italy, and in these unpretentious combinations of ingredients, she began to find her own voice as a chef.
McCormack returned to Nashville in 1996, building a local following at F. Scott’s over the next five years. It’s no surprise that it didn’t take her long to launch her own place. Partnering with businessman Jay Frein, the duo started putting a plan together and looking for the perfect space.
East Nashville was the farthest away from all the other places that I already knew.” When a former sous chef from F. Scott’s spotted the Fluty’s Service Station building on Woodland in the Five Points neighborhood, that sealed the deal.
“The parking lot was all crumbled and there were syringes and beer cans all over,” recalls McCormack. “It was a mess. The patio was already there, but it was under waist-high weeds.” Working with landlord March Egerton, the space was transformed into a cozy dining space with exposed brick walls and an inviting open kitchen design. The roof was raised to create a space for upstairs seating, and the entire design seems equal parts inspired expertise and improvised opportunity, much like the restaurant itself.
“People mistake us for this really highbrow restaurant. But we have a great combination of smart and stupid, sassy and sweet, talent and work. Fortunately, we had what people were looking for. We have white tablecloths but I cook in a t-shirt, and we still don’t charge what many of our peers charge.”
While the support of local journalists like Kay West helped to make sure Margot would have a successful launch, it’s been McCormack’s food that has made the place into an institution for over a dozen years. The menu’s bistro dishes are pulled from the techniques, ingredients, and recipes of the Provence region of France and Tuscany, Italy. But don’t let the far-flung food fool you: much of what you’ll eat at Margot can be found fifteen minutes from their front door.
“We still embrace Southern ingredients,” says McCormack. “I’ve never seen okra in a French dish, but I’m still looking.” For the rest of her produce, the chef teams with Tana Comer from Eaton’s Creek Organics in Joelton. They’re certified organic and the restaurant regularly sources their carrots, beets, spring lettuce, and herbs from the farm. “But Tana’s always game for anything,” McCormack insists. “We’re doing everything: frisee, kale, escarole, arugula, eggplant, blackberries, strawberries, and tomatoes.”
Although she’s looking forward to the fall—trying out new broccoli rabe recipes and bringing game like venison, quail, duck, and upland birds to the table—McCormack’s food always glances back to the past and to the places where the Western culinary traditions were born.
“There are things from the past that I don’t want to see slip away,” she says. “We should remember and pay homage.”