With just under 24 hours from the minute we landed in Nashville to the wheels-up time for our flight home, our trip to Music City was going to be a whirlwind. Though a chunk of our evening would be spent at the Ryman Auditorium with Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit for the first night of their weeklong residency, that still left enough time for a few Southern meals.
The first stop: a hearty breakfast with a side of history at Woolworth on 5th.
As one of the first sites of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement lunch counter sit-ins, the space itself held national significance. Congressman John Lewis, then a local student at Fisk University, was first arrested here as a participant in the non-violent protests against segregation.
Now a full-blown restoration has peeled the layers away, bringing the historic building back to its iconic roots. Woolworth on 5th opened in February 2018—58 years to the month after the first lunch counter sit-ins took place—with a look and feel that’s nostalgic, comforting, elegant, and dazzling all at once.
Original details, like the cast iron balcony railing encircling the first-floor dining room and the terrazzo floors throughout, are augmented by restored and rebuilt elements that blend midcentury and Art Deco details.
The first-floor lunch counter is a modern reconstruction, but on the mezzanine, you can see a few of the original chairs from that counter as well as the spots marking the terrazzo where the rest of the chairs formerly installed.
With a lower-level ballroom, a mezzanine lounge, and evenings with live music, this Woolworth is no longer exactly the basic lunch counter of the past, and the menu is more than simple diner fare.
Whether for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, there’s a focus on Southern ingredients and traditions with firmly 21st-century elements—a vision that matches the space the dishes are served in. Fried green tomatoes are paired with bruléed goat cheese and red pepper jam; hummus is made with butter beans and served with chow chow and grilled flatbread.
But since it wasn’t even 10:30 am when we sidled up to the lunch counter, a serious breakfast was in order for us.
Craggy fried chicken—clearly one of the first priorities when sitting down to eat in Nashville for the first time—is a no-brainer when it’s snuggled between buttery biscuits and blanketed by good old American cheese. Sausage gravy is also an an option, though my basic-biscuit husband needed his sandwiches and crispy potatoes unadorned.
If that sounds too traditional or if you feel like something more experimental, the corn cakes are the revelation you’ve been waiting for.
A lavish spread of housemade pimiento cheese binds together two savory-sweet corn cakes, which are topped with two fried eggs poised to ooze their yolks at the slightest pressure. A dollop of collard green pesto peeks out from beneath a criss-cross of fiery jalapeño-crusted bacon.
When placed on the counter, the mostly monochromatic stack might not look like much, but its layers of flavor are hidden treasures. And that bacon is spicy enough that you’ll likely be tempted to wash it down with a chocolate malt or RC cola float.
If the food didn’t live up to the surroundings at Woolworth on 5th, it would be a severe disappointment. But based on our memorable visit, I can see this historic Nashville spot being poised for a long future as a new community icon that pays testament to the past.
Woolworth on 5th, 221 5th Avenue North, Nashville TN. Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily.
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