NASHVILLE — When Michael King talks about the celebrated corn pudding at his Nashville mainstay, Monell’s, he pronounces it like a Southerner: “Corn puddin’. ”
Not unexpected from the founder of a family-style Southern restaurant, except for one thing. King was raised in the small Central Massachusetts village of Otter River before relocating to the Tennessee capital 29 years ago. When he opened his first Monell's location in the city's historic Germantown neighborhood on Thanksgiving Day 1995, just a stone's throw from Music Row, the thought of a Northerner making traditional Southern comfort food struck even King as strange. "Can you believe it? A Yankee cooking fried chicken," says King, 48. "Go figure."
That day, he fretted, predicting "five or six people" would show up for Thanksgiving dinner. He served 80. Now, he typically has a three-hour holiday wait, churning through about 750 diners in his 72-seat restaurant.
Monell's has become a year-round destination, drawing a constant stream of tourists and locals, and seating them around the same table. Housed in an elegant 1880 brick building, the restaurant was modeled after a Depression-era boarding house, where strangers and family would gather around overwhelming portions of food that they'd pass to the left.
Entering through a gorgeous courtyard, the place has four rooms but only six long wooden tables, including a backroom with just one place to sit, simply called "the kitchen table." Monell's mantra of "Enter as strangers, leave as friends" is practically forced, as patrons are seated next to whoever else wanders in around the same time. We find ourselves with a large group of college girls loudly discussing the previous night's drinking antics and a young couple who mostly keep to themselves. When newcomers arrive, King can often detect apprehension about eating with random pockets of strangers. But soon, he says, they'll be getting recommendations about where to go and what to see in Nashville.
"The response is always that they remember [the experience]," King says. "Then when the food comes out, they're like, 'Oh my God, stop already.' "
Sure enough, the food arrives in an onslaught and seemingly doesn't let up until you say so. Fixed prices are attached to lunch and dinner menus (prices range from $12.77 to $18.76 and are higher on weekends). Each day of the week has its specialties, like chicken and dumplings and meatloaf on Mondays or fried catfish and spinach lasagna for lunch on Fridays. Meats are the same each day but the accompanying vegetables change.
The only truly consistent menu is the weekend country breakfast ($13.27), an enormous draw. The place was jammed one Sunday with the after-church crowd. Classic Southern biscuits and gravy, cinnamon rolls, and coffee arrive first, with fried apples, cheese grits, hash browns, and corn pudding close behind. Before you can fill your plate, and certainly before you can start digging in, another batch of food is set down: pancakes, scrambled eggs, and a towering meat platter with smoked sausage, bacon, and country ham. Finally, perhaps the most amazing skillet-fried chicken you may ever encounter — something King says may be scoffed at north of the Mason-Dixon Line, but remains a staple of the Southern breakfast. Monell's serves this fried chicken at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. On a typical Sunday, King says the Germantown location goes through about 4,000 pieces of chicken and his four restaurants use about 14 tons a month.
"The numbers are staggering," he says.
When King purchased the Germantown space, the neighborhood was questionable, still displaying the intricate architecture of the German immigrants who populated the area in the 1800s, yet crippled by decades of crime and deteriorating conditions. He has since been at the forefront of the area's rebirth; prices now hover around $300 per square foot.
King has expanded beyond Germantown, at one point operating seven locations around Nashville, but has since scaled back to four very different Music City restaurants: the Germantown staple, an on-the-go cafe, the 19th-century FitzGerald Manor in Gallatin, and a palatial mansion often used for weddings. He still regularly receives franchise requests from around the country, but he's content with the size of his operation.
"Sometimes bigger's not better," King says. "The Germantown one is my original so it's where my heart is. It's been good to help revitalize the neighborhood and to establish a go-to place that Nashvillians call their own."
Judging by the line out the door, those Nashvillians — and plenty of out-of-towners — appreciate it, too.
Monell's in Nashville 1235 6th Ave. North, Nashville, 615-248-4747, www.monellstn.com