The new counterculture lives in the middle.

Arnold’s Country Kitchen: A Requiem

Arnold's, It's been good to know ya. Photo by Chuck Allen
So long, Arnolds, It's been good to know ya. Photo by Chuck Allen

What’s Going On

On January 7, after more than 40 years serving Southern-style meat-and-three favorites to generations of Nashvillians from an unassuming cinderblock shack in Midtown, the legendary Arnold’s Country Kitchen closed its doors forever.

The family sold the building, which they owned outright, and they say they’re going out on their own terms. Furthermore, co-owner Khalil Arnold, son of founders Jack and Rose, promises more Arnold’s goodies to come, including a cookbook and, eventually, a restaurant of his own.

But for now, at least, Arnold’s is consigned to fond, deep-fried memories.

In addition to being a beloved local restaurateur himself, Tom Morales is a longtime family friend of the Arnolds’. After the news broke, Tom decided to catch up with his old friend Rose, the Arnold family matriarch.

“Call Rose Arnold,” I said to Siri.

As the phone rang, I was thinking, “Oh how things have changed since the early ’80s, when Arnold’s meat-and-three first opened for business.”

My intention was to catch up with Rose and see how she was feeling about closing her doors after 40 years. A familiar voice answered, just not the one I was expecting.

“Savannah Arnold here. I’m acting as Rose’s secretary!”

I laughed out loud. Yeah, she must be getting lots of calls.

Savannah and my daughter, Lauren, grew up best friends. Savannah’s brother, Kahlil, was one of my first general managers at Loveless Cafe under our ownership. So this is a deep family connection, and it goes way beyond the restaurant world.

As Savannah and I chatted, I had no idea she was sitting in her mother’s hospital room. Savannah patiently answered my questions – the kind only a long-lost uncle would ask. The final one was, “How’s your mom handling closing?”

Savannah replied,  “Mom had a stroke. We have not said a word. No one knows yet.”

The pit in my stomach deepened as I rattled off the typical questions: “How’s she doing? When did it happen? What do the doctors say? Do you need anything?” Savannah was attempting to respond to that litany when I heard a voice in the background.

“Let me talk to him,” said Rose.

Reminiscing with Rose

Rose and I have known each other for the better part of 35 years. We are friends. And that’s what fed my anxiety. The closing of the iconic, family-owned restaurant felt tragic for our community. Not quite a death in the family, but close to it. Arnold’s was one of the last “meat and three” links between country comfort food and city life. That plate full of choices felt like dinner at home to many of us.

I’d stopped by Arnold’s for lunch recently. It’s one of the stress-reducing rituals I’ve clung to. I could count on feeling special, my worries vanishing as soon as I caught a glimpse of an Arnold, usually Kahlil’s big smile at the carving station.

During this particular visit, Rose had hinted that she had an offer to sell the property that Arnold’s sat on. She knew in her heart of hearts that even if she could work another 100 years grinding out meals, she’d never make what she could make by simply selling the property. Her eyes met mine, forlorn with the need to be free from the incessant stress of running a restaurant. She broke eye contact, shook her head and said, “I don’t even have the nerve to tell the kids. …” The silence that followed was her answer. We both knew what she was going to do.

I prepared myself for a wide range of emotions. The heaviness of leaving a chapter of your life behind, even with a pot of gold to numb the pain, is daunting. So would this hospital phone call be greeted with joy or sadness? Would she see the bright side, or mourn the loss? I suspected it would be both.

The dysfunction of a family-run business can be overwhelming at times. I have experienced this myself. But ultimately, the food business is about the love of taking care of people. You can’t do it for the love of money. This industry is too hard, and it will break you. No, you do it for the smiles, the pats on the back, the thank yous. If you do that well, the money will follow.

Nashville was changing. The humble little big town had fallen in love with itself. The “It City” identity was largely driven by tourists and hotel room taxes. COVID hit. Real estate was at a premium. Rents rose as property prices skyrocketed, along with city taxes. And all of this was crushing the little guys lining Main Street. The small independent restaurants and businesses were on the front line fighting for survival.

Rose was the controller in chief. She kept it together and made it happen, but Arnold’s was a true family affair. Each Arnold compensated for the others, with the patience only a family could muster. Jack Arnold could be as cantankerous as Rose was sweet. Jack could also show you the best smallmouth lure to use on Jones Creek in great detail. Many days, his mood matched the previous day’s fishing exploits.

All the Arnold siblings were counted on to chip in. No matter how long the line out front was, it was showtime. Rose knew better than anyone there were always bills to pay, and she welcomed everybody with open arms. The Arnold’s saga was entertaining, and always worth the wait.

A lunchtime legacy

Fate Thomas Jr. introduced me to meat-and-threes when he took me to Hap Townes in the late ’70s. We became regulars at these ma-and-pa operations. If the line was too long at one, we’d try another. Back then, these country-fried buffets proliferated; sometimes across the street from one another but always with a lunch line out the door.

The politicians would make their grand entrances, glad-handing with the movers and shakers, their ties flipped over their shoulders to avoid the grease. They sat alongside a smorgasbord of country stars, bankers, and downtown worker bees. There was no hierarchy in these haunts, and the owners ensured that there was no cutting of lines or reserving of tables.

Chet Atkins was a regular at Arnold’s. On one visit, Jack approached to tell Chet about a smallmouth bass he had missed. “It was a 20-incher! Jumped three times, then spit the lure!” He reached into the pencil pocket of his overalls and retrieved the lure, the treble hooks caught on the shoulder strap. Chet was having none of it. With his typical understated humor, he looked at us and whispered, “He thinks I come in for his gingered sweet potatoes,” then slyly shifted his eyes toward Rose.

Rose recalled many a lunch when Chet would try to hold court at one of the coveted tables, which were meant to turn over for the next customer as quickly as possible. Jonathan, Chet’s grandson, sensing it was time to go, would grab him by the hand and lead him to the car. Each time, Chet would stop at the door, turn around, and tip his hat to the staff on his way out.

Rose told me she’d had a premonition about what would happen, after all these years of sacrifice, with the sale of the property. Down time, she told me, was always when she got sick. Holidays were her torment. “What if something were to happen to me?” she wondered. After all, this was the big Kahuna of “holidays” – nothing but blue skies and beach time were in her future.

Rose said she had worked her whole life, and never was able to slow down and enjoy it along the way. She was everybody’s friend, but she was ready for some “me” time. Her kids are grown, but she looks forward to getting to know her grandkids. As she pondered her prognosis, she told me, “You can’t change the inevitable. You can only embrace it. My new job will be learning how to loaf.”

Jack Arnold knew it was the bait that catches the fish. Nashville has become a town that makes deals to fund billionaires’ stadiums and gives them tax breaks to build bigger-is-better. Our leaders then turn their collective backs on the little guys who are struggling to hold on to the city’s personality, which is the lure that attracted the money hogs to the table in the first place. The unique individuals, be they meat-and-three operators or singers with a dream? What do we, as a city, do for them? It’s time we have a cultural incubator that feeds these sectors with the same kind of support that is going to the well-connected.

Rose is smiling and on the road to recovery. The Arnold family is resilient. Rose’s story is personal, and it will have a happy ending. I thank the Lord the Arnolds owned their property. As a community, our lament should be for the ones who can’t afford the rent.

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