Jimmy Kelly's was the first Nashville restaurant I walked into. I had flown to the city in the spring of 1981 for a job interview. My sister Bopsie and my good friend Kathy Wilder came with me, and we stayed at the Holiday Inn Vanderbilt on West End Avenue. Not one of my friends, and no one in my family, thought Nashville was a good idea. My father, a New England chauvinist, was appalled. "Why would you want to move to Dogpatch?" he asked. When he came to visit for the first time he was incredulous. "Where did all this money come from?" he wondered. My father read a lot of Faulkner.
Thirty years have proved my friends and family wrong. I came. I stayed. And Jimmy Kelly's- open since 1934- is still here.
Though not at the same address. These days it is over on Louise Avenue. Then it was on Harding Road, just south of St. Thomas Hospital. It was a small stone building later razed for a gas station. Its specialty was steaks and corn cakes. Steaks I knew, but never corn cakes. And never had we seen anything like the waiters.
Years later, the Nashville Scene(back when it was worth reading) gave Jimmy Kelly's one of its joke awards for "employing the deceased". It was making fun of the white-coated, grizzled old black waiters who worked there. But the waiters have always had the last snicker- for they were actors. And Jimmy Kelly's was theater.
That day in 1981 we saw this first hand. A table of well-fed businessmen, one wearing a Stetson, sat across from us. They were already eating. And their waiter shuffled up to check on them.
"Is it cooks to perfection, Sir?", he asked, "Just the way you likes it?" I did not hear what they said, but Kathy Wilder could not control herself. "He just got himself a fifty dollar tip", she said. And I am sure she was right. Those cagey waiters knew how to grovel in style. For them, it was the Show.
I do not know if this still goes on. I have not been to Jimmy Kelly's in 20 years. But by now all those old waiters are deceased. And have they been replaced by more actors, just as clever, and getting even bigger tips? Perhaps not. Times have changed. But this is always the way I will remember my meal there, and my first taste of this city.