Brown’s Diner lures eclectic crowd
……..with cold beer, juicy burgers
You just can’t talk about Brown’s Diner without talking about burgers.
But as burger experiences go, much more matters than what lies between the buns. It’s a vibe thing. And nowhere is that more evident than this ramshackle trolley car off 21st Avenue, not far from Hillsboro Village, that has drawn a varied group of folks for meals and music since 1927.
Tennessean music columnist Peter Cooper sent us off to 101 Minutes this month at Brown’s Diner. As a journalist and songwriter, he’s confabbed at Brown’s with the likes of Nanci Griffith, Pat McInerney and David Olney. Brown’s is a known haunt for music types. Peter recommended we visit about 4:30 p.m. on a weekday, when the all-day crowd melds with the after-work crowd and the room rings with conversation and songs from the jukebox.
It was just before shift change, and Terry Young, a 30-year veteran of Brown’s, manned the bar. We joined just one other couple — a woman in a tank top with neon pink nails and a man in a Hawaiian shirt. A television in the corner played Olympics coverage.
“What do you have on draft?” I asked. “Budweiser and…”
“Bud and Bud,” Terry said.
The bar at Brown’s seats about 14 under a low ceiling and cocoon of earth-colored wood lit by neon signs and a few strings of Christmas lights. The barstools look well-lived-in — blue swivel chairs with comfortable backs — and sit up on a ledge with worn tile. Stepping up takes a smidge more effort than just sliding onto a regular stool; a position must be assumed as if to say, “Alright, let’s do this.”
Our beers arrived in cold frosty mugs. “I don’t even have to look,” my dining companion Tony said, moving the menu aside.
We ordered burgers and a bowl of chili, which a man named Rocco makes fresh daily in the kitchen. Meanwhile, the couple moved to the jukebox and played a song by Jethro Tull that (we realized later) lasted nearly the entire 101 Minutes.
Whether you’re a fan of Jethro Tull or not, something about the groovy epic nature of the song seemed to match the place.
And then our friend Laws Rushing arrived, swinging open the front door and saddling up beside Tony.
“Hey Gordy,” he said to the white-haired bartender who had come on the clock.
Laws has been coming to Brown’s for more than 10 years. He lived with his brother Dwayne down the street for many years, and as a musician (who also happens to be our real estate agent), he has played at Brown’s several times, too.
Laws didn’t need the menu, either, when he ordered a burger with grilled onions and a Pepsi.
A waitress named Daphne McFarland stuck her head through the server window behind the bar to say hello. She’s been at Brown’s for 23 years.
“Gordy’s been here even longer,” Laws said.
Gordy paused in mock drama.
“Twenty-three years,” he said. “And 10 minutes.”
Diner draws all kinds
As for the burgers, one of my favorite things to inspect is how they stack up, literally. It affects the experience.
The Brown’s version arrived with a swipe of mayo on the bottom half of bun, followed by shredded lettuce (better than leaves, which cause too much slippage), tomato, thick patty and mound of grilled onions held on by a melty slice of American cheese. It’s crowned with the top bun, a tuft of pickles and toothpick driven through the center like a stake to hold it steady.
It’s a juicy burger that takes both hands and some gumption, but it’s still older-school in size. You won’t have to use a fork or unhinge your jaw.
The chili, a deep red, came loaded with kidney beans and draped with a single square slice of American.
As we ate, Laws told stories, including a few we shouldn’t print. Brown’s has been a legendary hang for both struggling and successful of musicians.
“It’s a sociological wonder,” owner Jim Love told me later. Even though the clientele might live in different tax brackets outside the trolley car, you wouldn’t know it over drinks and dinner. “Everybody is pretty much equal,” he said.
Laws told of meeting Cowboy Jack Clement at Brown’s one night. He wound up driving the legendary producer home in his white Cadillac. This tale led to a conversation — with Gordy chiming in — about why the producer hasn’t been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. It’s a place you’d expect many conversations turn to music.
“Gordy, you been playing any?” Laws asked the man who he said leans toward a Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan style.
“I was up here last night,” he said.
Love purchased the business nearly 40 years ago to supplement an $8,400-a-year student teaching salary.
A Nashville native, he can rattle off the history of the building. It has the oldest beer license in Nashville, for example, and the original owner, Charlie Brown, built a foundation around the wheels of the trolley car to save on taxes. A mobile structure would have cost him more, but the wheels still sit underneath the building.
Love caused a stir in the 1980s when he added the back dining room onto the building. He pointed to framed clippings on the back wall. “One hopes modernization won’t turn the flavor of Brown’s bland,” read a headline in The Tennessean. That was in April of 1986, and Brown’s has survived with soul intact, of course.
But as Peter noted: The dining room’s “just the room you walk through to go to the bathroom.” The bar really does host the action, though plenty of folks do prefer the quieter atmosphere in the dining room — especially families and the lunch crowd.
The building survived fire, too. It melted the TVs and damaged the Budweiser sign over the bar. Like a snow globe without the floating glitter, the sign holds eight plastic Clydesdales pulling a beer truck. It’s like a Rembrandt of bar art, and only a few of the signs remain in Nashville.
Love still has the damaged version at
home to refurbish, but in the meantime, a customer loaned him one that hangs on the wall today. Much of Brown’s unintentional decor has a quirky vintage feel. A stack of phone books sit on a stool. A calendar hangs with show fliers on the wall.
By the time our 101 Minutes ended, our burgers had been reduced to a few sloppy drops of mayo on the plate. Every seat at the bar was taken. For 101 minutes no one talked about Chick-fil-A or the upcoming presidential election, and no one talked about work. We just ate and drank and kept an eye on the Olympics. We listened to music and talked about the people who make it.
A new friend sitting next to me urged us to come back on another night for the music, and Gordy held the remote over the heads of patrons to flip one of the TVs to another game.
“Sports and music,” he told a customer, “cross lives way more than politics do.”
And I would add that burgers do, too.
Contact Jennifer Justus at 259-8072 or HYPERLINK “mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org” email@example.com.