Even before the 1998 tornado graced East Nashville with its presence, there were a handful of brave entrepreneurs who had a vision of what our hip, little slice of paradise pie would become. Visionary Anita Hartel saw the potential in a rundown building at the corner of 14th and Woodland — most recently, home to Lipstick Lounge. Before Silly Goose, Lockland Table or Margot, there was Sasso. Hartel was the culinary genius behind this “best-kept secret.”
We recently had a chance to catch up over burgers and beers at Pharmacy Burger Parlor and Beer Garden, reminiscing about the days when folks didn’t care much for crossing the river: The days when Shirley’s was our local watering hole; Ron’s Super Saver only allowed two kids in at a time because they stole the candy; and Sasso was East Nashville’s “sacrificial lamb,” as Anita lovingly calls it. She and her husband, Mark Hayden Smith, bought an Inglewood home in 1984. One of her neighbors was Mrs. Miller, who died at the age of 99 and loved her East Nashville community. Mrs. Miller remembered selling eggs as a little girl to the grocery store that would one day become Sasso.
With the 1998 tornado came a series of steps that some may call revitalization. Hartel’s little “lamb” was certainly an agent of change during a time when she was asked, “Is it OK to park my car in your lot?” Her canned response was always, “I do!” Others may refer to this as gentrification, which doesn’t always evoke the most positive of feelings. “Any time you move a business into a community you need to respect the people that were here before you,” she explains.
After Sasso, Hartel became a Nashville Original favorite with Mambu and was a part of its most recent reincarnation, Rosebud Bistro on Hayes Street in Midtown. On June 1, the many acolytes who have revered her as a culinary mentor and have cherished her friendship raised a glass in her honor as she announced her retirement from the restaurant biz.
The following day Hartel found herself crying in her garden over the community she would miss. “It was like I had 50-60 people in my house every night. I knew the Smiths preferred a table by the window and the Joneses always started with my dumplings,” she explains. In a few more days, however, she’d figured out how “normal” folks spent their day. She had more time to be with her two kids, Isabel and Wilder, and plenty of time to dig in her garden. She loved making dinner for her family. After one of these “normal” days she looked up at the clock and realized it wasn’t even 6:30 yet. Hartel proclaims, “It’s a whole other world!”
With a garage full of art projects and a yard of raised garden beds, she’s hopeful that the next chapter of her life will be a less stressful one, affording the freedom to be her funky, creative self. Hartel says she may even be up for cooking in someone else’s kitchen from time to time. “Who knows, I may just start a worm farm,” she declares.
As Nashville’s restaurant community is bursting at the seams, our East Nashville Original offers a few words of advice for the next wave of visionaries:
Become a Roundsman. If you can’t multitask, you do not need to run a restaurant.
Have enough capital for advertising and other marketing efforts. People are not going to just walk through your door.
Don’t become friends with the people who work for you; they don’t understand your name is on the mortgage. Just know that it can be really difficult to maintain that friendly barrier.
Hartel is emphatic about sharing her gratitude for her husband: “We moved here because of my dream, and I could not have done it without Mark,” she says with a loving smile. “Behind every successful woman, there is a great partner!”
Chefs often are asked what their last meal would be. Anita Hartel may never request okra or eggplant for her last meal, but she does desire the content of her epitaph to read:
“Anita never ate a McDonald’s hamburger.
She never drank a cherry coke.
Never would she watch a John Wayne movie.
She never got a tattoo!”
That last part she has started to reconsider, by the way.