Cooking a Culture of Community
In Lockeland Table, East Nashville has a friendly neighborhood hang with fine-dining sensibilities
Photography: Travis Commeau
At just after 4 p.m. on a Thursday, a couple of tourists from Pennsylvania arrive at the Lockeland Table Community Kitchen & Bar with some questions about hot chicken. Bartender and manager Jim Popp — who has been at the restaurant since day one — obliges, pouring them a Yazoo Dos Perros while offering the CliffsNotes origin story, and pointing out that Bolton’s is just about a mile away.
The tourists, Diane and Pete Borchet, have the bar mostly to themselves, having arrived right on time for Community Hour, Lockeland Table’s version of happy hour, with a portion of proceeds going back to local schools. Someone at Black Dog Beads in 5 Points suggested they come here, so they order a plate of three Korean beef tacos, one of Lockeland’s Community Hour specials, at the affordable price of $6.
But soon, the Borchets are outnumbered — in the best possible way.
Lockeland Table, which opened six years ago on Tomato Art Fest weekend, has aimed to be a community hang from the getgo. Owners Cara Graham and chef Hal Holden-Bache worked together as a front-and-back of the house duo at Eastland Café, before teaming up to open their own place. Then in 2014, two years after opening, Graham launched Community Hour, which has grown into a powerful fundraising force and way to connect neighbors — both the grown-up and tiny human varieties. Meanwhile, community has permeated every aspect of Lockeland Table — starting with the name, of course, but extending from the architecture to the farms and down to the plates and décor.
WHAT THE TABLE WAS DESIGNED FOR
By 4:30 p.m., Susannah Felts arrives for Community Hour with her daughter Thalia. Felts, who runs a nonprofit called The Porch Writers’ Collective, digs into a New Yorker while also enjoying tacos and a cocktail. Her 10-year-old daughter reads a book while munching on a cheese pizza and fries.
“It has very good food,” Thalia offers, as an official review. Then she relays a story about the time she came in during a busy Community Hour. Her family couldn’t find a seat, so a friend from her school shared space with them at the community table at the front of the restaurant.
That’s what the table was designed for, Graham says. Graham’s artist mother, Debbie, built the table, which seats 10, out of wood from an old barn on their family land. She designed other aspects of the restaurant as well, including a copper tree that hangs against an exposed brick wall. Graham and Holden-Bache also turned to neighbors for construction help, building a portioning wall that separates the bar and dining room, and attaching pieces of reclaimed moulding to the back dining room wall.
“We put a post on social media,” Holden-Bache says of those early days. “Probably 20 of us showed up that night.”
They worked to know their neighborhood during all phases of planning and construction. When the building still functioned as an art gallery (and artist John Guider’s studio), Graham and Holden-Bache asked to cook at the space’s final art opening, as a way to meet neighbors. And before they attended a Lockeland Springs Neighborhood Association meeting, a third generation East Nashville farmer named Kevin Baggett brought them a family photo of the space, from back when it operated as an H.G. Hill grocery store along the trolley line that ran through the neighborhood.
“Kevin got it from his grandmother,” Holden-Bache says. “They think it was opening day. It was organic in the timing because we were about to approach our architects. It made us excited . . . and then we obviously took it to the meeting.”
A blown-up version of that photo hangs on the wall, along with several other iterations of the building. For many years it served as a beauty parlor, so Graham and Holden-Bache left the shop’s mural on the side of the building and kept the phone number (which means they occasionally get calls for a color and cut). As a grocery, baskets of potatoes and apples perched out front, near signs on the windows for vinegars and coffee. They loved the idea of restoring the building to that early façade that shared a passion for food and welcoming community. Restoring the façade to its original design won them a Historic Preservation Award from the Metropolitan Historical Commission in 2013.
GROWING THE PROGRAM
As for Community Hour, Graham has been growing the program. Best Brands, the local wine and spirits distribution company, donated to the cause from the beginning, allowing the restaurant to serve $6 glasses of wine while also raising thousands of dollars for Lockeland Elementary Design Center around the corner. But she’s also recently added Butternut Rosé as sponsors, and Pickers Vodka.
Graham and Popp recently brewed a beer with locals New Heights Brewing, too, launched in late October, with a flavor profile that Holden-Bache helped design. Called Community Brown Ale, it has notes of sorghum, sea salt, and cardamom. The beer will be kegged and canned, to be sold in restaurants around town, expanding the program’s reach. Graham has also added Isaac Litton Middle Prep’s PTO to the program, and plans to host a kickoff event bringing parents and students of both participating schools together.
“It goes 100 percent to teacher needs,” she says of money raised from Community Hour, which could mean iPads for student use in the classroom or other supplies.
Teddy Balicki, 7, is a student at Lockeland Elementary (just as Thalia was a student before heading to middle school). He arrives at Community Hour with his mother Annie and sits at the pizza bar, playing with an Etch A Sketch while she attaches patches to his Cub Scout shirt. Tonight’s Community Hour serves as their spot between work and school and Teddy’s scout meet.
“We’ve been known to come three times a week,” Annie says. “The staff is long-lasting, and you actually make relationships.”
Hostess Dana Radford, for example, has known Teddy since birth, and he knows lots of staff by name (“KK,” or Kris Koon, is his favorite, he says). Haley Hagwood, a woman Annie met as a server, has even had Thanksgivings with Annie and Teddy’s family.
Teddy also knows Katie Struzick, a manager at Lockeland Table. “Look at Teddy with that thing,” she says from across the room, watching him work the Etch A Sketch. “Future architect.”
Struzick says eight out of 10 kids who come to Lockeland know where they keep the bag of toys and will march back to get them on their own. None of the toys have batteries or a power switch.
“The kids are putting down the phone,” she says.
Sometimes, though, if they’ve never used an Etch A Sketch, she’ll see them try to turn it on by pressing the white knob. “We show them,” she says, “and then they’re mesmerized.”
AN EXTENSION OF HOME
Back at the bar, Roderick Trestrail, owner of East Nashville’s Welcome Home shop, arrives to meet his friend Danny Bua, a former sous chef at Lockeland Table who now runs That Awesome Taco Truck.
“We met at Welcome Home,” Trestrail says. Lockeland Table also served as a special place for Trestrail and his wife, Jessica Reguli, when they were just starting their store in 2014. “We found a great refuge in [seats] seven and eight at the pizza bar,” he says. “It was a joy to watch them work.”
Chef Hal spots Bua and Trestrail at the bar and slips them some snacks: arancini, or fried rice balls with sauce. “It’s your fault we have them,” he jokes with Bua, who first suggested them for the menu. Accompanying the arancini is lamb ragu with crusty bread.
Holden-Bache also supports community with the choices he makes in sourcing local farms, including a favorite, White Squirrel Farm in Bethpage, Tennessee. He changes the menu occasionally to reflect the seasons and what’s growing on local farms, switching out summer melon and corn for fall produce like greens and winter squashes. But he also plates the food on pottery made in the restaurant’s backyard, at Summer Triangle Pottery, where ash from the oven goes into the pottery’s glaze.
As the time inches toward 6 p.m., when Community Hour ends, kids and families start to head out as the dinner reservations roll in. Brad Talley, who lives in the area, arrives with his Kindle to sit at the bar and read. He’s such a regular he even has a cocktail on the menu named for him: the Bradhattan. “It’s an extension of my home,” he says of Lockeland Table. “It’s comfort. I feel at home here.”
As happy hour turns to dinner, Community Hour menus are replaced with dinner menus, and Lockeland Table takes on the warm glow of a busy restaurant, its golden wood tones and hum of activity creating a comforting vibe.
Every bar seat is taken as diners sitting elbow to elbow dig into wood-fired pizzas with house-smoked sausage, or steaks in tangy chimichurri. Most seats in the dining room are occupied too.
A trio of bachelorettes even drop in for a quick bite, coming and going without incident. Holden-Bache slips Bua and Trestrail an extra container of lamb gravy with bread, packaged in a ziplock bag to go. Bartender and pastry chef Jaime Miller arrives to help hold down the bar, and Jim Popp puts 13 cocktail glasses on ice to chill, ready for an onslaught of orders for gimlets and bourbon cocktails.
And Talley, sipping on a Bradhattan, puts down the Kindle to make friends with the tourists.