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Few Nashville zip codes have been more impacted by New Urban Immigrants than 37212. The pedestrian, bicycle and stroller friendly area has seen many of its original early Victorians, 1920s four-squares and 1940s bungalows modernized and supersized, and ‘60s duplexes replaced with three-story homes that tower over their neighbors. Families fleeing outer suburbia for an address closer in don’t mind losing the yard but aren’t quite willing to give up their square footage, and are inarguably changing the residential landscape and demographic of the area.
Nowhere is the switcheroo happening more rapidly than the hotter-than-hot neighborhood now known as 12South, which has simultaneously seen a tremendous growth in commercial residents as restaurants and shops take over and rehab existing buildings on the two-lane north-south corridor. By far the most dramatic do-over has been the newly-opened Urban Grub on the east side of 12th Avenue, where a shabby self-service car wash stubbornly stood its ground for more than 25 years on a lot elevated about three feet off the street as if proud of its status as neighborhood eyesore.
Thus it wasn’t hard to spot veteran restaurateur Jay Pennington standing out front of the one of the two bays (which had been enclosed with glass garage doors in an attempt to raise the bar to custom detailing) on a dreary gray morning in March 2011, a roll of papers in his hand. And it didn’t take any arm-twisting to get him to unroll those papers and show a rough design of the new restaurant he and his long-time partner Billy Inman intended to build on that lot, using the two existing structures as the frame.
This ain’t Pennington’s first rodeo; he opened South Street in 1991, and created a sensation two years later with Bound’ry. Both were in his rearview mirror by 2008, when he partnered with pal John Ko to open Local Taco on Murphy Road. But he was still restless, looking to do something bigger.
“It’s like an itch! The original concept for Urban Grub was street food in a restaurant setting. I looked at the building where Whiskey Kitchen is now but didn’t get the lease. I looked at the old Virago building to do something called Fish Pit—a seafood and BBQ thing, but Fish & Co opened in the Adelicia. When I got this property, I was going to do it here, but then Fish & Co. moved to 12th. So over time, the concept just kind of evolved.”
The design of the building evolved along with the concept; making a giant from blueprint to the full-blown, multi-environment, 165 seat restaurant/bar/patio/beer garden that opened in late April.
“It got a little bigger,” he understates with a laugh. “We had to move things around once we actually got into the building. At different stages we’d step back and look at it, then make some changes. Billy, who worked with us on Bound’ry, does food service, facility and design consulting, big projects, so he was able to get some of the cooler, high tech equipment we wanted. But we saved a lot of the car wash, the two original buildings are still here. All the glass in the restaurant with the exception of the front doors was recycled from the car wash. A neighborhood guy, Michael Woodward, built the sliding wood-and-glass door to the beer garden and the tables in the bar.”
One of Pennington’s priorities was to clearly define the bar from the restaurant, so much so that there are two separate entrances under the huge wooden canopy. The door on the right opens to the hostess stand where you can request a table or booth in the main dining room, a table in the slightly more casual rear dining room, or one on the front (on 12th) or rear patio. The main dining room is pointedly television-free. “When I go out to eat, it’s about the food and the company I’m with, not television.”
The Urban Grub bar, equipped with several flat screens, is accessible by leaving the dining room and walking past the oyster bar which straddles the two areas and fronts the kitchen, or from the separate front entrance on the left. The entire menu is also available in the bar—lined on two walls with windows over the booths, and the beer garden in the rear, with a free-standing brick fireplace and flowering plants topping the wooden fence.
To open Grub, Pennington didn’t have to look far for his A-team; front-of-the-house maestros James Weathers and Garth Nash hearken back to Bound’ry. He met Executive Chef Edgar Pendley “when he was born, I know his parents,” and paired him with longtime friend and colleague Deb Paquette to create the opening Grub menu. (Pendley also built the three bars, Paige Easter painted the mural on the wall behind the oyster bar, and Inman’s daughter Leticia Gruber contributed the framed photos in the dining room.)
“I kind of came back to the Urban Grub concept with seafood and BBQ, oysters, smoked meats, cured meats, some southern dishes, some Mexican things,” explains Pennington. “We looked at what the neighborhood didn’t have, and added steaks and chops.”
In reality, the wildly diverse and intriguingly quirky Urban Grub menu is built on things the neighborhood didn’t already have. Pork fries for example. “That was my idea,” Pendley laughs. “It just seemed like the perfect bar food—fried pork strips with white BBQ sauce.” Even Pennington has been won over by the addictive snack. “When Edgar first told me, I thought, ‘gross!’ But then I tried them and they were damned good!”
“Damned good” also describes the wood-oven mushrooms served in a mini cast iron pan with toasted baguette; the baby wedge with pickled egg salad, candied bacon, roasted Romas, caramelized red onion and bleu cheese; the hearty house-smoked brisket enchilada; Billy’s Hot Chicken tacos—hot chicken strips encased in Wonder Bread; Pendley’s creamy-cheesy-smoky version of Shrimp & Grits; and the wood oven trout with roasted butternut squash, oranges, pecans and bacon vinaigrette. Mashed potatoes become a savory sundae with a choice of toppings like lobster claw meat, lump crab meat, truffle oil or applewood smoked bacon. “We’ve got some awesome equipment in the kitchen, and it’s a lot of fun to use, and to have so much creative freedom,” says Pendley.
“The menu will evolve,” says Pennington. “Edgar has about a dozen items on the back burner he wants to add. Every restaurant I’ve ever done, the customers eventually drive it where it goes.”
If that’s the case, the one thing that won’t be going anywhere—except flying out of the kitchen and onto tables—is pastry chef Megan Williams’ Banana Pudding Pie, which has driven even the most dessert-resistant diner to clean their plate. “We are selling about 60 of those a night,” says Pendley. “All her desserts have really taken off.”
Pennington agrees. “They have become such a draw that some of our customers think of the meal as a formality to get to dessert!”
Judging by the cars lined up on 12th awaiting the valet parking, the desserts are just one of the draws pulling people to the restaurant and 12South in droves. But Pennington—who has lived with his family in the neighborhood for more than a decade—keeps the folks who like him can walk to Urban Grub uppermost in his mind.
“I live here, too. I want to be a good neighbor. I feel like we have a place in the restaurant for whatever you’re looking for. I don’t want to leave anybody out. I want something we can all enjoy for all the different reasons we go out.”
Urban Grub Fish Pit & Southern Cantina
2506 12th Ave. S. 37212
Best Dishes: Fresh shucked oysters on the half shell; Wood Oven Mushrooms; Pork Fries; Baby Wedge; Billy’s Hot Chicken Tacos; Shrimp & Grits; Double Cut Pork Chop with Agave/Grain Mustard/Fresh Smoked Peaches; Wood Oven Trout; Banana Pudding Pie; Spicy Chocolate Cheesecake.
The Bar: Specialty cocktails, Peach Sangria, Frozen or Classic Margaritas by the pitcher or glass; wine by the glass(starting at $6) and bottle (starting at $22); extensive and interesting repertoire of beer on draft and bottled.
Noise Level: From conversational in dining room booths to loud and lively in the bar.
Televisions: In main bar and beer garden
Price Range: Roasted Edamame with ancho olive oil and truffled sea salt ($5); Pork Fries ($7); oysters (6 for $8, 12 for $14); Baby Wedge Salad ($9); Fish Tacos ($9); Shrimp & Grits ($19); House Smoked Brisket Enchilada ($11); Memphis Style Ribs ($19/slab); Double Cut Pork Chop ($19); 16 oz. Creekstone Farms USD Prime All Natural NY Strip ($43); Banana Pudding Pie ($12)
Hours: Tues-Sat. Bar open 4 p.m.-midnight; dining 5:30-10 p.m. Brunch Sat. and Sun. 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Lunch service begins in July.
Parking: Complimentary valet parking and street parking
Reservations: For large parties