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Woolworth on 5th

Woolworth on 5th revives an important piece of this city’s past, and provides a welcome gathering space.

Written By:  Erin Byers Murray

Photographers:  Emily Dorio

Restaurateur Tom Morales loves to spin a yarn. Whether he’s talking about how he revived the Loveless Café, which he purchased, revamped, and reopened in 2004, or renovated the Acme Feed & Seed, which opened in 2014 and is now a bustling restaurant and live music venue on Broadway, his stories weave tales of old and new Nashville and get peppered his own personal narrative.

With his newest opening, Woolworth on 5th, Morales’s stories now go deeper—the revival of this building is also the revival of a significant, and often painful, memory from our city’s history in the Civil Rights movement.

The original Woolworth building was one of the sites of the sit-in movement, when African American students, including Congressman John Lewis, sat at the lunch counter in non-violent protest of equal rights. Though the Woolworth lived on after that moment in time, and eventually became a desegregated space, the history faded out of view as the building took on other businesses, including a Dollar General store. Decades later, a new owner purchased the building and approached Morales about the lunch counter space. 

“I knew it needed to be saved,” Morales says, adding that he also knew it couldn’t be turned into a museum.

It needed to be a living space—one where people could feel, see, taste, and hear the past. And it needed to be a viable business. 

“First, as an entrepreneur, you have to create a business plan that will sustain the investment,” he says.

That plan, after more than a year of construction and a multi-million-dollar investment, has finally been brought to life as a three-story restaurant and live music space that honors the past while also providing a meaningful and tangible experience for visitors.  

“I remember being here as a kid at six years old. We’d get milkshakes as a treat,” Morales says.

But while his memories of the space are fond, many people’s are not. His hope is that by showcasing at least part of the space recreated to match its original form, specifically the lunch counter, and emphasizing that today, all are welcome to share and enjoy it, the space can be one of reconciliation and healing. 

“We did get people early on who thought we were appropriating, and profiting off a bad memory. But that was never our motivation,” he adds. He’s made efforts to bring in those who have a stake in the building’s history, including a diverse set of investors and consultants. “Our legitimacy is the history of the space itself. It is an authentic story. It takes research and study to bring that authenticity to light, which is what we’ve done.” 

The physical space is one manifestation of the past—you can still see where Woolworth display cases stood on the original floors, and tiles from the second-story lunch counter have been preserved in place. The menu is another. Though not intentionally historical, the selection at Woolworth takes its cues from the roots of Southern cuisine. Ingredients that have traced their way from Africa or South America are now layered in to Southern foods, and at Woolworth, the kitchen takes license in exploring those roots. There’s a sweet potato soup with kale and black-eyed peas, pickled shrimp with arugula and avocado, and hibiscus-brined pork chops served with chow chow.

Breakfast and lunch lean more classic with dishes like corned beef hash, which is dotted with black-eyed peas, and a “Hoppin’ John” omelet smothered in tomato gravy. Harissa laces the hot, fried chicken sandwich, and a dime store burger mimics the one you might imagine, or remember, from the building’s dime store days.

What to order:

Corned beef hash, $13
Sweet potato soup, $4 cup, $7 bowl
Fried chicken livers, $12
Kitchen peppered ribs, $26
Pork and peanut stew, $54 

To further the idea that this is not a museum but a gathering space, there is a bar upstairs, tucked away on the mezzanine where happy hour is filled with locals from nearby office towers. And down in the basement, there’s live music throughout the weekend. One part of Morales’ mission has been to re-introduce people to the music and musicians that were once relegated to the city’s black neighborhoods, at clubs along Jefferson Street and Jo Johnson Avenue. Today, artists like Charles “Wigg” Walker, who opened for James Brown, Etta James, and Otis Redding, light up the New Era Ballroom with soul and R&B to an audience that spans from 20 to 60-somethings and beyond.  

For Morales, the key to Woolworth’s success is not just the revival of the space, but what is offered inside. With good food and service, people will keep coming back, turning Woolworth on 5th into an essential gathering space downtown. One where people of all races, ages, and backgrounds can enjoy a piece of history brought to life.

As Morales continues to carry the story forward, narrating the building’s history alongside his own, he makes his message clear—and even added it to one section of the wall behind the lunch counter, with a message that reads: “You’re welcome at our table.”

221 5th Ave N, 615-891-1361; woolworthonfifth.com

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