Middle Tennessee's rapid growth can easily be illustrated by its ever-changing restaurant scene.
New residents and new investment have brought new flavors to town — but they've also pushed out neighborhood favorites that can't keep up in a game where the players are always changing.
Several longtime restaurants lost leases this year, unable to stay competitive in Nashville's red-hot real estate market. Restaurant owners said it was "heartbreaking" to lose their space, and they'll face an uphill battle if they want to find an affordable place to relocate.
The ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which hit the hospitality industry harder than almost any other business sector, made things even harder. While vaccines and social distancing measures allowed restaurants to welcome more customers than they did in 2020, the ongoing pandemic still cut into sales. In some cases, that forced restaurants that had weathered the first year of the pandemic to close for good.
Other restaurants had happier endings. Some closed because the owners were ready for a well-earned retirement, and at least one restaurant yielded its space to another longtime restaurant searching for a permanent home after losing its lease.
Here are some of the highest profile restaurant closings in Middle Tennessee in 2021.
Nashville lost a piece of history when Rotier's, one of the city's oldest restaurants, closed in February. The ever-present home for cheeseburgers first opened in 1945 and was most recently run by second-generation owner Margaret Ann Rotier Crouse. The restaurant, located less than a block from Centennial Park on Ellston Place, struggled during the COVID-19 pandemic, she said, but the final straw came when the building's owners told the family they would not renew the restaurant's lease.
"This has been here since I was born. It’s hard," Crouse told The Tennessean. "But it's been really fun. Everybody came in and talked and told stories about their lives. Their grandparents brought them here. Multiple generations. They really enjoyed being here, and that makes me happy."
Rotier's $8 burgers were legendary, appearing on several "best burgers" lists from local and national publications. Crouse said her family may look for a new full-time location for the restaurant, but the French bread burgers returned at a temporary burger stand in Bridgestone Arena during the Nashville Predators' Stanley Cup Playoff series against the Carolina Hurricanes.
Cheeseburger gone to paradise: Rotier's Restaurant closes after 75 years of serving one of Nashville's best cheeseburgers
Nashville's late night dining scene got a little dimmer in October with the closure of Hermitage Cafe. The old-school diner was just as famous for its breakfast plates as it was for its 10 p.m. to 1 p.m. operating hours, and it fueled thousands of late nights and early mornings downtown.
The land on which the restaurant operated for over 30 years sold, owner Sherri Taylor Callahan posted on Facebook, and the restaurant's last day was on Halloween 2021.
"(Local restaurants) are unfortunately dying, they are being pushed out. If Covid is not closing these places down, gentrification is," the post said. "Right now mom and pop’s need the community's support more than ever."
Hermitage Cafe to close: Nashville's iconic Hermitage Cafe will close its doors at the end of the month
Eastland Cafe was one of the first restaurants to prove East Nashville has an appetite for great food. The restaurant opened in 2006 and became a local favorite for date nights, anniversaries and family dinners long before trendy eateries and businesses started popping up in the highly sought after neighborhood.
"We wanted to be a neighborhood bistro, people's local hang. Almost like 'Cheers,'" said co-owner Willy Thomas. "Just a really good quality neighborhood restaurant. I feel like we accomplished that."
Willy and his wife and co-owner, Yvette stressed that their decision to close had nothing to do with the coronavirus pandemic. The space now houses Samurai Sushi East.
'It was time to change:' Eastland Cafe ends 14-year run in East Nashville's restaurant scene
Sunset Family Restaurant
Need proof that Sunset Family Restaurant meant the world to its Lebanon-area customers? The Tennessee General Assembly issued a proclamation recognizing the beloved eatery's accomplishments when it closed in October, highlighting more than 60 years of country meals and desserts.
The restaurant first opened in 1959, and longtime owners Bob and Virginia Hodge became co-owners eight years later in 1967. The two became sole owners in the 1980s and have sold the building to retire.
"We've had good loyal customers and that is what's kept us here," 83-year-old Bob Hodge said.
It was a rough year for Benchmark, the Second Avenue bar in downtown Nashville. The building was hit by the Christmas Day 2020 bombing — "a severe case of 2020 and unknown explosion on Christmas Morning," as they posted on Facebook — but was finally able to reopen in late April 2021. Just days later, the restaurant posted on Instagram that they would close for good on Sunday, June 27.
"Our loyal customers, musicians, staff and THIS BUILDING over the past 8 years are what make Benchmark what it is today," the post read. "The memories made in this building fill our hearts with so much happiness and gratitude."
In later comments on Instagram, the restaurant stated that the building owner was not renewing their lease.
The Old Spaghetti Factory
It was a similar story at The Old Spaghetti Factory, another Second Avenue restaurant rocked by the Christmas Day bombing. The longtime staple for family celebrations and date nights closed due to damage sustained during the blast, but the building's owner terminated the restaurant's lease in February.
"We are incredibly disappointed by the letter sent by our landlord as they are using this tragic event to terminate our lease," Old Spaghetti Factory president Dean Griffith wrote in a statement. "Our restaurants and teams have endured the most challenging year, which was punctuated by the bombing. We hoped the landlord would work with us, but they are making a business decision to have us removed."
Spaghetti Factory won't reopen: Old Spaghetti Factory in Downtown Nashville won't reopen following bombing, lease termination
Fran's East Side
Cinderblock walls. Cheap domestic beer. Belting karaoke singers. An atmosphere so smoky and irresistible you'd smell it on your clothes hours after last call.
Fran's East Side was proof that a bar doesn't have to be complicated to be great, and it kept that ethos right until it poured its last drink on Oct. 30. The East Nashville haunt was an unchanging haven for longtime residents in the gentrifying neighborhood, but like many longtime businesses this year, it lost its lease and has so far been unable to find a new location.
PM served its first sushi rolls and Thai bowls in 2003 and quickly became a favorite for students and residents around Belmont University. Owners Arnold and Anna Myint announced the restaurant would be closing in June, but the news came with two silver linings for people who love old-school eats in Nashville.
For one thing, closing PM meant they had more time to focus on International Market 2, a revival of their parents' much-beloved Thai restaurant and market that opened in October. What's more, the former PM space now houses Athens Family Diner, another longtime Nashville eatery that was forced to move from its original Melrose location.
Stepping inside Smeraldo's off Gallatin Pike in Madison, you got the sense that the unassuming, rarely busy Italian eatery had stories to tell. The place was like a time machine, from the décor that seemed like it hadn't changed from its 1980s and 1990s heyday to an upstairs club area that sat closed, waiting for one last band to play. Longtime owner Biagio Sosta retired this year, ending the restaurant's nearly four-decade run.
Hog Heaven Family Restaurant & Steakhouse
White Bluff favorite Hog Heaven was an all-day staple in Dickson County, serving hot coffee and smoked barbecue for 30 years. The iconic local restaurant was destroyed in a fire on Oct. 28, and while there were no injuries reported, it's unclear if it will ever reopen.
Owner Linda Gentry had a tough 2021 even before the fire. She spent the first months of the year battling a life-threatening illness and then lost her husband in April due to complications from heart bypass surgery.
"My heart is so weak I can't walk anymore," she said. "It's been a bad year."
Fire totals business: White Bluff staple Hog Heaven family restaurant a total loss in Thursday fire
Maryland Farms lunch favorite Farmland Cafe closed in the fall. The restaurant relied heavily on the office crowd for business, and owner Eric Crilly said their absence during a year of work-from-home contributed to the restaurant's closure.
"Without that, the business doesn't exist," Crilly said. "And now it doesn't exist."
Views from the lunch hour: Middle Tennessee restaurants are still grappling with the pandemic
Pork Belly Cafe
Lennox Village sandwich shop Pork Belly Cafe closed its doors in April after over five years in business.
East Nashville mainstay PizzeReal, ended its run at Five Points early in 2021. The shop was a hotspot for pizzas and pints even before trendier eateries moved into the area around the 2010s.
Cole Villena covers business at The Tennessean, part of the USA Today Network — Tennessee. Reach Cole at email@example.com or 615-925-0493. Follow Cole on Twitter at @ColeVillena and on Instagram at @CVinTennessee.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: These Nashville restaurants served their last meals in 2021