With much of the original architecture in place, Woolworth on 5th recreates the lunch counters where student sit-ins changed the country forever.
In February, the new Nashville restaurant Woolworth on 5th opened in a very different climate than that of the original Woolworth, a locus of suffering for some and oblivious childhood nostalgia for others.
The new restaurant reprises the original department store space, which was the site of the February 1960 lunch counter sit-ins (and where congressman John Lewis received his very first arrest for nonviolent protest—with 49 more arrests to come.) With the aim of desegregating Nashville lunch counters, groups of college students from the area's historically black universities (including Fisk University, American Baptist College and Tennessee A & I) sat down at the Woolworth lunch counters, asking to be served just like the white customers. Instead of receiving a hot meal, they had hot coffee dumped on their heads and milkshakes poured on their laps.
"We have a lady named Frances eating here tonight," says veteran Nashville restaurateur Tom Morales, who opened the restaurant on February 5. "A woman put out a cigarette on her hand and looked her in the eye as she was doing it. Poured syrup on her. Poured coffee on her. For something as basic as just being able to eat at this counter."
After another wave of student sit-ins at Woolworth, the home of civil rights attorney and activist Z. Alexander Looby was bombed on April 19, 1960. Thousands of students (including Lewis) marched to the courthouse to confront the mayor, Ben West. A Fisk student, Diane Nash, asked West if segregation at lunch counters was morally justifiable. He admitted it wasn't. On that day, the long, arduous process of desegregating the city's lunch counters began. Woolworth eventually closed, and it sat there on 5th Avenue for years, spending twenty of them as a Dollar General.
Beginning in 2017, Morales (of TomKats hospitality) worked with his team to restore the historic space. Lucky for him, the previous tenants hadn't torn down much of what made the place special, including the original hand-laid tiles lining the old Woolworth, the upper-level mezzanine and the gilded handrails and wall accents. On the upper-level mezzanine, Morales lined the walls with photos of civil rights activists enduring unspeakable harassment. He also chose to rebuild the lunch counter—the site of so much inhumanity. He wanted to rebuild the lunch counter the way it should have always been, the way hundreds of students fought for it to be: open to all.
"We wanted to make this place exactly what they sat in for," Morales tells Food & Wine. "We wanted to make it a welcome table."
Most of the 18,000-square-foot space was rebuilt, of course, but it still echoes the art deco-inspired aesthetic and wood-paneled walls of the past. The restaurant's basement, called the New Era Ballroom, hosts regular music shows featuring music of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. The menu, which Morales calls "an exploration of Southern cuisine," features updated comfort food dishes like hot harissa chicken sandwiches, blackened fish with succotash and potlikker beurre blanc and hibiscus brined pork chops with whipped potatoes, stewed okra, corn and tomatoes.
During our conversation, Morales says many times that, from conception to construction to opening, he was careful to avoid appropriating the history (adding that the restaurant's opening in Black History Month was merely coincidental.) Throughout the process, Morales consulted with Vanderbilt professor and cookbook author Alice Randall, who made sure the new restaurant preserved African-American foodways and not only recognized, but celebrated, black identity.
“A welcome table has never been more needed and Nashville leads that charge in so many ways,” Randall said at the press conference for the opening. “One of the ways it will lead is by integrating food, music and powerful conversation that will come together here and now in this place as a celebration of black history, black identity and more importantly…how African all Americans are.” Her daughter, author and activist Caroline Randall Williams, added, "I will come to Woolworth not just to honor the hard parts of the past, but to revive and revel in the best parts of the past — the old school soul flavors, the old school soul sounds. It is about time there was a place in downtown Nashville where you could get down downtown and boogie instead of boot scoot, if you will.”
As Morales walks me to the door, we meet civil rights activist King Hollands, who is returning to a very different restaurant than the one he peacefully protested in. Looking around the place, he says very little. He smiles, for a moment.
"The philosophy itself was very appealing to me because it was a method in which everyone had an opportunity to interact and understand and to benefit from the movement," Hollands said of the 1960 sit-ins in a recent interview.
"This was history that changed the South, and it happened right here," Morales says, scanning the dining room. "I’ve watched people come in that had been here for the sit-ins, touching the walls. It’s definitely been emotional. We had a group in last night of eight women who had all been arrested here. And they just came in and sat down at the lunch counter."
Woolworth on 5th is open for weekday breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as weekend brunch and dinner. It is also part of the U.S. Civil Rights Trail,