This week, I’m honored to bring you TCR’s chat with the brilliant team behind the East Nashville lounge Bar Luca. First though, a bit of related personal history.
During the eight years I worked for the New York Post, I held two very conspicuous and highly divergent jobs: fashion editor and bar columnist.
Yes, when I wasn’t sitting front row at Marc Jacobs, I could be found perched on a stool at any number of Manhattan drinkeries, doing “research” for Bar Belles, the weekly drinking column I co-wrote with my beloved Aussie compatriot, Megan Lehmann.
To say Megan and I were good at our side jobs is an understatement. We were great. Devoted. Game. Ready to put in the extra hours to get the job done. And we were paragons of populism, covering the high (Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle on the Upper East Side), the low (Holiday Cocktail Lounge in the East Village) and every kind of bar in between (say, Murray Hill’s Waterfront Ale House - which, the last time I checked, still had the BB write-up, led by the cheesy-fabulous photo byline of Megan and I toasting glasses, posted in the window). Writing Bar Belles wasn’t just a ploy to get my employers to cover my bar tabs, though that was certainly some of the appeal for a young journalist; it was a great way to explore New York City and get to know the characters who give it its zing.
In two-ish years of doing the column, we garnered quite a following — including one Donald J. Trump. In 2001, Brother Golden Hair personally invited the Belles to join him at The World Bar in his then-new Trump World Tower to experience what he humbly pitched as “the most expensive cocktail in the world.” (The Donald doesn’t drink, so he watched as Megan and I sampled the vodka-based swill, studded with suspended slivers of 23-carat leaf. “You’re drinking real gold, girls,” Trump boasted.)
Without a doubt, the Bar Belles gig was the most random job I’ve ever had. But that’s what made it so entertaining.
All this to say, I've spent a lot of time in a lot of different bars. I really enjoy bar culture. I love it almost as much as I love to drink — and I dig that so much that a decade ago I realized I needed to quit. Check, please.
Just because I don’t do alcohol anymore doesn't mean I don't still enjoy going to bars — certain bars, that is. Nice, clean ones that don’t smell like the floor of a frat house on a summer Sunday morning. Chic ones that have low lighting and a sound system that doesn't go to 11. You know, adult bars.
And, as I mentioned in TCR Vol. 1, Nashville is going through a bar renaissance. There are some great adult-type specimens out there, not least of all Bastion in Wedgewood Houston, Bar Sovereign in SoBro, and Old Glory, which just opened in Edgehill Village.
And, of course, my east side neighbor, Bar Luca.
Going to Luca is like visiting the living room of your most stylish, hospitable friend. The color scheme is a very modern combination of dusky pink, stormy gray and ivory. The smoked brass light fixtures, customized by Southern Lights Electric, look like they came out of a Deco-era brasserie. White oak tables and chairs by Holler Design blend effortlessly with the tile floor and elegant marble bar. The music is, mercifully, in the background, not competing with your conversation. The wine and drink menu is deep but not intimidating. There is food to share if you need a bite.
It’s an adult bar if there ever was one.
Besides being gorgeous and welcoming, Luca is a haven for those of us who don’t drink but still enjoy the ceremony of ordering a beautifully composed cocktail. For this, we have to thank general manager Freddy Schwenk, who on March 14 will introduce a smart new menu that includes a selection of non-alcoholic quaffs. (Read more about Freddy and get recipes for his NA offerings below.)
The rest of the glory – from the interior finesse to the approachable wine and food menus - goes to Luca’s operating team, which is made up of eight core partners and six silent ones. “I think it's the biggest team in Nashville for the smallest space,” jokes Abi Hewitt, a business strategist, who has been involved in the project from the get-go. The others are wine consultant Robin Riddell Jones; architect Luke Tidwell and interior designer Katie Vance, both of Powell Architects (Katie’s also a founder of Porter Flea); Luke Stockdale of Sideshow Sign Co.; culinary consultant Molly Martin of The Food Company; Matt Alexander of Holler Design; and Nealy Glenn of The Cordelle.
Needless to say, it wasn’t feasible to get the whole crew together for an interview. But Abi, Robin, Katie and Molly took some time last week to meet with TCR to talk about wine, food, design and their vision for Luca and its mission to be a neighborhood juggernaut that provides a comfortable, inclusive place for the community to gather.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
TCR: First of all, I didn't realize that the idea to open Luca was a relatively recent one. Your team only started working on it about a year ago, which is nothing in the world of build-outs.
ABI: Oh, yes. This has been real fast and dirty, and you can quote me on that. [LAUGHTER] After the space came open, we did a lot of research on what the marketplace could take and would want. And it was so clear that there wasn't anywhere like this for people to walk to (in East Nashville). We felt really strongly that although the idea of a well-designed, well-curated bar is not new, it felt new to Nashville.
Everyone involved had spent a lot of time in other cities, globally and nationally, and we felt that for the age that we were, there was nowhere to go to be with our friends and have the type of experience we knew we wanted. Our friends own a lot of the bars around here, and we go to those and have great nights out, and we absolutely, fully respect what they do. But we wanted an alternative.
ROBIN: From my point of view, I can't go have a glass of wine that I would like to drink unless I go to a restaurant. Everyone I know that owns bars, that's just not an aspect that they take seriously. But it's also because no one was begging for it. So it was really frustrating for me to want to go out with friends for a nice glass of wine and have to go to a restaurant or to somebody's house to have one. And these guys had a similar perspective in that they loved wine as much as I do and really wanted to be able to have a place to go to enjoy it that wasn't our homes.
ABI: We (the original three-person team: Abi, Luke Tidwell and Nealy Glenn) didn't know about wine, and the only person who we respected and trusted who did was Robin. We were friends with her and knew that not only did we want her personality involved in the project, but also her expertise.
ROBIN: It was a big deal for me to be able to have a wine list that was not dictated by the distributors, but by me. No one told me what to put on this list. I put what I thought had integrity. It makes people nervous when you put small producers on a wine list because they run out fast. Whereas for me, it's those small farmers that you want to be able to highlight so they keep doing what they do. And I was really excited that these guys had that same vision. For me to go, Hey, yes, we only have five cases of this, but why not do it by the glass and highlight this amazing, little farmer? And when those five cases are gone, we'll move onto another one.
TCR: It sounds like the bar equivalent to a kitchen changing its menu every day based on what’s available in the market.
ABI: We’ve always had the vision for quality, not quantity. We concentrate on the simplistic beauty of what we're doing, whether that is in the cocktails, the menu, the wine, or in the design.
TCR: The design in here is really distinctive in that it’s not, you know, super-distinctive. There isn’t raw reclaimed wood on the floors, intense colors or really dominant art. The best way to describe the look is to say it’s been executed thoughtfully and with very good taste.
KATIE: First and foremost, we wanted something that felt cozy. And from there, we wanted to do something that was different in East Nashville and that had a little bit of an edge. Something that I think about with any space I design is that I want people to be wowed when they enter, but I want them to feel comfortable coming back and making themselves at home.
TCR: There is definitely an edge to it — even with the pink bathrooms.
KATIE: The concept leans toward more of a feminine aesthetic, so we really wanted to punch out some masculine touches as well. We want everyone to feel comfortable. And I think that comes in with the furniture — husband plug (Katie is married to Matt Alexander of Holler Design). Bringing in the white oak juxtaposed with black leather warms it up. And that way, we can do the pink.
ABI: When talking about design, you’ve really got to look at the position of the bar geographically, as well. You know, essentially we are a very small space in a row of shops overlooking a Dollar General and a Regions Bank. We wanted the juxtaposition between this space and the street outside. We weren't gonna fight the obvious; we wanted to incorporate it. We're not gonna deny that this is where we are. We are in East Nashville. We love East Nashville. We want to celebrate that.
I think every single one of us has commented on the fact that every time someone walks through the door, there's still an overwhelming sense of gratitude, pride, and a feeling that it’s unbelievable that people are choosing to come here. And not because we don't think it's excellent, but just because, you know, it's ours.
And besides that, we all actually really like each other and we all actually really like our staff, and we all actually really love the bar. And so on the one hand, you want to hang out with each other all the time in here. On the other hand, as we all know, if we all hung out with each other all the time in here with the combination of alcohol, that's not going to end well. So we have to be careful on that. [LAUGHTER]
TCR: That's why you have food on the menu — to pad your stomach. Which is a great way to segue to Molly.
MOLLY: This has been really fun for me, because it’s the first menu that's been fully mine from the beginning. That was an awesome feeling of dual-ownership in a way. And it was terrifying, because it was the first time I felt like I was stepping out on my own.
We started out with a much bigger, broader menu. I edited it down a lot. And I think that was the best thing that could have happened to it, because then it felt a lot more focused. We wanted to make sure the bar was the focus and not turn it into a restaurant.
TCR: That said, the menu is big enough that you can make a meal if you want to.
MOLLY: Someone called it a dinner substitute the other day. I was, like, it's not a fucking protein shake. [LAUGHTER] But yes, it does feel like you can make a meal of it. And it's very sharable which I like a lot, because we talked a lot about was making wine something that was convivial and communal, and food is the same.
ABI: I know that one of the things Molly wants to do is work seasonally with what's available. That's really important to us for the same reasons as Robin spoke about with the wine. It's important to us to be working with growers, to be working with what is naturally being produced. To be able to be thoughtful over what we're providing.
MOLLY: People drink just as seasonally as they eat. In the spring, you go from brown liquor to gin or whatever, and that's always such a joyful moment. [LAUGHTER] I really want food to lighten up and freshen up along with what people are drinking, because nobody's gonna want to be having, you know, one of Freddy's sprightly little spring cocktails with some heavy, roasty thing.
TCR: One thing that strikes me about the group of principals is how you guys really work together. The right hands absolutely know what the left hands are up to. Luca is great example of teamwork done right.
ABI: I think as Nashville grows as a city and more and more people are starting their own businesses, what continues to make this city exciting is collaboration. Nashville’s history is based on musical songwriting collaborations. That's what set us apart; there wasn’t another city where songwriters were collaborating.
And what you find here in Nashville now is there are still creative people who are willing to work with each other and be part of a community. The fact that there are so many of us doing this bar is a testament to Nashville being a collaborative place. Alongside that, it is a lot of hard work. But it is very gratifying work to be very proud of.