Nashville Restaurants and Food
501 Union Street
Each day workers take to the streets of Nashville in search of sustenance. They pour into restaurants like an invading army: hungry and hurried. The lunch rush is an art form. The top notch lunch joints know how to get the food out lightning fast and still make everyone feel at home. Few folks accomplish the task as well as Fred Battle at Rae’s Gourmet. He works the front counter and manages to: keep orders moving, recognize just about everyone who walks in the door, remember the favorites of at least half those folks, and have time to crack a few jokes. That level of down home service combined with inventive sandwiches sets Rae’s apart from the rest of the downtown lunch options. It’s a fine art they have been perfecting for years.
You walk in the door and Fred is already asking you what you want. There’s plenty to choose from and the hot brown is a customer favorite. As with most of the Rae’s line-up it’s different from what you might expect. In this case it’s more of a smoked turkey sandwich. The thick cut bacon makes it- you get a burst of flavor and a solid crunch that elevates the cheese sauce. The Reuben is the same deal; Rae’s puts it on a toasted sub roll, which may sound like a deal breaker. Once you bite into the tender and tasty corned beef, zippy horseradish dressing, and melted cheese you won’t be complaining. Unlike some places in town, they don’t drown that Reuben in too much sauerkraut. At Rae’s there’s just enough kraut for a nice tang. There are twists and turns all over the sandwich board and an interesting array of ingredients. The Beastie Girl features with beef tenderloin and magic mushroom sauce (Veggie Eater will explain). Ace of Hearts has marinated artichoke hearts, sun dried tomatoes, Swiss and mozzarella. The Wicked Chicken sandwich has chipotles and a green chile sauce to live up to the name.
Soups change daily. The Friday clam chowder is light and zesty, with a little corn to help give it some heft. Beer cheese, potato leek, shrimp bisque and Cajun gumbo round out the week. Red beans and rice makes for a decent side, with a smoky touch and bits of sausage.
They have a two vegetarian sandwiches and a selection of salads with homemade dressings.
Veggie Eater: Let’s start with the salad, since this course alone often colors my entire judgment about a restaurant. I am pleased to report that it got our meal off to a fabulous start. A side salad may not sound very inspiring, but here, it is. This particular version is chalk full of mesculun greens, including my most favorite green of all, arugula. This was then topped with a homemade bleu cheese dressing, full of chunks of the prized bleu cheese. I was torn about which veggie sandwich to choose, as my love for fungus is rivaled only by my love of artichokes. After playing eenie meeniee minie mo, I opted for the Magic Mushrooms. It is a toasted sub roll topped with a medley of shitake, portabella, and standard mushrooms roasted with garlic and capped with an assortment of deli cheese: a truly wonderful sandwich. It’s just plain fun to watch all the regulars and staff interact- a bit like Cheers where everyone knows your name. Do not fret if you are not a regular, they are just as gracious and welcoming to newcomers. My only complaint is that they are open only for lunch, Monday through Friday, so my dream of the Ace of Hearts will just have to wait until we take a vacation day for the sole purpose of puttering around. Also check out the array of hot sauces available.
Meat Eater: We could only hope that Rae’s might stay open at night, and cater to the TPAC theater crowd, but this particular stretch of Union gets rather lonely after hours. Besides, staying open later might break the lunch magic: without Fred saying hello it wouldn’t be quite the same. Still, they do plenty of catering, so if you can’t hit the downtown streets for lunch, they can bring it to you.