Diners looking for a quality, chef-prepared meal have a new restaurant on their radar in the heart of Northtown Mt. Juliet.
The stamped concrete floors, mahogany colored walls and sliding barn door recovered from a 150-year-old Lebanon building are enhanced with dozens of historic pictures of Mt. Juliet and a richly stained bar to create a simple rustic ambiance at this new upscale "but not pretentious" Woodfire Grill.
The restaurant opened just three weeks ago. Couple the unique décor (created as an homage to the City Between the Lakes) with a full menu of elevated cuisine - with a southern twist - and a trio of Mt. Juliet owners with their individual wheelhouse expertise (one owner has 25 years of restaurant management) and you get a unique dining experience.
This beautiful restaurant that pleasantly beckons the senses with the aroma of classically-cooked, wood-fire grilled, 100-percent certified Angus beef. It received an immediate embrace from those who have craved an intimate experience offered somewhere other than downtown Nashville.
Scott Smith is the front house "face" of the restaurant and works seamlessly with partners James Todd and Chris Scott, who all live in Mt. Juliet. When their wild-hair idea began to gel, it was a no brainer to open their fine-dining eatery in their hometown.
Woodfire is the brainchild of Smith, who originally planned (and will in the near future) to open a more casual fare restaurant in a new development in central Mt. Juliet. However, the owner of their current location, Scott Lumley, approached him about opening a steak house there and his ears perked up.
"I've always been a huge food person," Smith said. "I'm a foodie and have even been in some BBQ competitions."
But he mostly cooks for "fun," and is a really good home cook.
"I was smart enough to know that if I opened a restaurant I needed to surround myself with experts," he explained.
Looks to experts for advice
Somewhat burned out after 20 years in corporate sales and with the prospect of a second career related to food, Smith turned to his friend Todd.
"He's the only person at that time to approach. He's my long time buddy, and I trust him," Scott said. "He has over 25 years experience in restaurant management at places like Chili's."
Smith said he felt he needed a change and there was a niche to be filled in Mt. Juliet.
"Our goal was to give the community, and beyond, a destination, specialty, fine steak house," he said. "The trend is upscale Southern dining with authentic southern fare."
However, he didn't want their restaurant to be classified only as a "steak house," but rather to offer other delectable entrees, appetizers, desserts and drinks.
He called his buddy Todd to "take his temperature" on his "crazy idea."
Todd on that call basically said, "Nope, never thought about owning a restaurant... never will."
Smith urged him to go out to dinner, bring along his wife, and at least listen to his idea.
Their mutual goal was the fast fusion idea, but as they talked with others and Lumley, they steered toward upscale Southern dishes.
"Not a one trick pony, but elevated on a food standpoint," said Smith.
They sealed their quest and brought on Chris Scott, who has impeccable restaurant skills. They also hired executive chef Jeff Brown, who then recommended a top-notch brigade of 10 young chefs, eager to learn from the best and be part of what people say will be a signature restaurant in the Middle Tennessee area.
It's taken months of work turning the 3,000-square-foot building into a classy restaurant, develop the menu and simply try to secure people to help with the process.
Lumley helped in the process.
"It took a long time to do all the custom work in the restaurant," he noted.
While their restaurant goal was to be upscale, the partners didn't want to be pretentious and turn off people with "highfalutin" ways and décor. But they did want their menu to be second to none.
"We wanted a place where people could relax at the end of the day, and when they left the know they had friendly service, attention and the best food around."
Angus Beef, bourbons and craft beers on menu
Several things make Woodfire stand out from the proverbial dining fray. They specialize in bourbons and have 25 from which to choose. They also carry a wide variety of local craft beers, and in just three weeks their signature cocktail will be a sangria. Their wine list and price point is lengthy.
However, their choice of beef to serve is the pinnacle of their success, said Smith. They chose to serve only gold standard, certified Angus Beef, which took a lot of effort and more money than most restraunteurs spend.
But the owners say the quality of their meat is key to the tender, mother-watering steaks they serve. Angus beef is the top beef listed on the USDA pyramid of grade beef, which has another 10 qualifying steps of certification. And Certified Angus Beef is never frozen.
"It's simply the best beef you can buy, and we already have people come from Nashville and beyond to tell us it's the best steak they've ever eaten," Smith said.
On the menu are classic ribeye, beef tenderloin and Nashville strip steak, served with sides such as broccoli, loaded smashed potatoes, pickle hollandaise, crispy onion strings and truffle tots.
Another bonus on their menu is the dry-aged Duroc pork rib chop. Perhaps new to even seasoned culinarians, Duroc is a brand of pig that comes from the Compart Family Farm, which is self-contained complex in Michigan. Only two percent of their pigs make it to fine-dining restaurants. At Woodfire, it's grilled to temperature and glazed with maple syrup and peach; served with mashed sweet potatoes and grilled veggies.
Smith smiled when he said it was his mission to help people understand that high-grade pork like Duroc can be served other than well done.
"Duroc is even more elevated than 'the new white meat,'" he said. "People are in awe at how tender and delicious it is. They've come back two and three times just to order it."
Some other entrée selections are bourbon barrel Atlantic salmon and the Woodfire burger served with hand-slammed fries. Salads offered include summer strawberry, heirloom tomato and seared ahi tuna.
Emerging as initial signature appetizers include Chocolate BBQ St. Louis Ribs, slow cooked in their signature chocolate barbeque sauce.
And, believe it or not, their Nashville Hot Frog Legs are hopping (pardon the pun) popular, said Smith.
"People just love them!" he said. "They are served with signature Woodfire spice glaze and topped with house-made pickle chips."
Turnout delights owners
The mass turnout of diners delighted with Woodfire has far exceeded their expectations, especially since it just opened.
"Our minds are blown," Smith said. "We knew we had a good thing, but the word of mouth and social buzz is humbling and astounding."
Yes, they've had to tweak here and there with the menu, and they admit they voraciously read social media posts to see not only the rave revues, but also the suggestions.
They really encourage reservations, and already there's a few days' wait to get a seat at this much-buzzed-about restaurant. Walk-ins are welcome, especially at the bar, but Smith encourages planning for a special evening and lunch and penciling in a slot.
"We are a scratch kitchen, and we take our time with our preparation and we don't want anyone to have to wait for their food, so with reservations we can time things perfectly," he explained.
Children are very welcome with a special menu for them and also one for the vegetarian who eats alongside their meat-loving dinner companion. Lunch is now open, and soon on Sundays they will offer a delectable brunch menu.
The restaurant is spacious with 90 seats (most are tables, but with two six-person booths) as well as bar seating.
When it's not "150 degrees out," Smith said he looks forward to people enjoying their alfresco seating under a grand pergola.
A family business, too
Scott gets a kick his 15-year-old daughter is a hostess at Woodfire.
"I guess she's really proud and loves the food," he quipped. "She asked if we could have her birthday party here for her friends."
It might be a while before Makensie's siblings Tucker, 7, and Kennedy, 9, start punching the clock, but they certainly enjoy eating the food as often as they can.
Smith's wife Stacey has been on board this whole journey since he sprang his elevated-midlife crisis, wildhair idea on her, said this grateful husband.
"I may have not been lucky in some ways along the years," Smith said. "But when it comes to my wife, she is the reason we are so successful today. She's my biggest cheerleader."
Smith said it's satisfying to hear people say Woodfire serves the best food they've ever had.
"I know we've done a good job, and our listening to our patrons and the community has made great sense," he said quietly just before the doors opened. "The best thing about us is we are locally owned and our menu and service can change on the fly and adapt to what people crave in a dining experience. In the corporate world, that rarely happens.
"This is Mt. Juliet's community restaurant."
Visit woodfiremj.com for reservations and full menu, or find them on Facebook at Woodfire MJ.