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Hathorne Blends Modern Sensibility With Old-Fashioned Southern Hospitality

Cover Image for Hathorne Blends Modern Sensibility With Old-Fashioned Southern Hospitality
By Chris LaMorte
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Nashville’s Hathorne is located in the former fellowship hall of a Methodist church. Once a gathering spot for potlucks and community gatherings, today the space retains the same communal spirit, thanks to Hathorne owner John Stephenson. Inspired by the large holiday gatherings he remembers from his time growing up in Mississippi, he wanted to create a restaurant where people could connect over good food and cocktails, and feel part of something larger than themselves.

Tell me about the name, Hathorne. Do a lot of people mistake it for Hawthorne?

Stephenson: It’s the same name, actually. It’s an old Irish surname. It was also my grandmother’s last name. Some people dropped the W when they emigrated to the U.S. and some people kept it in. It’s the name of an old tree in Ireland that is supposed to be a tree of good luck and where fairies live during the day. It was a cool name, so I kind of kept it in my back pocket for the day when I finally opened the restaurant. That’s why we have the Hawthorne leaf as our logo.

Was your grandma a great cook?

Stephenson: She was both a great cook and a great person. I grew up in Mississippi and both sides of my family had a lot of cooks and large families. So I grew up seeing lots of food out on the table for Thanksgiving and holidays—the tables would literally groan under the weight of all the different casseroles. That’s really what inspired me to get into the restaurant industry. I wanted to recapture a little bit of that fellowship. We really encourage people to order for the whole table and to think of a meal here like a potluck or Thanksgiving dinner. I love that feeling.

Tell me about the history of the building.

Stephenson: We’re right next to an 1889 Methodist church, which is now an event space. Hathorne’s building was constructed in 1958 as the church’s fellowship hall. We’ve got a lot of those design elements that kind of harken back to what this building originally was. We have pews from the church, a prayer rail, and a couple of the deacon’s chairs. We didn’t make it too ‘churchy’ because we didn’t want people to feel guilty about drinking. The vibe is somewhat minimal but open and light. When we opened the ceiling, we uncovered the original handcrafted steel girders that were painted this really kind of cool yellow. So we kind of tied all those colors into the design element.

Hathorne Nashville
Hathorne’s location was once a Methodist fellowship hall.

You are a well-known chef in Nashville, but you’ve moved to the front of the house for your own restaurant. What’s that transition been like?

Stephenson: Yes, I was a chef for 25 years—I’ve been in all positions, from dishwasher to line cook to executive chef. So I’ve seen a lot of different versions of what a restaurant could be. I really enjoyed it and had pretty decent success, so when I bought this place, I knew that I couldn’t be the chef and the owner—it was just not going to work timewise. But I thought I could be a mentor and incubator of talent at Hathorne because Nashville is really having an extended renaissance in the food world, and a lot of young talent is moving here. When I was coming up, several owners took me in and gave me room to experiment and let me make menus that were really my own. So I really wanted to replicate that for other chefs.

“We really encourage people to order for the whole table and to think of a meal here like a potluck or Thanksgiving dinner. I love that feeling.”

Speaking of menus, what’s new at Hathorne for fall?

Stephenson: We’ve got the fall squashes coming back right now and we have an amazing farro-stuffed acorn squash topped with aged Manchego cheese. It’s just been a huge hit. Our chef, Evan LoJacono, also created an incredible preparation of sweet potatoes with a smoked date sauce and sheep’s milk cheese that’s topped with dates that almost tastes like bacon because they’re so chewy and crispy.

What about winter cocktails? 

Stephenson: We’re starting warm drinks this week. We have warm drinking chocolate made with Olive & Sinclair Chocolate Co.’s cinnamon-chile dark chocolate, Western Grace brandy, cream, housemade marshmallow, and sea salt. We also have a drink called Maya, made with Leblon cachaca, coconut, banana, egg yolk, nutmeg, and lime zest.

Warm drinking chocolate is on Hathorne’s winter cocktail menu.

In addition to Hathorne, on Sundays you play host to a pop-up restaurant called St. Vito’s. How did that come about?

Stephenson: Our friend Michael Hanna started a company during the pandemic with a unique type of pizza called sfincione, which is a focaccia-style pizza. I had never seen anything like it. It’s focaccia stuffed with Fontina cheese and then baked. When it comes out of the oven, the chef adds these warm toppings like tomato sauce or potato cream. It’s super light and very, very filling. So while he’s trying to get his brick-and-mortar space up and running, we thought it would make a lot of sense for him to set up shop here on Sunday. We worked out a deal where all the labor and all the product runs through here and he gets a cut of the sales on Sunday. He also helps prep for the rest of our week and brings in new customers, so it’s a mutually beneficial relationship. He also gets to see how a restaurant of this type and size runs and we get to be inspired by some of his creative energy. He’s also taken over our in-house bread baking. So we get really consistent, beautiful sourdough bread we serve with our menu.

Sicilian-style pizza from St. Vito’s, a Sunday pop-up restaurant.

Finally, Thanksgiving is this week. As a former chef who’s moved to the front of the house, any tips on hosting while cooking?

Stephenson: If you’re hosting large groups at home, especially if it’s family, get them involved in the cooking. That’s because there’s usually one person running around doing everything and getting freaked out, worried, or just working too hard. They are not having a good time. But since people usually end up congregating in the kitchen anyway, if you have something that needs to be stirred, just say, ‘Hey, why don’t you stand here with your glass of champagne and stir this.’ or ‘You, over there, you’re gonna measure this out for me.” Just give people stuff to do. It really puts people at ease and also makes the work easier.

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