Fans Bid Au Revoir (but Hopefully Not Adieu) to Jimmy Carl's Lunch Box

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Friday was the final day for the pitmasters at Jimmy Carl's Lunch Box to serve their brief but remarkable barbecue menu out of their lunchtime location in The Station Inn on 12th Avenue in The Gulch. While the room had the atmosphere of a wake as partons bid goodbye to their personal favorites (mine was the smoked chicken thigh), there were glimmers of hope that J.C. will rise again.

Maitre'D Russell Nelson greeted pilgrims waiting in line for their last supper with passed hors d'oeuvres. OK, they were just quartered smoked bologna sandwiches on white bread, but more than one person in the queue remarked how they were ticked off at themselves for never trying these smoky treats until right before the restaurant pulled up stakes. I said that it was like finally getting lucky with a cheerleader — during graduation week.

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Pitmaster Pat Isbey manned the outdoors smoker like he has almost every day for the past year and a half, through rain, snow or the blistering heat of summer. He was joined by several friends who did what men like to do — they smoked cigarettes and watched meat cook. Other friends and family helped out inside the restaurant, manning the all-you-could-eat buffet, working the register and handing out free treats to lucky diners. While Jimmy Carl's had usually been just a two-man operation, with all the extra help the whole crew ran their fans through the line quickly and efficiently, and kept the house full, fat and happy through the whole lunch hour.

Service was never a problem for me at Jimmy Carl's anyway. Pat and Russ always managed to get great food to the table within minutes of ordering, so it became our weekly regular pre-conference-call, 30-minute-meal every Tuesday. Somehow, Turnip Truck Tuesday just doesn't have the same ring to it, and my company is gonna have to actively search for a substitute.

But hopefully, not forever. Although they're closing up shop in The Gulch, Pat and Russ plan to keep their catering business alive while they spend the winter scoping out potential new locations for the Lunch Box. An impediment to The Station Inn location was the fact that there was no kitchen on premise, so all those delectable side dishes had to be made in a kitchen in East Nashville and trucked across the river every day, hopefully in the proper quantities to feed all the day's diners.

Although the roadhouse ambiance of The Station Inn was ideal for a rib joint, the fact that it is open every night for live music meant no dinner revenue for the Jimmy Carl's boys and the extra task of resetting and clearing all the tabletop settings (OK, a roll of towels and two bottles of barbecue sauce) every day at opening and closing. Finally, the inability to sell beer probably limited their till take considerably. At least from me.

Similar difficulties have led to the demise of more than one barbecue restaurant, including my former favorite for ribs, Mothership BBQ. I enjoyed many meals at Jimmy Carl's with the proprietor of the late Mothership, Dr. Funkenswine himself, Jim Reams. He recognized many of the same burdens that he had experienced at his Berry Hill location and also remembered how his final day open was his highest grossing day ever. He even repeated a quip that I heard more than once from Pat and Russ: "It makes you think we should've closed down months ago."

But despite the entreaties of past fans to find a new location or open up a barbecue truck or take over somebody else's crappy smokehouse, Dr. Funkenswine has moved on to a new chapter of his life. He doesn't miss firing up the smoker before sunrise and working by himself in the front and back of the house for hours every day.

Meanwhile, here's hoping that Jimmy Carl's Lunch Box will rise again like a phoenix from the smoker. A new location, an improved revenue stream and some staffing help could sure go a long way to improving Russ and Pat's quality of life. And it would make my Tuesdays a helluva lot better ...

The author chained in protest to JCs smoker
  • The author chained in protest to JC's smoker

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