At the last meal I had in an old-school Continental fine-dining restaurant, each and every course had been sautéed, souffléed, pureed, broiled or gratinéed. When the long succession of delicacies ended, not one single fresh item of fruit or vegetable had made an appearance. That meal felt out of date because American diners now associate restaurant dining with fresh produce.
And freshness is much of the appeal at First Watch, a California-spawned, Florida-based chain that calls itself "a daytime cafe." Nationally, there are nearly 100 locations in a sort of belt across the central U.S. plus Florida, Wisconsin and Arizona — but only one in Tennessee, on Franklin Road in northern Brentwood.
"First watch" is nautical speak for the first shift, perhaps not a very foodie Jolly Roger to hoist, but descriptive of the operating hours (7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.). It sounds more like a moniker for a financial institution, and maybe that's why there's rarely a wait for a table on weekdays — even though Nashville is a breakfast town short on breakfast places, and First Watch has been open since last summer.
Pick a no-nonsense table in the center of the utilitarian dining room, pile the crew into a booth, or perch solo at the bar. First Watch adds free Wi-Fi and a generous pot of coffee that's set directly on your table. That's right — you never have to hunt down your server to get another cuppa. Between the caffeine and the broadband, you can almost hear the neurons firing in the room.
Because it's breakfast, egg dishes are the menu's long suit. Many selections highlight fresh combinations of avocado, tomato, chilies, onion and cilantro in many forms. The Chickichanga is a great example: a burrito rolled around finely textured scrambled eggs, chorizo, white-meat chicken, avocados, onions, chilies, Jack and cheddar cheeses, topped with hollandaise and salsa Vera Cruz sauce. It's a satisfying breakfast solution for people who don't care for traditional breakfast food.
The burrito Veracruz offers a similar dish without the chicken, onions or avocado. The Acapulco Express, one of many omelets, has all the components (avocado, chorizo, green chilies, roasted onions, cheddar and Monterey Jack with sour cream and salsa) minus the tortilla's carbs.
Not all the omelets exhibit Mexican roots. It's a veritable United Nations of scrambles, including the Greek Fetish omelet, the Via Veneto, Killer Cajun, the C'est la Vie and the Casa frittata.
Keep sailing through the menu (did I mention it's long?) past islets dotted with parfaits and cereals, fine-crumbed freshly baked muffins, crepes and pancakes. It's worth dropping anchor at the pancakes — multigrain flapjacks that are made from scratch. They cook into improbably delicate, thick cakes, and are very good plain or embellished — a long list of add-ons includes everything from banana granola to bacon and cheddar to pecans. One cake is enough, two's a meal and three is a banquet.
Another spot on the menu worth investigating is the skillet hash corner. Crispy brown potatoes mingle with expected flavors like bacon and onion, or unexpected ones like Italian sausage and cremini mushrooms, avocado and tomato, or white-meat chicken and pesto hollandaise.
Speaking of carbs, they are among many American food preoccupations addressed by the menu. Whether your regimen requires high-energy, high-protein, low-fat, low-glycemic, vegetarian or gluten-free meals, First Watch provides something interesting. The Caps, Etc. is a good example: Featuring roasted mushrooms topped with cheddar and Jack and two eggs any style, it does meatless in a way that avoids the dreary "I eat it because it's good for me" sensation.
For the breakfast hater dragooned into an 8 a.m. breakfast meeting, the lunch menu — a more typical lineup of sandwiches, burgers, soups and salads — is available pretty much all day. Like a middle child, lunch undoubtedly gets less attention than breakfast, which is unfair, because it works hard to be different while offering a largely familiar roster.
The Reuben is acceptable, but the Beefeater's combination of beef, tomato and cheese on grilled Parmesan-crusted sourdough with horseradish is more original. The No. 5 Asian salad is fine, but better is the Poacher salad, topped with bacon, tomato, avocado, house-made ciabatta croutons and a poached egg, which combines with the vinaigrette for a balance of rich and sharp in a light but filling lunch.
As thoughtfully conceived and carefully made as many offerings are, nothing on the menu is a threat to unseat premium and artisanal versions around town. Plenty of the food is merely serviceable, and some just doesn't work. The crepegg, which layers a sweetened crepe with eggs, spinach, onions, Jack cheese and turkey with chives, is a good idea, but the vanilla in the crepe wins the battle for top flavor note and does not play well with the other ingredients.
Still, the food is fast and fresh, and everything is priced around $8. Combine that with the straightforward interior, coffee, toast, eggs and pancakes, and First Watch feels (even smells) very much like Shoney's circa 1972.
And that's a pretty good comparison in every way. I may never convince people who weren't around for it, but back before all that bad business at Shoney's, before the commissary system devastated the food quality, even before the breakfast bar, Shoney's was good. Business people met for breakfast, retired people and exercise classes arrived late morning, the family went for leisurely weekend lunch.
That's who is at First Watch now, but what they're eating has changed. The eggs are egg whites, the sausage is turkey sausage, the pancakes are multigrain, and the flavors are international. Add Wi-Fi and an entire pot of coffee, and that's not old-school — it's a new American normal.
Open 7 am. to 2:30 p.m. daily.