Thanks to Smoke-Free Tennessee, the 2007 law that kicked smokers to the curb — or at least diverted them to the sidewalks and patios outside most enclosed public spaces — many casual restaurant-slash-bars are now more hospitable to families than ever before. Still, there's a certain hesitation when it comes to taking the kids to dine at a music venue. Secondhand smoke may kill, but that's nothing compared to the withering stares of diners who prefer children to be seen and not heard.
But if you thought for one minute I wasn't taking the Foxes to dine at a place called The Stone Fox, then you're crazy. Crazy like a — well, you know. As it turned out, the easygoing and surprisingly family-friendly spot had our family's name all over it, in more ways than one.
The Stone Fox is the brainchild of siblings William and Elise Tyler, two tireless creative spirits who have excelled in a variety of pursuits. William is a respected guitar player who's worked with Lambchop, Silver Jews and several other local indie rock acts. He's also a solo artist and owns his own label, Sebastian Speaks. Elise was one of the co-founders of Halcyon Bike Shop and also produces films.
Our first pass at the restaurant came one Sunday when we needed a between-lunch-and-dinner meal — "bludinner," if you will. According to The Stone Fox's website, the kitchen was open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. on weekends, so we unloaded the minivan and piled into the bustling cottage at 3 p.m., only to be told in the kindest and most sheepish of ways that the kitchen had just closed — something about how they ran out of waffles, enchiladas and French toast casserole after an all-day onslaught of brunchers. Given the number of people still in the restaurant at that unusual hour, I tended to believe the cupboard-is-bare story. I also started to believe the hype surrounding the new venue, which quickly has become a darling on the live-music scene — a West Sider's answer to the beloved Family Wash.
(Sadly, "bludinner" is no more. After originally opening all day on weekends, the restaurant has begun closing from 3 to 5 p.m. to recover from brunch.)
To begin with, The Stone Fox is adorable. And I don't use the word lightly. It's what might happen if Anthropologie — that paradoxically corporate juggernaut of all things independent, artisanal and crafty — branched out into music venues. Imagine rustic lumber cladding on the walls, a porch bench made from scraps of pastel-painted wood, garlands of twinkle lights, retro linoleum diner tables, and a wall-sized map of the United States, made out of maps of the United States. The titular stuffed fox — a reference to "Stone Fox Chase," a song by the erstwhile band Area Code 615 — skulks above the door in a round window, as if it were rising with the full moon. A vegetable garden is in the works out back. The decor is a playful feast for the eyes.
The feast for the eating is a limited one, with just about a dozen items on the terse menu. (Chef specials appear on Facebook, where a recent posting of Brussels sprouts, heirloom carrots, turnips, stewed tomatoes and chickpeas over grit cakes with almond-sorrel pesto and shaved Swiss cheese looked promising.) But as we learned when we returned to The Stone Fox for an early dinner, the quality of the food is far superior to what we've come to expect from entertainment enterprises where music is the main course and food is little more than a hangover prophylactic.
Our group canvassed the printed menu minus a few exceptions. Among the dishes we left for another day was the so-called Laughing Man. Named for a bygone local vegetarian restaurant, the meatless meal piles sautéed broccoli, squash, carrots and onions onto brown rice, with sauce of soy and nutritional yeast and a sprinkling of shredded cheddar. In addition to the Laughing Man, there are several meatless options, including house-made chips, pimiento cheese and saltines, fried pickles and several sides.
Our group was divided when it came to picking a favorite dish. One faction preferred the Marrakesh Express, a vegan-friendly and gluten-free medley of shredded kale and cardamom-infused quinoa tossed with sautéed vegetables and golden raisins. Kale salads ... I've had a few, but this one topped the list with its bountiful interweaving of textures and temperatures.
On the other hand, my group voted the burger — made with grass-fed beef from Davis Creek Farms and served on a soft, slightly sweet bun from Provence — one of the best they've found. Paired with crisp curly fries or a lightly dressed salad of cubed sweet potatoes, the excellent $10.50 meal puts The Stone Fox on the local burger map.
Not everything was perfect. House-made potato chips set an ominous tone when they arrived stone-cold, accompanied by an insipid sauce that had more in common with skim milk than ranch dressing. (Stone-cold is good for foxes, not for potatoes.)
And that gumbo everyone's talking about. Yeesh. It lacked everything we look for in gumbo: Smoky, spicy, meaty ... it was none of those. Instead, it recalled a tomato soup, and a bland one at that.
Our group was ambivalent about the Reuben sandwich. The house-brined-and-smoked pastrami was tough, but the zesty housemade kimchi slaw and Sriracha-laced Thousand Island dressing were welcome twists on the deli classic served on marble rye with melted Swiss.
Barbecue nachos met with unanimous approval on the family nach-o-meter, scoring high marks for the sweet and smoky profile of the pulled pork, as well as for the ratio of toppings to chips. Fresh fried tortillas were laden with enough pork, fresh avocado, molten cheese and raw jalapeno slices that no triangle got left behind.
As much as we wondered if it was appropriate to bring kids to The Stone Fox, we stopped wondering when we tasted the hot chicken bites. (If they didn't want kids in the joint, they wouldn't serve stone-cold-amazing chicken nuggets, right?) Chef Bridget Russell & Co. toss battered-and-bronzed hunks of tender white meat in the savory juices reserved from smoked chicken, then plate them on a mattress of white bread, along with paper-thin slices of cool pickled cucumbers. While slightly different from the maple-cayenne chicken and waffles that knocked the socks off Scene music editor D. Patrick Rodgers at The Stone Fox's brunch a couple months back — and precipitated a hilarious posting on Bites, the Scene's food blog — the hot chicken bites are some sock-knocking bird in their own right.
As it turned out, we timed our family meal perfectly. Just as we parents were polishing off our Fat Bottom and Jackalope drafts, a few musicians hit the stage for sound check, which gave our kids a G-rated preview of the vibrant musical nightlife that emerges after bedtime. Meanwhile, we adults had a brainstorm for our next trip to The Stone Fox: Call a babysitter.
Here's a list of upcoming music events:
Friday, Jan. 25: Planned Parenthood's celebration of the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, featuring Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell & Chelsea Crowell, 7 p.m., $25.
Saturday, Jan. 26: Derek Hoke & Denney and the Jets with Ranch Ghost, 18+, 9 p.m., $7
Sunday, Jan. 27: Country Pleasures with Chris Scruggs, 18+, 9 p.m., free
Monday, Jan. 28: Lilly Hiatt with Kelsey Waldon and Allen Thompson, 18+, 9 p.m., $5
Tuesday, Jan. 29: Fat Tuesdays with Paul Burch, 18+, 9 p.m., free
The Stone Fox serves dinner 5 to 11 p.m. daily, with bar service until 3 a.m. Weekend brunch is available 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.