Iconic lunch counter restored at Woolworth on 5th
Larry McCormack / The Tennessean
Walk into the reimagined Woolworth on 5th, past a front window display chronicling the building’s iconic history, and you’ll feel transported back in time to one of the most important decades for Nashville civil rights history.
The terrazzo floors, original handrails, wood-paneled walls, upper-level mezzanine, historic photographs and art deco aesthetic will remind longtime Nashvillians of trips to Woolworth at 221 5th Ave. N. during a time when department stores ruled downtown.
Music City’s role in changing the course of civil rights history
But it’s the rebuilt lunch counter at the historic 30,000-square-foot building — which was the site of several civil rights sit-ins to protest segregation during the 1960s — that serves as a modern reminder of Music City’s pivotal role in changing the course of civil rights history.
“People fought for change here at this lunch counter and then it closed and became a Dollar General and so no one was eating at that counter anymore,” said Woolworth on 5th owner Tom Morales, a Nashville native and experienced restaurateur.
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“Now, we’re bringing the counter back and black or white or gray or pink or orange, you can sit there. So, what they stood up for, we can enjoy.”
‘We will create movement, body movement’
Woolworth on 5th is slated to open in early February as a restaurant/bar and music/performance venue unlike anything else in Nashville’s increasingly crowded dining scene. The restaurant will serve soul food and Morales promises to get people dancing with house band the Downtown Dippers, soul and rock ‘n’ roll music reminiscent of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
“When people come to Nashville they ask me, ‘Where can you go to dance?’ I’m kind of like, ‘Where do you go to dance?’ We will create movement, body movement,” Morales said.
The restaurant’s 3,950-square-foot basement events space will also be home to a weekly mixed arts night hosted by actor Barry Scott in addition to live music probably four nights a week.
“It’s going to be like a beatnik night with visual artists and all types of expression from the spoken word to plays to jazz to a combination of all of them. It’s going to give a platform to underperformed arts in Nashville,” Morales said.
“Culinary exploration of the roots of Southern cuisine”
The restaurant will serve breakfast, lunch and dinner with weekend brunches. Menus had yet to be printed as of late January when The Tennessean toured the space, but Morales said it will include fried chicken, collard greens, macaroni and cheese and a “culinary exploration of the roots of Southern cuisine.”
The mezzanine level will serve a more limited shared plates menu.
The drink program will be a throwback to the era and the department store itself, with the Big and Little Dipper boozy milkshakes, floats and cocktails named after former Woolworth menu and retail items.
“I think there’s a history here that needs to be retold.”
For Morales — who remembers visiting Woolworth as a child during downtown shopping trips with his parents and nine siblings — recreating the lunch counter is his most meaningful preservation project to date.
Morales is known for restoring Nashville properties, particularly at the century-old Acme Feed Seed building downtown, where he and partners invested millions to transform the long vacant site into a popular multi-story restaurant, bar and live music venue.
He is the founder of TomKats, a 30-year-old catering company that has catered more than 2,000 productions across the globe. His restaurant portfolio includes Loveless Café (which he purchased with partners in 2003 and then revamped), The Southern Steak Oyster, Acme and Fin Pearl.
“Acme was a building restoration, as iconic as it was, Loveless was a restaurant that was a tradition, but this property changed the world,” Morales said, referring to Woolworth on 5th. “I think there’s a history here that needs to be retold.”
Woolworth on 5th is also part of the newly launched U.S. Civil Rights Trail, which charts the course of the civil rights movement at more than 100 locations across 14 states.
Woolworth is featured alongside several other Nashville sites, including the Civil Rights Room at the Nashville Public Library, Fisk University and Clark Memorial United Methodist Church where Martin Luther King Jr. held the annual meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Read more about Tom Morales’ mark on Nashville’s dining scene.
Reach Lizzy Alfs at email@example.com or 615-726-5948 and on Twitter @lizzyalfs.