By Kay West
July 21, 1997: What fresh hell is this? Compared to Have a Nice Day Cafe, the latest theme-park installment in downtown Nashville, Hard Rock seems like an oasis of tranquility, and Planet Hollywood looks like a monument to good taste.
Have a Nice Day Cafe attempts to recreate the '70s, one of the most tasteless, sordid, meritless, irresponsible, and just plain tacky decades in American history. The restaurant/dance club's unforgivable concept is to immortalize "the laid-back, happy mood characteristic of the '70s." Excuse me. Doesn't anyone remember Vietnam? Spiro Agnew? Richard Nixon? Watergate? The hostages in Iran?
As further proof that P.T. Barnum knew what he was talking about, Have a Nice Day is a smashing success. Just try to get your hip-huggered butt in the door after 10 o'clock on a Saturday night. You'll find yourself and your vintage platform shoes parked in an endless line. You'd think they were selling tickets to a Jerry Garcia comeback tour.
Have a Nice Day comes to us from the fine folks at the Bar Investment Group (that would be B.I.G.) in Charlotte, N.C. The Nashville cafe isn't the first of B.I.G.'s Nice Days--there are others in Atlanta, Tampa, Cleveland, Raleigh, Charlotte, and Columbia. Nashville was chosen for the debut of a new addition to the Have a Nice Day Cafe concept--food.
According to B.I.G's press information, the '70s-theme menu of affordable, New American cuisine, emphasizing platters of assorted foods, burgers and sandwiches, is intended to attract lunch and after-work crowds. "Our food items are named for '70s notables," says Paul Borde, a bigwig at B.I.G. "Ordering and eating will be fun."
Let's examine this statement point by point. Try as we might, we could find no '70s food anywhere on this menu. No fondue. No rumaki. No Swedish meatballs. No cheese balls. No beef stroganoff. No baked Alaska. The lone casserole--a mac-and-cheese-inspired dish of farfalle, Italian sausage, and brocolli baked in a four-cheese sauce--has already been removed from the menu for lack of interest.
Even if they aren't '70s-themed, items on the menu are indeed named for '70s notables. That is, if your frame of reference allows you to stretch your imagination and your credulity enough to call Steve Austin, John Ritter, Bo and Luke, Laverne and Shirley, Ralph Malph, Erik Estrada, Vinnie Barbarino, and the Village People "notables." The entire decade is coming back now, isn't it?
One thing is guaranteed, if you sample some of the fried food on the menu, the '70s may very well come back to you--but not until the next day. If anything manages to escape the fryer in Nice Day's kitchen, it's bound to be subdued with a layer of cheese or some sweet, unidentifiable sauce. On the "tapas" section of the menu, you'll find Planet of the Apes Coconut Shrimp, Disco Inferno Poppers, John Ritter Fritters, Fried Pickle CHIPs, Bo & Luke Broccoli Cheddar Bites, Elvis Presley Love Me Chicken Tenders, Don Corleone Mozzarella Sticks, Texas Toothpicks (batter-dipped jalape-o strips), onion straws, and curly fries. Some of the fried "menu items" can be requested plain, with cheese, with gravy, or for a real artery-clogger, with both. Nice Day's Enter the Dragon Egg Rolls have absolutely nothing to do Chinese food, and, fried though they are, they come with a cloyingly sweet teriyaki sauce, sweet and sour chili sauce, and honey mustard. No matter what your drug of choice was in the '70s, do not be tempted to order the Dennis Hopper Stuffed Shrooms. A better bet is the Grateful Dead Pot Stickers--steamed, as I prefer, or fried, of course. Want to knock yourself out? Order the Village People Platter--your choice of five different "Happytizers" (half portions) delivered on a Lazy Susan. Fun.
At the sandwich board, you'll want to skip the shrimp Po' Boy, which was delivered with a scant smattering of bite-sized shrimp on a big bun. The Rocky Balboa (roast beef and cheese) was dry, and the turkey club featured thinly sliced, cost-cutter, water-added turkey food item. More succesful were the Meathead Hamburger and the chicken breast sandwich. The Philadelphia Freedom Cheese Steak was the overall winner. Skip the salads; the Donna Summer shamelessly boasts of its iceberg lettuce.
The food that comes out of the Nice Day kitchen is indeed like everything else reminiscent of the '70s. None of it rises above the lowest-common-denominator level. The jalape-o peppers are not hot, the beef isn't beefy, and the chili is tepid. Even the chocolate peanut butter pie is lightweight.
We were a multigenerational bunch, ranging in age from 31 to 50, and the more youthful members of our group were more forgiving of the food. But even they were puzzled by the Happy Bowls.
At 9:30 each evening, the tables are put away and Have a Nice Day is transformed into a club; the music gets louder, the dance floor fills up, and hormones start raging in earnest. About that time, the bar starts doing a brisk business in Happy Bowls.
Christine, our cheerful and efficient waitress, explained that Happy Bowls are glass fishbowls, each of which is filled with eight shots of Everclear (that's pure grain alcohol), your choice of Tang, Hawaiian Punch, or lemonade, and a handful of glow-in-the-dark plastic straws for group drinking. Your first Happy Bowl costs $13, and the souvenir fishbowl can be refilled. These concoctions are particularly popular among halter-topped, hot-panted, glossy-lipped young girls. Perhaps the Happy Bowls explain why I have the uneasy feeling that the B.I.G. boys spent their Happy Days at fraternity parties. You won't find reponsible drinking reminders posted among the larger-than-life images of Farrah Fawcett, Fat Elvis, and Kiss.
I don't listen to golden-oldie radio; I got rid of my vinyl records, my drug habits, and my platform shoes long ago. What's more, I don't refer to my teens or my 20s as the best years of my life. When it comes to trips down Memory Lane, about all I can take is a high school reunion every five or 10 years. I suspect that, if you are old enough to have made any conscious decisions in the '70s--decisions about college, career, marriage, or children--and if you lived to tell about it, then you are too old for Have a Nice Day Cafe. If, on the other hand, you were merely born in the '70s, it might be just the fun you're looking for. This week, anyway.
According to Robert Pedlow, a bigwig at B.I.G., "We target cities on the move. Nashville ranked high on every one of our growth criteria."
How did we get so lucky?
Have a Nice Day Cafe is located at 217 Second Ave. S. (615-726-2233). Lunch is served 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Mon.-Sat.; dinner is served 5-9:30 p.m. Mon-Sat. Open 6-8:30 p.m. Sun. The dance club is open seven nights a week, 9:30 p.m.-2:30 a.m.
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