Bowled Over
Josh Habiger's New Americana Menu Is the Biggest Surprise at Pinewood Social By Joe Nolan

If you don't already know what Pinewood Social is, the most frustrating question you can ask someone in the know is, you know, "What is Pinewood Social?" The answer requires a deep breath and a rambling run-on of a description that includes the mention of a bar, karaoke, an internet café, a restaurant, and a bowling alley. They may also mention something about bocce ball and a swimming pool. They'll be exhausted and you'll still have no clue. I'll tell you what it is: it's a place you need to go to, serving food you'll want to eat.

Chef Josh Habiger made his name in the open performance space of the Catbird Seat, serving up his dishes at the very tiptop of Nashville's food chain and garnering national attention for himself, the spot, and the city to boot!

Pinewood's offerings are comfort-food classics one doesn't instantly connect to Habiger and his reputation. So why would a talented chef who's given Nashville some of the finest dining it's ever experienced suddenly decide to start frying chicken?

"I call it Americana. I like the idea of the staple recipes," explains Habiger, at a table in the main restaurant within the massive Rolling Mill Hill trolley barn that Pinewood calls home. "When I was a kid, we'd eat at church and we'd have all these old ladies bringing food in and these old guys with their special chili recipes, and you'd just have this whole cookbook of local food." The menu at Pinewood goes well beyond your neighbor's secret chili recipe, but don't expect too much regional flavor. "I felt dishonest trying to do Southern food, 'cause I'm from the Midwest-a small town in Minnesota."

I'm not the first observer to point out that the food service at Pinewood doesn't quite feel like it does at most restaurants. Habiger offers 4 menus with 19 weekly services that put me in mind of a hotel more than merely a restaurant. While there are no lodgings for a sleepover at Pinewood, the cafe/workspace/bar/restaurant/recreation offerings make it a place where you are welcome and expected to spend some time, eat and drink, and eat some more.

"It's the exact opposite of Catbird," Habiger says of his position at the Pinewood. "My role has gone from being a very hands-on guy to being someone who needs to be effective in showing people how to do things and relying on my sous chefs-who are amazing. The challenge at the Catbird Seat was me doing what a bartender does, but with food. I was dealing with the pressures of being both the front of the house and cooking the food at the same time. This is a high-volume restaurant. I have to let go of that control. I can't taste or touch every plate that goes out, and I can't physically be here from 7 a.m. until 1 a.m. every day."

Pinewood's menus are broadly ambitious and during the week they serve food from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m., opening at 9 a.m. on the weekends. The breakfast menu includes highlights like a smoked trout omelet in an "Egg in a Jar" dish, featuring eggs and ham covered in mornay sauce and topped with truffle. The lunch menu includes everything from a traditional shrimp cocktail to a Cobb salad to a $13 hamburger, topped-correctly-with American cheese. For dinner, why not try the fried cheese curds and marinated beets before diving into Pinewood's Germanic take on a grilled pork chop? The highlights here are the "Large Format" meals of fried chicken or roast beef, which can be ordered for a small group to share. Most of the offerings have no relation to Habiger's Catbird creations, and he's clearly relishing the chance to do dishes he'd have never done at his old job.

"I really like our breakfast menu here," says Habiger. "We're doing classic French omelets with no caramelization, just this fluffy, brilliant yellow. Nobody in Nashville is really doing that." And while Habiger bristles at the idea of making the local ingredients in his recipes part of the Pinewood brand or its marketing, he's always on the lookout for the best, and he's planning on working with some of his old Catbird suppliers as soon as spring starts sprouting.

"We opened in December and there wasn't much local produce available," says Habiger. "But, I'll be working with local folks as much as we can. Karen (Overton) at Wedge Oak is, like, my favorite person in the world. She loves her animals to the point of getting attached to them and nearly not being able to supply me. We love Bear Creek-everybody uses Bear Creek. The people at Triple L Ranch have been great, too."

With all of the care Habiger is putting into his menus, he might be concerned about his homey entrees and scrumptious apps getting lost somewhere between the bowling alley and the poolside tiki bar (coming soon). But the chef seems unfazed.

"We're trying to create an experience," he says. "It's a restaurant that's trying to be more than a restaurant-we're trying to create an entire environment."

So, what is Pinewood Social? You'll just have to see it for yourself. Just don't forget your bathing suit.