There’s a place at the table for all Nashvillians as Swett’s turns 50
Sunday, 09/12/04 | Middle Tennessee News & Information
I often tell people it’s the most integrated place in Nashville at lunch time.
It wasn’t that way when it opened in 1954. And the reason wasn’t that it was intentionally closed to certain people, but 50 years ago, Nashville was a segregated city, and blacks and whites kept to themselves for the most part.
Unfortunately, some people here still do that today, but take a trip over to Swett’s Restaurant at 28th Avenue North and Clifton at lunch time, and you’ll more than likely see all types of people breaking bread together.
”We’ve been able to draw people from different races and backgrounds, and it’s been good for the business,” David Swett Sr., the owner of the north Nashville establishment, told me Thursday as we spent some time talking about his restaurant, which officially turned 50 yesterday.
”We serve home-cooked meals, soul food, Southern cuisine,” Swett added. ”It’s vegetables and meats. People in the South love their fried chicken, turnip greens, candied yams. They like it regardless of their ethnic background.
”We’ve tried to put a place together that’s not a greasy spoon but more of a modern restaurant so that anybody who walks in here will feel comfortable. And we’ve wanted to be consistent in our service. We try not to deal with a person just because they may happen to be black or white but on a customer-by-customer basis. We try to give you a product that you enjoy.”
If you’ve been in and around Nashville as long as I have — pretty much since 1965 — you can sit in Swett’s today and recall some of the days when Walter and Susie Swett, David’s late parents, ran the restaurant.
They started it as Swett’s Dinette. And they weren’t rich people. Walter Swett came to Nashville from Dickson County with only a second-grade education while his wife had been educated at State Normal, which is now Tennessee State University.
”His drive and vision were incredible,” said David Swett Jr., who helps his father run the restaurant now. ”He didn’t let any excuse come in the way for getting the job done.
”The stories that people tell you about your grandparents. Stories such as they wouldn’t let you go hungry. If you didn’t have any money, especially if you were a college student, they would give you a bowl of beans and some cornbread.”
”When I think about how far we’ve come over the years, it’s quite overwhelming,” said David Swett Sr., whose mother died in 1987 and his father in 1994. ”But it’s kind of surprising that 50 years is here. How fast time goes.”
At age 59, the elder Swett said those 50 years have included hard work and enjoyment, not pain but pleasure.
”I think if my mother and father were alive, they could envision how we’re doing today,” he added. ”They always thought we could do better.”
And they thought that way even having to raise nine children of their own.
”Even to them, making money was the last part on the table,” David Swett Sr. said. ”This has been a place where many politicians have made their first stop. They know they can reach a large group of people from different backgrounds and people who have medium incomes to those who are pretty well off.”
As I sat in Swett’s Thursday, Nashville attorney David R. Whittaker, who is fairly new to the city, was making his first visit to Swett’s along with his wife.
”I heard it was a pretty popular place for home-cooked meals,” Whittaker told me later that day. ”I tried it, and I enjoyed it.”
Whittaker, who grew up in Johnson City and went to undergraduate school at the University of Tennessee before going to law school in Memphis, added that he had also noticed the diversity at Swett’s.
”I felt comfortable going in, and I can see why it has lasted 50 years,” he said.
”I’m glad everybody feels comfortable enough to come in here,” David Swett Sr. told me. ”We want to do business with a great mix of people. Already, we’ve gotten to know so many people from various backgrounds, and that’s been a pleasure.”
But perhaps just as important as the fact that his father and mother brought him and his brothers and sisters along in the business, David Swett Sr. has done the same thing with his children.
”The family is probably the strongest unit there is, and to keep everybody together is not always easy,” he said. ”But it’s been a way of life for us.
”Everything is centered and built around the restaurant. It’s our source of income. It’s very important to us.”
And as Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell said, ”Swett’s is a Nashville institution that uniquely captures the flavor of family, neighborhood and community. It’s a special place where great food and good conversation are a part of every meal, and you always expect to see someone you know.”