My whole family loved Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog.” I could go on and on about the stunning visuals and how thankful I am that Disney has returned to hand-drawn animation. I could tell you the reasons I was impressed with the story and its handling of different ethnicities and cultures, which you would then debate with me.
But I won’t. Because this isn’t a movie review blog.
There is one thing, though, that I keep coming back to when I think about “The Princess and the Frog.” More so than even Disney’s “Ratatouille,” this is a food movie. Tiana waits tables, cooks and serves beignets, and dreams of opening a New Orleans restaurant. And while she’s learning to cook in her family kitchen, her father tells her that “Good food brings people together.”
It’s the same message that I heard from a remarkable restaurateur during a recent trip to Nashville, Tenn. Michael King may speak with a Boston accent, but his family-style restaurant — Monell’s — is all Southern.
Monell’s diners plow through seven and a half tons of skillet fried chicken every month, thighs and drumsticks served up alongside mashed potatoes, collard greens and corn pudding. They wash it down with gallons of sweet tea and finish it off with creamy-sweet banana pudding. All of it served up family style. Because good food brings people together.
“The only rule we have here is pass to the left,” King tells the customers he directs to long dining tables, filling every seat.
“You sit with people you otherwise wouldn’t,” King says. Eating together “allows people to see each other as people.”
King didn’t grow up dreaming of his own restaurant, like Princess Tiana. The Massachusetts native came to Nashville to work as a performer at the Opryland U.S.A. theme park. But as the park headed toward its closure in the 1990s, King bought an 1880s Victorian home in the historic Germantown section of Nashville and used his credit cards to open Monell’s on Thanksgiving Day in 1995.
He says he didn’t find this business; the business found him. “Sometimes things are much bigger than us,” King told me. “We just have to be willing to participate.”
If you visit Nashville, visit Monell’s. But be prepared to wait – the 72 seats in this restaurant are first-come, first-served. And that goes for everyone. “I made Oprah wait 45 minutes,” King says.
There will always be at least three meats, three salads and four vegetables on the table, along with a drink and dessert for one price, currently $12-$16, depending on the day and time. There’s a discount for kids 4-10, and children under 3 eat for free.
It’s a casual place, and the constant conversation among strangers and friends can make Monell’s a little noisy. But isn’t that what a family meal is all about?
And don’t be surprised to find the Italian-looking, Yankee-talking Michael King right there in the middle of it all, shaking a hand, patting a back and offering up his form of Southern hospitality.
“I don’t want to be remembered by plaques,” King says. “I want to be remembered by the people I touch.”