Fido: Member Spotlight

As Nashville’s restaurant scene is celebrated nationally, it’s important to honor some of the places that have given the city its local flavor—the ones that came first.

fido3Fido is a Hillsboro Village institution that’s been a go-to place for Nashvillians for breakfast, lunch and dinner since 1996. The restaurant was a natural second-shop evolution from a former writer who opened Nashville’s oldest coffeehouse.

Chicago-native Bob Bernstein came to Nashville in 1988 to be a reporter with the Nashville Business Journal.

“Like a lot of people, I came to Nashville thinking I’d be here for a year or two,” he says. “My plan then was to move on to a bigger and better city and a bigger and better paper.

“Turns out I had it backward: I didn’t like my career choice but I came to love this city. There was a lot of opportunity here.”

By “opportunity,” he means little going on. In 1988, Nashville could boast only a handful of local restaurants that attracted foodies and not one coffeehouse. Bob sensed the city was ready for that to change.

So capitalize on opportunity he did. A few weeks before his 30th birthday in early January 1992, he quit his reporting job to open a coffeehouse. Bongo Java opened in 1993 near Belmont University, and it’s now the city’s oldest and most celebrated café (Google NunBun for an idea of its fame).

At the time, Bob didn’t know much about running a coffeehouse. What he knew he learned by hanging out at cafes in his hometown Chicago. He sensed that successful cafes fit their neighborhood, and that the look and feel was just as if not more important than the product.

“I got into the restaurant business because I liked the coffeehouse atmosphere,” he says. “Some start with the food concept. I started with atmosphere. Then I hired the right people, encouraged them and got out of their way. Somehow it all came together.”

Two years later, a spot in Hillsboro Village opened up and Bob jumped at the chance to expand.

“In 1996, I thought Hillsboro Village was the one cool neighborhood in Nashville, and even then it was pretty sleepy,” he says.

The new location was originally intended to be small and to be called Bongo 2go. While negotiating the space, the pet store next door packed up and left in the middle of the night, leaving Bob with triple the space, a new business plan and a new name.

“We wanted to give the dog on the old neon pet store sign a name,” he says, “It was either Fido or Spot. Spot seemed too cute.”

So first, Bob created Fido’s interior. The plan wasn’t to make space new and shiny. It’s more informal, more gritty, and as a result, more approachable. He wanted a place where people were comfortable coming to every day, rather than on a special night out.

“I wanted it to feel like it had been there forever,” he says. “Now 19 years later, it’s starting to be almost forever,” says Bob.

Today, Fido’s tables are still brimming with business people holding meetings, students studying and families eating lunch together, a tradition they may have held for years. Bob also credits his staff for the regular inpouring of customers; a great core of good people who keep the business running smoothly and customers happy, he says.

After the atmosphere and the people came the food. At first the menu was kept to simple sandwiches and soups. It was coffee the people wanted, after all! But after about a year, Bob hired on a chef who brought the food into focus at Fido.

The locally sourced menu now offers all-day breakfast selections as well as comfort food staples with surprising twists—think a burger topped with caramelized fennel and fig aioli, or a grilled ham and cheese sandwich made with apple-ginger butter—and the daily specials feature inventive dishes using what’s local and in season. In fact, Bob believes Fido likely buys just as much, or more, regionally produced food than anyone in town.

Fido also has an onsite bakery keeping the counters stocked with freshly baked pastries and desserts. And then there’s the coffee, of course: everything from lattes and cortados to an amazing hot chocolate.

“We do really great food and coffee and everything, but we do it in a way that’s approachable,” says Bob. “It’s more authentic. It’s who we are.”

After 19 years—and after local coffeehouses and restaurants have popped up all around Nashville and Hillsboro Village has grown into a destination neighborhood—Fido continues to serve great food and coffee to Nashvillians who love it for what it is: a place to hang out.

“As this neighborhood changes and more out-of-town companies move here, I think being the local guy gives us an advantage,” says Bob. “I’m here almost every day and we get involved with different community events, and people support that.”

But he warns that with the growth comes the risk of losing our local restaurants. As one of Nashville’s trailblazers, Bob, more than anyone, knows the importance of the city’s support for local businesses. And he’s proud to be part of the Nashville Originals, which celebrates Nashville’s flavor by promoting locally and independently owned restaurants.

“When I first moved here, I was worried Nashville was going to be a chain city,” he says. “I’m happy to be a part of the local movement. Our locally owned places need to survive. When out-of-town concepts come here, and when the same concept opens all over the city, it dilutes the flavor of the city.”

Fido, located at 1812 21st Avenue, is open seven days a week from 7 a.m. till 11 p.m. For menu details and more, visit their website at www.fidocafe.com.

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