The Hobnob Corner Restaurant was the 2014 winner of the Taste of Brown County event held in Nashville this past May. The prize is a feature article in the fall issue from Our Brown County’s Sampler.
Brown County restaurants come and go. That is the nature of the business.
They open, and they close, sometimes sooner than expected.
Restaurants disappear because they don’t get enough customers to make the economics work, and often this relates to where exactly the restaurant is—location, location, location.
Very occasionally, a Brown County restaurant gets
everything right—the elements align, the space, the customers, the staff, the ideas, the food, everything coalesces into a restaurant that becomes a community institution.
Such is the case with Hobnob Corner, the restaurant on the corner of Main and Van Buren streets in downtown Nashville, located in the oldest commercial structure in Brown County.
For 35 years, the Hobnob has provided first rate food, a convivial atmosphere, and top-notch customer service to locals and visitors alike, establishing its iconic reputation.
At the Hobnob, it is not unusual to be visited at your table by owner Warren Cole, who seems to have mastered the secrets of restaurant success.
“Oh, the location is the prime thing,” he said recently. “And, I’ve had good people working for me who have bought into the notion that you have to take care of the customer, that customer service is probably the most important thing you can do.”
“The food, of course is important, but I think the big thing is just to keep the people who come in here pleased and happy. If you do that, you can make it, I think.”
Cole took over a fledgling Hobnob in 1979, and three weeks later changed everything but the name, with immediate positive results.
“We shut it down, stripped it out, and moved the kitchen equipment all to the back of the building and converted the entire front to seating,” he recalled. “We repainted and things like that, altered the menu some, reopened, and immediately we had the best day we’d had so far.”
The Hobnob continued to do well, and in 1982 the kitchen was expanded and the back dining area was converted to seating. A new and different evening menu was created.
The cuisine is inspired by Brown County, but maybe just a bit more highbrow than the average eatery around here.
“I’ve always had a love of food,” Cole said. “I love to cook. I love different foods. So the inspiration is really from that. I don’t know that I’d say there’s any set plan to it, I just experimented with dishes and food that I like, and went with what worked and stopped what didn’t.
“We try to keep the quality as high as we can.”
As the restaurant evolved, many different people lent their taste and energy to establishing its high reputation, he said.
Cole credits his wife Betsy most of all.
“From the very beginning she was a driving force behind it,” he said. “She ran the place while I was out working at another restaurant. I couldn’t have done it without her.”
Another Cole, no relation, helped set the high standard for customer service that remains at the Hobnob today.
“Diana Cole worked here for over 30 years,” he said. “She started off just wanting a little part time work as a waitress and wound up managing the place for many years.
“She did a wonderful job—great personality, good with the customers, very oriented towards the public. She retired on me last August, and we’ve really missed her, she was very key to me.”
There have also been chefs who left their mark on the institution.
“I had a great one many years ago that got us on the right path,” Cole said. “His name was Steve Shroyer. Some of his recipes are still being used here.”
The morning breakfast cook, Ernie Baker, is also something of a local legend, with 30 years behind the short order grill.
“Lately my son, Eric has been responsible for the After Five Menu and is heading up the kitchen. He’s doing a fine job as well.”
The core menu at Hobnob has stayed pretty much the same for a long time, but it varies with seasonal additions to the middle menu. Now there’s an After Five Menu which varies quite a bit more and changes more regularly. This gives the chef a chance to stretch, to experiment, and to get a little more glamorous. It keeps the evening menu unpredictable.
“It’s more upscale kind of dishes, like the Corvina that we’re running right now, the seared duck, lamb chops the past week,” he said. “We’re just playing around with things. You’re not committed to it—if it doesn’t work, you just don’t run it again. It’s a special, it’s not part of the menu. You can do it again another day or never do it again.”
Cole said he’s always liked business, but craves the excitement a restaurant provides.
“Here, there’s always something to do, a discharge of energy, he said.
“I like the action.”
The Hobnob has a strong following among local residents, but also, importantly, a large repeat customer base among regular visitors to Nashville.
“Even in October, when we’re flooded with customers, when I start talking to them, I find out they’ve been coming here for years, off and on, even if it’s every couple of years.” Cole said.
“That’s important. You can always get a customer once. It’s getting them to come back that is the trick.”