The three story building located on the corner of Broadway and 4th Avenue has a storied past. Built as a three floor pharmacy in 1872, the building was added on to in 1892, and Merchants Hotel was born. This was the same year the famous Ryman Auditorium opened less than a block away. At that time, Nashville was booming with growing industry, from flour and cotton mills, to the manufacturing of automobiles, jeans, coffee and furniture, with traveling salesmen to peddle the goods. The successful Tennessee Exposition in 1897 and the opening of Union Station in 1900 also propelled the city to become even more of a hub, with half of the American population located within 10 hours.
Merchants Hotel was an affordable option for traveling salesmen. At that time, the famous Maxwell House Hotel was two blocks away and offered a more formal and expensive experience, but a traveling salesman could stay at Merchants for one week at almost the same price they could spend one night at the Maxwell House. Merchants became a popular stop for the early 20th century road warrior, with rooms costing just 25 cents and, for another 25 cents, a hot meal. Merchants was one of the first restaurants to offer lunch, which was not a common option at that time, and it was immediately successful. In light of the building’s origins as a pharmacy, Merchants Hotel also operated a pharmacy to serve their guests and those downtown. It is said that the some of the infamous outlaws of the Wild West frequented Merchants back then, including Wild Bill Hickok and Jesse James and his James-Younger Gang.
There are many stories about what may or may not have transpired at 401 Broadway. Rumors include that it acted as a brothel and a casino in previous lives. However, proof does exist about one story in specific: a love affair between a girl named Georgia and a Civil War soldier named Charlie. Some say Georgia is the daughter of the Merchants pharmacist and others say she worked at the hotel, but regardless of which is true, during her romance with Charlie, Georgia hid letters in the walls of the building to be found during a renovation 100 years later. The letters are a detailed correspondence between the young lovers, at first madly in love and missing one another in his absence, but eventually the tone of the letters turn harsh. It appears as if Charlie was unfaithful to Georgia and she unleashes her anger with cutting words that make her disgust very clear, ending the relationship. Decades later, it is rumored Charlie wanders the halls looking for his lost love.
The formative years of the Opry brought some famous patrons to Merchants Hotel. Country music legends Dolly Parton, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, and Roy Acuff all stayed at Merchants when they performed at the Ryman Auditorium, which was home to the Grand Ole Opry from 1943-1974. The hotel operated until the 1980’s, when downtown Nashville was in a steady decline.
Beginning in the 1970’s, Lower Broadway became home to a seedy collection of pawn shops, peep shows, adult theaters and rough pool halls. Tourists steered clear of the area and most locals stayed away too. In the 1980’s, Ed Stolman purchased the Merchants building when it was on the brink of being torn down, but local preservationists argued to save the architecturally beautiful building. In 1988 Ed took a risk and opened Merchants restaurant, an upscale restaurant ahead of the Nashville food scene and in a less than desirable area. Despite that, people did venture downtown to enjoy the food, drink and atmosphere of the charming space. Merchants restaurant became one of the most well-known fine dining establishments in the city and held that position for quite some time.
Downtown Nashville began to see drastic improvements in the 1990’s and 2000’s. Country music was the most popular genre in America, and tourists started coming to visit Music City. The city gained the Frist Visual Arts Center, the Country Music Hall of Fame, and the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Things were looking up – except for Merchants, which was once again in need of a shot in the arm or it would close. In 2010, brothers Benjamin and Max Goldberg caught wind of the fact that the famous restaurant from their childhood was on the brink of closing. The two had grown up in Nashville and remembered their grandparents having date nights at Merchants and Max even had his prom dinner there in high school.
Determined to see if they could turn it around instead of watch it close, in February of that year the Goldberg’s purchased Merchants and never told a soul, nor closed the restaurant to rehab it. They kept all the staff and slowly made changes, often working at night to ensure the day-to-day operations weren’t interrupted.
The bottom floor became a busy bistro popular for business folks at lunch or for dinners before shows at the Ryman or Bridgestone Arena. In fact, Worth magazine even named Merchants on their “Top 10 Power Lunches” list! The second floor of Merchants features a different menu, offering a more refined dining experience with steaks, fresh seafood and a la carte sides, as well as chef-composed entrees. The third floor stays busy with private events year round.
Currently there are only three 19th century buildings that were once hotels still standing in the city, however, Merchants is the only one that has acted in a restaurant capacity for 125 years.