For understated elegance, Mere Bulles means business.
It’s not often that a restaurant can be classified as both a “hidden gem” and a “local icon.” But those labels can be applied simultaneously to Mere Bulles. And the venerable Maryland Farms eatery wears both of them well.
In a day when restaurants come-and-go, Mere Bulles’ longevity solidifies it’s iconic status. It is the mainstay of Brentwood dining establishments, having operated at 5201 Maryland Way since 2000. Prior to that it enjoyed a 15-year run in downtown Nashville.
But when a restaurant is shrouded by tall trees and tucked away from the main drag in a 74-year-old plantation home, it becomes a quintessential gem among rows of cookie-cutter office buildings.
Steven Smithing acquired Mere Bulles in 2006 and began operating the restaurant in April 2007. From the ingredients to the menu, and from service to the setting, Smithing keeps it simple.
“We source the highest quality ingredients and buy the best meat and produce,” he says. “Our guests are our top priority and we’ll serve them only the best and we do it the best way possible.
“You have to know your guests. People do bring families and we have a big Sunday brunch. But it’s a business-class restaurant and businesses want it pretty safe. They want to get in here by six and be out by eight. When they’re entertaining a client, they don’t want a lot of surprises.”
By understanding the guest, Mere Bulles has mastered the craft of providing a dining experience that is elegant, yet relaxed. The presentation is appealing, not overpowering. Whether it’s a full meal in one of the spacious dining rooms, a drink at the handsome bar, a wedding reception or a private meeting upstairs, the Mere Bulles guest is always at home.
“I feel like I have a good ability to taste and sense,” says Smithing. “I consider myself the ‘Everyman’ of dining. If I like it, so will others.”
This emphasis on simplicity is evident on the menu where prime rib and a deep wine list take center stage. According to Smithing, the restaurant goes through 40 loins of prime rib – about 500 servings – each week. And all bottles of wine are half-price all day, every day. Newcomers and longtime guests alike gravitate toward Mere Bulles’ classics like Charleston She-Crab Bisque and Rib Rolls.
“We have a good brand name and I think we have more top-of-mind-awareness than we used to,” says Smithing. “That also means we have to continually evolve. Prime Rib is a menu staple but that customer tends to be about 40 years old. Younger people lean more toward a seared fish, like halibut, sea bass or grouper. And there are enough vegetarians out there that we offer some really nice dishes in that category.”
The result is that the restaurant has grown each year that Smithing has owned it. Helping him pull it all together every day – “managed chaos,” in Smithing’s vernacular – is a staff that is among the most experienced in town.
Josh Werle is a production-oriented chef and kitchen manager. Christopher Smithing, Steven’s brother, is also a chef with a creative flair who comes up with specials and wine dinners.
Jessica Hancock is the event coordinator and daytime maître d’. Managers Matt Hastings and Abby Waltz started as servers. Pam Kemp has worked at Mere Bulles longer than anyone, including the owner, and Vernon Williams is the most-requested server.
“Pam cares about this restaurant as much as anyone,” says Smithing, “and I’ve seen Vernon thank everyone and shake their hand as they walk out the door. You can’t teach that. You have to want to do that that.
“This isn’t life or death; it’s food. But there’s a rush of energy that comes from doing the job right and making people happy. When people leave and say ‘great job,’ it makes you feel good every time. You never get tired of hearing that.”
And it’s the kind of service and hospitality one would expect from any hidden gem or local icon.