What do an 1852 railroad town, Waylon Jennings’ black Cadillac, George Dickel whiskey, and a restored Shasta camper have in common? The answer is Nikki Mitchell and her River Café in Normandy, Tennessee.Here is the breakdown: Normandy was established as a railroad town in mid 1800s on the Chattanooga to Nashville line. A typical small town commerce center sprang up around the railroad stop, including an equally typical mercantile store.
Nikki Mitchell was a long-time business manager for Waylon, who, in a roundabout way, helped her finance the River Café. Some years ago, Waylon gave Nikki one of his long black Cadillacs. Several years after his death, Nikki finally decided to sell the car to help finance the River Café–in what had been that mercantile store.
First established in 1877, and just down the road, the George Dickel distillery’ whisky provides the distinctive essence for Nikki’s “Bread Pudding by George.”A meal at the River Café is as much about Nikki as it is about the food. She led an event-filled life not only as Jennings’ business manager, but she was also a record setting pilot, an entrepreneur, and a champion for those with pancreatic cancer, which sadly, took Nikki’s life in 2013. Her brief biography on the Nikki Mitchell Foundation site online is well worth reading: http://nikkimitchellfoundation.org/?page_id=823
Today, the River Café is in the capable hands of Nikki’s brother Mike Mitchell.
According to their chalkboard outside the front door, they have a seafood buffet on Friday nights and “meat and ‘taters” buffet on Saturday nights as well as the Sunday buffet.As you step in the restaurant, a spring closes the well-worn screen door with a solid thump. The restaurant preserves the atmosphere of the late 1800s/early 1900s general store where the community could buy flour, milk, fencing, tools and hardware. The original shelves, which reach halfway to the high ceiling, are filled with an eclectic assortment glassware, fishing gear, aircraft parts, and art, some of which is for sale. The dining area is furnished with a collection of mismatched tables and chairs that stretch out over a well-trod wooden plank floor. The floor-level musicians’ stage is on the left, only a few feet from diners. There is a second-floor dining area in the back of the restaurant.
During a previous dinner, we had the barbequed pork ribs off of the menu. They were excellent, but the green chili hominy really set off the meal as something special—well, except for the “Bread Pudding by George.” Folks, this is not your grandmother’s—well at least not my grandmother’s—bread pudding. It must be the George Dickel whiskey sauce that sets it apart. I am sure that by the time the bread pudding is served, the alcohol has long been cooked off or evaporated, but that sweet aged flavor lingers on. It is an excellent reason to skip dinner and go directly to the dessert.
On this July Sunday afternoon, the River Café offered an all-you-can-eat buffet. Typically the buffet includes at least three meats and an array of sides. This Sunday featured baked ham with a sweet sauce, seasoned baked chicken, and fried catfish (a personal favorite).Having decided that I simply could not eat everything on the buffet and keep my blood pressure and weight under control, I selected the catfish and a bit of the chicken. Depending on where you get it, catfish can be excellent or it can be almost inedible. As expected, Mike’s fried catfish ranks among the best I have had.
Sides included steamed collard greens seasoned with pork (another favorite), broccoli and cheese casserole, fried apples, macaroni and cheese, steamed carrots, rice pilaf, mashed potatoes, stewed tomatoes, fried cornbread, and fry bread biscuits.
The dessert buffet offered pecan chocolate frosted yellow cake, a rich apple cobbler, classic banana pudding, and of course, the aforementioned bread pudding! Remember, this is a buffet—you do not have to choose!
On Friday and Saturday nights, The River Café has live music. The performers change weekly; in addition to local talent, the River Café draws talented musicians and singers from the Nashville area.
Oh, and about Nikki’s restored red and white 1963 Shasta camper has become a local landmark. Usually parked in the courtyard adjacent to the café, it was nowhere to be seen. We chatted with Mike taking a break outside the front of the café, and asked about the camper. Mike explained that they were planning to set up an outside dining area in the courtyard. The camper had been moved to the other side of the building, just out of sight.
Like Nikki, the River Café is one of a kind, and well worth the drive to Normandy, Tennessee, approximately 60 miles from Nashville, south on I-24 to exit 97.