Ode to a Nashville Legend

Nashville Court Clerk and ice cream aficionado, Howard Gentry.
Nashville Court Clerk and ice cream aficionado, Howard Gentry.

I remember that June day in 2019 vividly. It was a Tennessee scorcher, an authentic red hot sizzler, the kind of day that makes you question your resolve to be a Tennessean. As I contemplated whether to rest, chug a bottle of Gatorade, or just go straight to the ER, my panacea became clear. I desperately needed the power of ice cream. But not just any ice cream; specifically, Elliston Place Soda Shop’s ice cream. Reflexively, I cranked up the AC, jammed my foot to the accelerator and in no time at all found myself peering through the window of the soda shop like a little kid frantically waiting for his root beer float. However,  a distressing sign obstructed my view. I stared in disbelief. The soda parlor was closing? In less than a month? How could a place so beloved by the community for almost a century, be on life support? Imagine if this iconic spot had never existed at all. How many lives would have been different for it?

Start with Dr. Dan Sanders, the pharmacist who in 1920 converted a grocery store circa 1912 into a pharmacy. Back then they concocted soothing tonics and tasty treats served up by “soda jerks,“ so named for the dramatic way in which they would “jerk” on soda handles.

Add founder Lynn Chandler, who spent the entirety of his youth peddling between his family’s farm and the soda fountain. He learned the business from the ground up and at 23 convinced Dr. Sanders to make the soda counter a separate business in its own right. The two operated separately from 1939 until 1965, when the pharmacy closed. However, the soda shop was just getting warmed up.

The lives of many loyal employees who spent decades here would definitely have been changed, for the worse. Same for entertainers like Taylor Swift, Keith Urban, Reese Witherspoon and Jimmy Buffett, who would have been deprived of their “home away from home.” The soda shop had a special place in Buffett’s heart ever since he played the very first show at nearby Exit Inn in 1971. After the gig, he strolled across to Elliston and it was love at first bite.

Nashville’s first black vice mayor and now Criminal Court Clerk Howard Gentry’s life would have been different as well. As a child, outdated “Jim Crowe” laws prevented Gentry from being served ice cream inside the soda shop. So a kind waitress brought it to him outside, instead. This simple act of fairness was at the beginning of Nashville’s civil rights movement, and would eventually lead to its desegregation. It was also the beginning of what would prove to be Gentry’s life calling, peacefully unifying all racial divisions in his path. The thousands of lives that he touched for over a half century would also have been more hollow as well.

Scores of patrons would never have formed precious memories like “my dad brought me here for a milkshake when my brother or sister was born” or “that’s where I asked my wife to marry me” or, in my case, “that’s where I studied for college.” All of us would have been somehow, well, less.

Photos: Lulu Burns-Keller

Luckily, long time patrons and high-profile developers Tony and Lisa Giarratana wanted future generations to experience this extraordinary place, too. They once said that Nashville simply would not be Nashville without Elliston Place Soda Shop. So, when they learned of its impending demise, they bought it!

Their next task was how to improve on a legend, while preserving its ambience. They hired the best in the business, Inman Design, who impeccably refabricated the entire restaurant from the image of a 1939 Chicago soda parlor, then imbued it with all of Elliston’s original energy and charm. Iconic Nashville restaurateur Randy Rayburn of Music City Consulting fine-tuned the menu as an homage to Lynn Chandler, “father of the meat and three”.

Substantial upgrades hit every corner of the restaurant, from the new covered patio with a walk-up window to the full bar with boozy shakes. The new space is more than twice as large, and comes complete with a free dedicated parking lot, no small perk in this town. The original tabletop mini jukeboxes have fallen silent, but this is Music City, so a Wurlitzer jukebox and a stage for live performances were added. These impressive upgrades have successfully set the stage for their second century of yummy to begin.

Dear Elliston Place Soda Shop: if you have any doubts about your impact on Nashville’s development and the lives of its citizens, let me summarize. Every stratum of Nashville has been inspired and enriched by you. You have celebrated our successes with us, you have comforted us during our tragedies, and rescued us from the brutal Tennessee summers. Everyone from politicians to athletes, rock stars to “average Joes” are better, stronger and more unified due to your nurturing. Luckily, future generations of Nashvillians will also be able to know the power of ice cream, served the only way you know how, with love. Nashville would not have been the same without you. Here’s to your next century of sweetness!


Brad Blankenship

Brad Blankenship is a retired integrative medicine doctor who has resided in Nashville for over 50 years. He, along with his wife Lulu Burns-Keller travel the US in search of new flavors. Together, they write, photograph and review for Beyondish in the Nashville area and beyond.


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