My parents packed their station wagon with little girls and traveled to Chattanooga from Jasper, Tn., to celebrate my birthday. We went to the movies, then dined at the Mt. Vernon. I was already in awe of the big city with stop lights and department stores, but suddenly the waitress appeared with a birthday cake all lit up and the entire restaurant erupted in song. For me! I was absolutely amazed by this phenomenon. I asked the waitress how she knew, and she said 'a little bird told her,' and winked at my parents. I tried to figure out how a bird in Chattanooga would know it was my birthday. I wish I could say it was my 3rd birthday, but I've had a soft spot for that restaurant for decades.
It's the perfect combination of tradition, good service and great food and has as much going for it now as it did back in the day: easy (and free) parking, a quiet intimate atmosphere with white linen tablecloths, a full bar and the same down-home Southern charm I remember 45 years ago. The sautéed grouper with lemon sauce is to die for, and my boys argue that the hamburger steak is the best in town.
The Mt. Vernon has been in business for fifty seven years at the same location at the foot of Lookout Mountain. And it's been run by the same family. Cindy and Jeff Messinger manage the restaurant her family started and have succeeded in part by the old adage "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." But Jeff has made changes over the years, including a heart-healthy menu after his own health scare. And his new chef, Jason Lovell, has made a few more. "We're keeping the traditional Southern comfort food, but we're striving to use local produce and meats. All of our vegetables are fresh, and our salad dressings are homemade. We're working with local farmers and ultimately want to be a sustainable restaurant," Jason says.
Jason grew up in South Georgia and spent a good amount of time on the front porch with his mom and grandmother, listening to them "tell lies all summer while they shucked corn and put up figs and canned everything." He trained at the Art Institute in Atlanta and served as executive chef in several restaurants in Montana before succumbing to the pull of the South. He and his fiancé left the traffic of Atlanta for the outdoor scene in Chattanooga, and he is happy as he can be to have the run of the kitchen at the Mount Vernon. "Jeff and I are both blessed with each other," he says as he explains the perfect timing for each of them.
The Mt. Vernon has always been the go-to spot for an intimate meal no matter whether it's lunch or dinner. But now Jeff and Jason have begun a new tradition that's sure to become as popular as the amaretto pie. Every afternoon, from 4 – 6:30, Jason will be creating 'small plates' of the day. Mouth watering Gouda Cheese Fritters with a Muddy Pond Sorghum syrup, Crab Cake Sliders with Cajun Mayonnaise, or Pulled Pork Tacos with Apple Cucumber Slaw will sell for a mere $5 a plate. And a glass of wine will only be $5, and the draft beer will be $3. The menu will change daily, but will undoubtedly be equally tempting each day.
On Wednesday nights, 'Vintage Cocktails' should be in full swing, so reminisce a little as you order up Manhattans, Tom Collins or Whiskey Sours with extra cherries. Also Wednesday nights will be All-You-Can-Eat-Crab Legs.
So load up the station wagon with your buddies and cozy up in a booth after work. You'll be able to actually hear each other across the table. And if the waitress asks you how you heard about the new Happy Hour, just tell them a little bird told you.
Chef Jason Lovell
- Photo2 by Ferris Robinson