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VOL. 38 | NO. 12 | Friday, March 21, 2014

Seafood, memories at McNair’s old Jefferson Street restaurant

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Veteran journalist, author, music expert and columnist Tim Ghianni spent 33 years working in daily newspapers in Middle Tennessee. He knows all of the stars in music and many other Nashville professions, but his passion is writing about everyday people. His biweekly column, “Street Level,” debuts today.  

Jamal Britton hoists Alaskan king crab legs from steamer to Styrofoam to-go box. Without hesitation, he turns to grilling fish filets as he attempts to satisfy the steady flow of folks ducking beneath the almost-invisible scrawled memorial to Steve McNair.

Famished folks drawn by the Philly fish flavorings generously offered up at Seafood Sensation in Price Plaza – near the Jefferson Street and 28th Avenue North intersection – may not remember the blood, sweat and tears of those steamy summer days when this plate-glass storefront was covered with graffiti farewells and when floral stems littered the sidewalk. Back then this tidy establishment was Gridiron9 and the proprietor, McNair, had been gunned down by his mistress.

Jamal remembers, and he didn’t even live here then. He and business partner Darren Morgan had just returned from Philadelphia to Nashville, where they’d explored opening a branch of their two Seafood Sensation restaurants.

Gridiron9, freshly opened by McNair, was one of their stops. “Steve wasn’t here. Just his business partner, Big Daddy, and another guy.”

“We heard about Steve’s murder not long after we got home,” says Jamal, ladling his secretly seasoned garlic-butter concoction on the to-go box’s contents of crab, corn, broccoli and potatoes.

“Anybody can steam seafood, grill seafood,” he says, as the buttery mix flows. “What you put on it makes the difference. We do a combination of spices.”

The transplanted Philadelphian shrugs off inquiries as to that spicy formula, answering only “We put love on every dish. Brotherly love.”

Jamal Britton, who waits for the next order, plans to keep the memory of Steve McNair alive even as he lures more and more diners to Jefferson Street to enjoy his Philly-style seafood.

-- Tim Ghianni | Nashville Ledger

Squeegees and solvents mostly have erased the hand-scrawled hearts and prayers that turned this restaurant’s facade into a people’s monument in July 2009, after four bullets ended Stephen LaTreal McNair’s dream of bringing jobs and diners to Gridiron9, named for his jersey number. A subtle reminder of that trauma and love’s outpouring is a woman’s name and “RIP” hand-printed in the “9” in the 2719E address stencil above the door.

An intentional monument is that “Gridiron9” rather than “Seafood Sensation” remains on the Jefferson Street signpost listing Price Plaza businesses. “I’m not going to change that,” Jamal says, pointing through the window to that sign. “It’s for Steve.”

Eyes fixed on the busy avenue itself, he adds: “You know, Martin Luther King marched right there.”

Jamal embraces that history as well as that of No. 9. “We stayed with the same color scheme Steve had, blue and white, on the floor,” he says, adding he plans to have a memorial wall mural of McNair painted in the dining room.

No. 9 has not been forgotten among diners, either.

“McNair was an iron man,” says Bill Mason, as he waits for Jamal to deliver his heaping platters of fried whiting.

“He was a real Southern gentleman,” says wife, Carolyn. They regret they didn’t make it into this storefront when it was Gridiron9. Course they didn’t have much time. It was only open a couple weeks when McNair died.

Dashawn Ellison gets fish fillets ready.

-- Tim Ghianni | Nashville Ledger

“We’ve been coming since Seafood Sensation opened up about two years ago,” says Bill. “Sometimes we get the seafood platter, sometimes the fish platter. Everyone here is warm and friendly.”

“Great food. Nice guys. And it’s clean,” adds Carolyn, noting she and her husband look forward to their short drive from Mason & Associates insurance firm on Clarksville Highway.

Landlord T.O. Price – owner of the shopping plaza and proprietor of College Crib, which specializes in T-shirts and paraphernalia for the Greek communities of Tennessee State, virtually across the street, as well as Fisk and other historically black colleges – recalls the “awesome fella” who worked long into the night to get Gridion9 ready for its grand-opening.

“He was a humble guy. He wanted it to succeed, he really did.”

He ran out of time. McNair’s demise and its circumstances provided an emotional gut-punch to a city that loved the “tape up the torn muscle, splint the busted bone and give me the ball” QB, who led the Titans to their only Super Bowl appearance before being coldly cast aside to make room for Bud Adams’ “VY is my guy” flying circus and fiasco.

Even after McNair was dispatched to Baltimore, Nashville – where the league’s then-rowdiest fans raucously cheered him, Eddie, Kevin, Frank and the Freak on so many autumn Sundays – remained his home. Gridiron9 was born as his attempt to help resuscitate a too-often ignored stretch of Music City.

Other restaurants came and went from this place while McNair’s untidy estate was sorted out, but until Jamal got here, no one showed the passion No. 9 had for Jefferson Street.

“We plan to be here for a long-time,” says Jamal, whose gastronomic legend has spread by word of mouth, after those mouths have enjoyed the delights created in his kitchen.

“We saw a couple here last week who had come down from Clarksville,” says Bill Mason, the insurance man. “Their daughter had told them about it. They came to get some crab legs.”

Emily Richards, 24, a TSU dorm director and criminal justice master’s degree student, has been making the short walk from campus for two years.

“They really brought something special to Nashville,” she says, glancing from her smart phone to speak with this writer, who’d had been enjoying “Our Famous Philly Ice” (mango flavor is highly recommended). “They take their time and prepare the food right. And they give back to the community.”

Jamal has just rung up the salmon platter order of Timothy Hicks, a TSU exercise science grad student who proclaims “The food here is different from other stuff around here. And it’s healthy as well.”

“A lot of people will come in and look around and say ‘This is Steve’s old spot,’” says Jamal.

He doesn’t mind that, because people who come once generally become regulars. Besides that, he does identify with the fallen quarterback’s goal: “We want to score a touchdown here. Get the extra points, too.”

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