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Top 5 Southern cooking restaurants in Middle Tennessee — Not Nashville

The Tennessean (Nashville) logo The Tennessean (Nashville) 8/6/2019 Brad Schmitt
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With all these super-trendy hipster restaurants hitting Nashville, I thought it might be time to go back to our deep-fried, fatback-filled, nanner puddin'-lovin' Southern roots.

Who's slingin' the best fried chicken, catfish, turnip greens, mac n cheese and cornbread in Middle Tennessee? We're talkin' good country cookin', so sorry, Nashville, you're out.

Yes, we love Arnold's and Swett's and Monell's, but I took taste testers outside Davidson County lines (but within an hour's drive of downtown Nashville) to find home-cookin' gems.

a plate of food on a table: Southern Hospitality Diner’s fried catfish is a popular dish at the downtown Nolensville restaurant on Tuesday, July 30, 2019. © Shelley Mays / The Tennessean Southern Hospitality Diner’s fried catfish is a popular dish at the downtown Nolensville restaurant on Tuesday, July 30, 2019.

Based on vibe, service and, of course, food, here are our top 5:

No. 5: Jeff's Family Restaurant, Murfreesboro

a bunch of food on a plate: The fried chicken and hot water cornbread are awesome at Jeff's Family Restaurant in Murfreesboro, Tenn. © Brad Schmitt / Tennessean The fried chicken and hot water cornbread are awesome at Jeff's Family Restaurant in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

467 S. Hancock St., Murfreesboro, 45 minutes southeast of Nashville

Best drumstick ever!

Maybe that's a super random way to start the description of this big white box of a no-frills old-school meat-and-three.

But, man, that crispy, juicy fried chicken will make you feel like a kid again because it's like your granny's chicken, if your granny made awesome food.

COUNTY BY COUNTY: Middle Tennessee's best spots to find good 'ol Southern cooking

In fact, the whole vibe here is comfort. No fancy recipes or spices, just solid, well-done chicken, cornbread, cabbage and banana pudding.

And the restaurant's namesake, Jeff, is just a super nice, relaxed guy who seems delighted to talk customers through the menu. 

There's also a wacky blend of antique signs and Jimi Hendrix posters on the walls.

My favorite sign was in the men's room: "Don't forget to wash your hands and pray because Jesus and germs are everywhere."

No. 4: Barbara's Home Cookin', Franklin

1232 Old Hillsboro Road, Franklin, 30 minutes south of Nashville

a house with a fence in front of a building: Barbara's Home Cookin' in Franklin has a down-home feel in part because the restaurant is a home, with seating on the porch and in the front yard © Brad Schmitt / Tennessean Barbara's Home Cookin' in Franklin has a down-home feel in part because the restaurant is a home, with seating on the porch and in the front yard

Pick a night that's not too hot so you can eat outside; you'll feel like you're eating at home on your back porch. But it's much nicer because you don't have to cook and hardly anyone's arguing.

It also feels like home because some of Barbara's basics — the mac and cheese and sweet potato casserole in particular — are perfectly executed.

Barbara's also offers a twist here and there. The poppy-seed chicken casserole had lots of interesting flavors and a little crunch, making it the favorite of our crew. And the pineapple cheese casserole was extraordinary — tangy, sweet and salty at the same time.

Don't skip dessert — the fudge pie and pecan pie are worth the extra calories.

Then again, if you're worried about calories, you're probably not going to a Southern home cooking restaurant, soooooooo... never mind.

No. 3: Readyville Mill, Readyville

5418 Murfreesboro Road, Readyville, 51 minutes southeast of Nashville

a pizza sitting on top of a green plate: The cinnamon swirl pancake at Readyville Mill in Readyville, Tenn., comes with a buttery cream cheese icing © Brad Schmitt / Tennessean The cinnamon swirl pancake at Readyville Mill in Readyville, Tenn., comes with a buttery cream cheese icing

Here is a renovated grist mill with perfect country decor and charm for days. 

Readyville Mill almost looks like a tourist trap — and the table of out-of-town giggling bachelorettes next to us didn't help.

Truth is, though, that Readyville Mill has plenty of local regulars from Woodbury and Murfreesboro. We saw several neighbors stop and speak with each other, adding even more warmth to this quaint treasure.

We're hardly the first ones to be enchanted by Readyville Mill, though. Show up without a reservation, and you could be waiting an hour or more for a table. 

Oh, and BTW, they serve some awesome food. Try the biscuits, baked with heavy whipping cream, butter and sour cream, and cover them with gravy with big chunks of spicy sausage.

Finally, wow your fellow diners by getting a cinnamon swirl pancake with buttery cream cheese icing for the table. You'll never eat another Cinnabon. (Well, probably not. OK, maybe in a pinch....)

No. 2: Beacon Light Tea Room, Bon Aqua

6276 TN-100, Bon Aqua, 42 minutes southwest of Nashville

a table topped with plates of food on a plate: Fried chicken is the star of the show at Beacon Light Tea Room in Bon Aqua, Tenn., though many folks drive there for the tea biscuits © Brad Schmitt / Tennessean Fried chicken is the star of the show at Beacon Light Tea Room in Bon Aqua, Tenn., though many folks drive there for the tea biscuits

Come for the biscuits, stay for the fried chicken.

I went out there last year to try their famous little tea biscuits, which were amazing. But while we were there, I went ahead and ordered a full lunch. And that's when I snarfed down some of the tastiest, crunchiest, juiciest fried chicken I've had in Tennessee.

But everything was solid there — pork chops, mac n cheese, barbecue chicken were all amazing.

Bible verses and a picture of Jesus hang on the walls interspersed with traditional country kitsch, and the servers are as sweet as the iced tea.

No. 1: Southern Hospitality Diner, Nolensville

7301 Nolensville Road, Nolensville, 30 minutes southeast of Nashville

The competition for  the top spot on this list wasn't even close. Southern Hospitality Diner serves consistently excellent food with fast, friendly service.

I. Can't. Even.

The fried green tomatoes (does it get more Southern than that?) are excellent, lightly breaded with a crispy fry on the super tangy, fresh tomatoes.

The macaroni and cheese is fresh, simple and cheesy. The fried catfish is perfectly cooked and HOT. (I was surprised at how many meat-and-threes served room-temperature food. But I digress.)

a dessert on a plate: The warm cinnamon apple dessert at Southern Hospitality Diner in Nolensville, Tenn., features vanilla ice cream, a deep-fried Belgium waffle and caramel sauce © Brad Schmitt / Tennessean The warm cinnamon apple dessert at Southern Hospitality Diner in Nolensville, Tenn., features vanilla ice cream, a deep-fried Belgium waffle and caramel sauce

And the desserts?? Un-freakin'-real. The world's best banana pudding is right here, and there's a warm cinnamon apples and ice cream-over-waffles dish that's as good as it sounds.

This isn't just the best Southern home cooking spot in Middle Tennessee, it's one of the region's best restaurants. Period.

What are your favorite Southern cooking spots? Did Brad get it right? Reach Brad Schmitt at brad@tennessean.com or 615-259-8384 or on Twitter @bradschmitt.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Top 5 Southern cooking restaurants in Middle Tennessee — Not Nashville

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