A ‘Frankly’ Spectacular Meal
I eat a lot of good food across the great state of Tennessee, but it takes something particularly impressive to have me still talking days later.
It’s been almost a full week since my outstanding dinner at J Frank and I caught myself telling my best friend Robbie about it for the second time again today. But before I dive into the full assessment of my meal, I want to share a little bit of history. And while the building that houses the restaurant is rich with historical significance in its own right, I first wanted to share my personal history with its owner, Jason Vanover.
Way back in the land before time known as the early 2000s, downtown Johnson City wasn’t the charming, bustling little hub it is today. Most of the buildings were run down or vacant, and the only nightlife to speak of was Peanut’s Mecca Lounge, Numan’s, Capone’s (which at that time was called Gatsby’s) and Halo. Most people preferred to spend their evenings near campus bouncing back and forth from Poor Richard’s to The Planet or across town hitting the late night bar scenes at chain restaurants like Applebee’s, O’Charley’s and Bailey’s on North Roan Street. While we all made the rounds, the tightknit group of OG downtown regulars formed a bond in those days, and it was in that group where I first met Jason.
Jason was a friend of my cousin Brandy who was 10 years older than me. He was also a regular of all the girls who bartended at Halo and it was hard to ignore his characteristic laugh and charm every time he was in the building. He was blunt and loud but would tease you in a way that made you feel like part of the gang, which considering at that time I was sneaking around with a fake ID and barely graduated from high school, was a welcome reprieve. By the 2010’s, downtown was finally getting cleaned up and I was elated that Jason was opening an upscale dining venture called The Battery in the building that is now home to Southern Craft. Their low country cuisine and coastal ambiance became an instant hit, and their weekend brunch buffet was locally famous, with multiple fresh pressed juice options for mimosas and a rotating selection of fine cuts of meat, lunch classics and breakfast staples. No matter how busy they were, Jason always made it a point to come out of the kitchen, hand deliver something he knew we would love and make us feel like VIPs.
Fast forward a few years and the long-standing Troutdale Dining was up for sale in Bristol. Jason purchased the big, beautiful Victorian home that was once lost to the Civil War and re-branded as J Frank, a name that honors his late grandfather. Just as he had made me feel so welcome as a young, dumb downtown teen, and again during his tenure at The Battery, every single visit I’ve paid to J Frank I’ve been ushered in and treated like a guest of honor, whether it was for a single cocktail or a four course meal. Being a fan of architectural history, he has given me and my friends guided tours from top to cellar of the old, beautiful (and dare I speculate haunted) home. He’s even welcomed me in on a Tuesday when they were closed and prepared a meal for me and a date because we’d driven all the way to Bristol and he happened to be inside doing inventory. He set us up at a table in front of a roaring fireplace, turned on some jazz and said “you’re eatin what I’m makin” and proceeded to deliver multiple courses of amazing food to us while we were the only people in the building. My date thought I was literally the most influential human in the Tri-Cities after that!
So when I stopped in after a 2 year hiatus on Saturday before Easter, I was happy to accept the same warm reception of loud teasing and a big hug when Jason stepped out of the kitchen and into the bar room to say hello smack in the middle of dinner rush. While every dining room in this building is full of exquisite 19th century design, the bar is one of my favorite spaces. It’s small and intimate with a big fireplace and floor to ceiling woodwork; the perfect place to cozy up with a date over shared plates and a cold drink.
The menu has a perfectly curated selection of small and large plates, sides, salads and meats from land and sea. And while it all looked delicious, I made quick work of my decision to Surf and Turf. To me, 5oz of filet and 2 jumbo shrimp wrapped in bacon for $38 is a no-brainer. That meal in Nashville costs at least $85 and is a la carte, meaning if you add any sides it’s an additional charge. At J Frank, the steak dishes are served with two sides included! I opted for the southern brussels sprouts and smashed potatoes, and having landed on my dinner selections I was able to pair an approriate California cab to compliment my meal.
A basket of warm yeast rolls was the perfect appetizer to tide me over, and when my plate arrived it was brimming with savory goodness. I realized I hadn’t been given a steak knife and Jason happened to overhear my request for one so I could tear into my steak. “I’ll get one for you, but why don’t you try using the knife you have first?” he asked. I looked at him like he was crazy- I merely had a dull butter knife for my rolls. But to oblige him I picked it up and prepared to hack away, when the knife melted through the meat as if it were in fact a pad of room-temperature butter. That steak was perfectly cooked to medium rare and so tender I canceled the steak knife and ate the whole thing with the butter knife alone. The jumbo shrimp were wrapped from tip to tail in thick cut bacon, and when I bit into them they exploded, filling my mouth with smokey, juicy flavor. The brussels sprouts were cooked fork-tender, sauteed in duck fat with bacon and onions and drizzled with balsamic, and the smashed potatoes were loaded with cheese, bacon, scallions and im certain enough butter that my waistline would be embarrassed. This was honest-to-goodness the best meal I’ve eaten in the Tri-Cities, quite possibly ever, and I felt like the secret ingredient was it was made with care and pride in quality of work.
There’s a lot of hate and anger and sadness in this world today. It can be a very isolating place, especially if you’re solo. To walk in a building and have someone take the time to greet you with open arms, a smile and a laugh no matter how busy they are, is something extraordinary. And I watched Jason do it all night, not just to me, but to practically every guest in the house. I routinely eat at the most fabulous and highly awarded restaurants in Tennessee, but it’s very rare to see an owner provide such a hands-on experience to his guests in the way that is displayed at J Frank. The weather is perfect right now, and my suggestion to you would be to run, not walk, to get a reservation at one of the outdoor tables. You’ll probably see me there on my next visit in town.