Lonely Planet Writer

A new Nashville restaurant preserves an important part of the city's history

One of Nashville’s most significant historic spaces has just reopened as a restaurant – and makes an important effort to acknowledge its past.

Woolworth on Fifth Image by Nathan Zucker

Woolworth on 5th, a three-story restaurant and lounge in downtown Nashville, is housed in the former F.W. Woolworth, a five-and-dime store that served downtown Nashville for much of the 20th century. In the 1960s, F.W. Woolworth played an important role in the Civil Rights Movement as one of the first sites of Nashville’s history-changing lunch counter sit-ins.

The lunch counter on the main floor. Image by Danielle Atkins

“The history of Nashville is rich and diverse and should be preserved, yet every day we hear about another building being torn down to make room for something new,” says Tom Morales, owner and CEO of TomKats Hospitality, the group that runs the restaurant. “The Woolworth building needed to be saved, and we are honored to be part of the next chapter of its history.“

This piece of Nashville history is being preserved. Image by Danielle Atkins

In the new Woolworth on 5th, which serves breakfast, lunch and dinner daily, you can still see many of the building’s Art Deco details, including the railings and original terrazzo floors. The lunch counter that was the site of so many protests in the spring of 1960 was on the mezzanine level, and you can still see the spots where the stools once stood. The ground floor houses the main restaurant, with a long counter along one side that recalls the original. Musical moments from Motown history play on a large screen at the end of the room. In the New Era Ballroom on the basement level, live music and dancing will take place nightly beginning 1 March.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served every day. Image by Danielle Atkins

“Woolworth on 5th brings a unique vibe to the downtown scene – a welcome table of home grown flavors, old school sounds, and classic dance moves – and we are excited to share it with the city we love,” says Morales.

What is a sit-in?

Sit-ins were an important part of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. In the segregated Southern USA, African Americans were allowed to shop in city department stores – but they weren’t allowed to dine at the lunch counters in those same stores. Civil rights leaders organized nonviolent protests at these lunch counters as a visible way to illustrate the injustices of Jim Crow. On 13 February, 1960, the first mass sit-in took place in Nashville. More than 100 African American students entered three Nashville department stores, including F.W. Woolworth, and asked to be served. When they were denied service, they sat on the ground inside the store in protest for hours. These acts of civil disobedience were repeated throughout the spring of 1960 in Nashville and other cities around the Southeast. Thanks to the work of these protesters, in May of 1960 Nashville became the first city to desegregate its lunch counters.