“This place is like Noah’s Ark,” says Laurent Champonnois, chef and owner of the Nashville-based restaurant Once Upon a Time in France. His co-owner and son, Melvil (Mel) Arnt tells me over eighty percent of the restaurant includes relics, family heirlooms, furniture and paintings they brought directly from their pays d’origine. Champonnois says they took “the best parts of France so it could survive here in Nashville.”
Nashville has seen its fair share of culinary experimentation, from New Southern fritters to pulled-pork ramen to venison biltong. And while Nashvillians dig into new dishes, the cultural aspect of the bistro is still something folks are warming up to. In France, bistros serve as one of the pillars of culture and cuisine. It’s a place with a laissez-faire approach to reservations where meals can stretch on for hours. The food is classic and affordable, like steak frites, escargot and la soupe à l’oignon. In many instances, bistro meals serve as the only true meal a Frenchman might consume during the day. The food is nourishing and many of the traditional dishes haven’t changed for hundreds of years.
“Tonight, I’m serving duck á l’orange. It’s not something you find on many menus since the eighties,” Champonnois says, suggesting the dish “has become extinct.” There’s a sense that Once Upon a Time in France serves not only as Noah’s Ark for the relics, but for the food as well.
Laurent goes on to share a list of recipes in his repertoire, and notably there is a page on the menu listed “Meals for the Brave and Adventurous.” Dishes like rognons á la moutarde (lamb kidneys in a wine and mustard sauce), tête de veau (veal’s head-skin and beef tongue), and cervelle meunière (breaded lamb or veal brains) have all nearly died out, but are now served here in a forty-five-seat bistro located on the Gallatin Pike highway.
Arnt explains the restaurant was “named after one of our favorite movies, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America.” It makes sense, as Champonnois, prior to training as a chef, worked as a television and movie producer, with hundreds of French titles to his credit. Arnt says, “the 1920s ambiance of the restaurant [featured in the movie] served as an inspiration for the current setting.” On the side, Arnt spent nearly a decade renovating homes, in addition to his work as a recording engineer and musician. While his father might be in charge of what comes out of the kitchen, Arnt is responsible for renovating and creating the bistro’s beautiful vintage backdrop and ambiance with his own two-hands.
But modern-day Nashville’s restaurant scene has exploded, as well as its prices. Arnt says his goal was to open with “old Nashville prices and new Nashville quality.” Adhering to the French reservation policy has also not been without some hiccups. In the opening months, the forty-five cover restaurant has been serving over two hundred diners between the hours of 4:30 to nine p.m. Demand is strong, and culturally, Americans are inclined to want to guarantee a reservation to enjoy a meal. But Arnt and his team have held strong, posting a long Instagram message to instill the fact that they will accommodate you when there is space—and the community has been willing to oblige for the experience and the food.
Today, at this New Nashville bistro, there is a shared sentiment of cultural exchange. In many ways, one might romanticize living in France in the same way Champonnois and Arnt dreamt of making a life in America. While the two have only been at it with their restaurant for just a few months, Arnt says he is most inspired by seeing his diners seated at separate tables, sharing food and conversation, creating a truly communal environment inclusive of all nationalities.
It’s around five p.m. and the dining room is already beginning to fill. Diners grab the few remaining bar seats and order shaken cocktails and hefty servings of escargot. For their main, some stay inside the box and order the steak frites. The dish is simple, memorable—perhaps even remarkable. Perfectly bistro. Born in the U.S.A., Once Upon a Time in France feels right at home in Music City.