There’s a story behind every restaurant.
In the case of Jimmy Carl’s Lunch Box, the tale is as oddball as The Gulch barbeque joint’s hog is tasty.
The story involves a televised game show; documentary films about the Democratic National Convention and legendary Nashville bluegrass venue The Station Inn; high school soccer; a college course about the history of Frank Zappa; Rumours East wine bar; a classical music recording label; and a massive, custom-made BBQ smoker placed outdoors and whose highly visible industrial form — depending on your perspective — either blends perfectly with the raw characteristics of The Gulch or contrasts jarringly with the district’s increasingly cosmopolitan vibe.
From this mixture step Jimmy Carl’s owners Pat Isbey and Russell Nelson.
The pair met in high school in Chesterton, Ind., and were teammates on a bad soccer team.
“It wasn’t until we were assigned to sit next to each other on the bus for away games,” Nelson recalled, “that we found a common bond: hilarity.”
The duo took the laughs to Bloomington, enrolling at Indiana University and, as roommates, embracing the work of Frank Zappa. They took an elective course covering the quirky musician, a class Nelson calls the “hardest” of his IU career.
“Jimmy Carl Black was the original drummer in Frank Zappa’s band,” Nelson said, explaining the background of the eatery’s name.
The lads would later room with a young man named James Carl McGrogan. “So we started calling him Jimmy Carl,” Nelson said.
When that Jimmy Carl moved out, Isbey and Nelson found a new roommate named Jim Block. “So we started calling him Jimmy Carl Block,” Nelson said, the story becoming more absurd.
Adding to the outlandishness, Nelson’s first restaurant job was at a business owned by a man named Jim Karl.
Clearly, to have named Jimmy Carl’s Lunch Box, say, Fred Johnson’s Lunch Box would not have made sense given this background.
After college, the young men would go their separate ways but maintain contact. Given his interest in old-time and bluegrass music, Isbey wound up in Nashville, quickly taking a fondness to The Station Inn.
“I knew I was ‘in’ when I was asked to take out the trash one night while watching Larry Cordle & Lonesome Standard Time,” Isbey said. “It doesn’t sound like a treat, but it was.”
From 2001-2003, Isbey made a documentary film about the live music venue, now an institution and the “home base” from which Jimmy Carl’s now serves pulled pork, macaroni salad, hot slaw and iced tea.
“The movie turned out pretty well, and I became a known face around The Station Inn,” Isbey said.
Not surprisingly, Isbey got to know folks in the bluegrass business, those connections helping in his effort to produce for the Naxos World label a CD titled Bluegrass — The Little Grasscals: Nashville Superpickers. Franklin-based Naxos is an international player in the classical recording industry.
“I used musicians I met at The Station Inn and almost exclusively The Sidemen,” Isbey said. “I met a bunch of fine people making that doc and the record. And I got to know J.T. Gray (Station Inn owner). He gave me access to the place to make the film and has allowed us to use the space for the barbecue joint.”
Last August, Isbey was working on another documentary film at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. He asked Nelson, who was living in Los Angeles, to join the crew as a production assistant.
“Obviously I obliged and had a complete blast,” Nelson said. “Upon my return to L.A., I decided to scour Craigslist for P.A. jobs since I was in the movie capital of the world.”
During his search, Nelson stumbled upon an ad seeking contestants for a new game show called Trivial Pursuit: America Plays. He landed an audition consisting of a written test and an on-camera interview. Nelson passed.
“Before I was to go on stage, the contestant producer asked me what I wanted my $5,000 question to be if I made it to the final round,” Nelson said. “And I, of course, responded with ‘sports’ since I’m a complete sports junkie. My final question was ‘Who scored the most points in his NBA career?’” Nelson responded correctly with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
“I got real lucky,” Nelson said of the experience that resulted in his winning $14,600 on the televised game show. Much of that money went toward getting the barbecue joint up and running.
“It is part of Jimmy Carl’s nostalgia now,” he added.
Indeed it is.
Isbey and Nelson talked of a reunion of sorts, and BBQ was on the menu. For the latter, it was good-bye Hollywood and hello Music City.
Though it has been open only a few weeks, Jimmy Carl’s Lunch Box has quickly established a solid customer base. During lunchtime from Tuesday to Friday (and soon on Monday), Isbey and Nelson feed hungry Gulch residents, workers and shoppers. Of note, the menu consists of a mere 15 items, with each priced at a rounded dollar figure (tax is already calculated). The bottom of the paper menu reads simply: Try The Beans.
Nelson and Isbey use Rumours East as a commissary of sorts, as The Station Inn lacks a kitchen. The big black BBQ smoker, firmly planted outside the Inn, is about the only major “restaurant element” of the enterprise.
Isbey remembers when The Gulch was all grit and no glitz. With Jimmy Carl’s, he and Nelson hope to inject a bit of hard-core authenticity to go with the hipster vibe — honoring a treasured music venue in the process.
“The Station Inn is the kind of funky joint that we would like to think we could create but we never, ever could,” Isbey said. “The Station Inn happened. It wasn’t planned and executed. It evolved. Just like the music the place has inspired, the actual physical building is an evolving thing.”
Jimmy Carl’s Lunch Box continues that evolution.