“The only thing I’ve not gotten yet is a bowl-off with Benjamin.”
When Max Goldberg says this, he picks up his coffee cup and sips through a smile directed at his older brother, business partner and best pal.
He and big brother Benjamin Goldberg of Strategic Hospitality are settled into their “office”—the first dining booth on the left just after you pass “the living room” section of their Pinewood Social venue.
To call it a restaurant, perched in Nashville’s historic Trolley Barns on a bluff overlooking the Cumberland River, doesn’t do this wide-open space justice.
Purposely designed as being welcoming, homey, yet raw and industrial at the same time, the space got its name from two sources— one close to the heart of the two young owners, the other a matter of description of a critical part of their space: The six-lane bowling alley, where Max seeks the bowl-off.
Pine was the wood used on the six lanes restored from an Indiana Bowl-A-Rama that are $40 an hour apiece to use, and where dinner can be served while customers roll strikes and spares. It’s also a space intended to attract happy corporate team-building.
Perhaps more important to the brothers is the memory of their grandfather’s farm down in Centerville, in Hickman County, an hour southwest of Nashville.
“Pinewood” was the name of the farm, and naming this unique establishment after it is a loving tribute.
Perhaps, still, when describing this venue, the emphasis should rather be on the second word: “Social.”
“This really is a place where we want people to be able to feel at home,” says Benjamin of Pinewood Social.
“People can come here at 7 in the morning and stay until 1 am and just order one cup of coffee,” says Benjamin, 34, who Max, 30, refers to as “our leader” in the fraternal order of things.
“We wanted to create a great space for Nashville,” says Max. Indeed, “the living room” of the space —decorated with comfy chairs, lamps and the like— often is occupied for the day by people who choose to work here rather than at home or in “regular” offices.
Nashville, known for its entrepreneurial spirit, has many souls working solo. At Pinewood Social, they can work alone, with just a friendly wave separating them from other guests and, of course, servers.
Pinewood Social begins the day with full breakfasts and the best coffee that can be provided by a hip local java joint that has a satellite location in the lobby.
Coffee, of course, continues through the day and night, either as a single cup or with breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner and late-night menu offerings for the hard-working entrepreneurs or those seeking cocktails and refueling during a night on the town (or, finally, on the way home).
Benjamin started the brothers on their course to give Nashville “what it wants” 11 years ago, when he and his previous business partner opened a bar and a nightclub in a then-disheveled section of Nashville called The Gulch.
“We open up places where no one else has,” he says. When The Gulch began to get trendy and the lease rate went up accordingly, he and his partner decided to cash out.
Benjamin then opened the honky tonk Paradise Park Trailer Resort in 2007 on what he perceived as an underserved side of Nashville’s neon-lit Lower Broadway tourist strip.
“I wanted to have a honky-tonk named for a trailer park: The kind of place where you can get a pitcher of beer for $6 and the hamburgers are hand-pattied,” Benjamin says.
Max, who left a strategic consulting career in Midtown Manhattan to partner up with his brother a few months after Paradise Park was up and running, brags this is hardly your normal honky-tonk fare. He’s not talking about the décor (though that’s unique, including an Astroturf-covered floor), but the food. There are no fried pickles (a staple in beer joints along the strip.). “And we don’t have nachos,” says Max, needling his brother. “I want that in print: Benjamin won’t let me have nachos in our places.”
Older brother chirps in that Paradise Park has gained an army of fans. “There will be people here for CMA Fest (the annual gathering of the fans and their favorites in downtown Nashville and at LP Field— the NFL’s Tennessee Titans stadium that’s within eyeshot of Pinewood Social) who come in five times for the burgers when they are in town.”
Other annual events in Nashville’s steel-guitar-fueled entertainment district similarly bring loyal regulars and their tourist chums in for the burgers and the beer.
After Max came home to team up with his brother, they took over venerable Nashville landmark Merchants, a unique, three-story upscale restaurant. Other offerings include a speakeasy-style cocktail lounge called The Patterson House, the 22-chair The Catbird Seat (upstairs from the Patterson House) and then, early in 2014, Pinewood Social. They also have Aerial, a private meeting space that’s ideal for weddings and corporate mingling atop the faux trailer park. With no signs of slowing down yet, Strategic Hospitality's portfolio has grown to 10 properties with the addition of: French cuisine at the artful Le Sel in Midtown; the stylish Bastion in the Wedgewood-Houston neighborhood; The Band Box, an outdoor bar and restaurant located in the right field of First Tennessee Park, home of the Nashville Sounds; and last but far from least, Henrietta Red, a contemporary oyster bar in the heart of Germantown.
Local and national attention have followed, including a 2017 semifinalist nomination for "Best New Restaurant" by the James Beard Awards for Bastion, while Henrietta Red scored both Eater Nashville's "Restaurant of the Year" and "Design of the Year" awards.
“Our restaurants are kind of a picture of where we are at the time,” says Benjamin, pausing to say hello to a local micro-brew-master who on this day is making deliveries of fresh product.
It’s not just about opening and owning properties. Max and Benjamin take particular joy in the fact they’ve provided an estimated 150 jobs in their chain of distinctive venues within a five-mile radius of the Pinewood booth that serves as their office.
“There’s no better place to be right now than Nashville,” says Max. His heart is here not just by birth, but because of the lush promise his brother painted for him in 2007.
“I explained Nashville and what an exciting city it was to be in and I talked about the real opportunity to grow a company,” says Benjamin, sipping from a water glass that has been quietly refilled by one of the servers who patrol the space, making sure customers’ needs are met.
“I told him we have the opportunity to do some really cool, cool things.”
Max was hooked by “the opportunity to work with my brother and best friend and create a job that was a very appealing opportunity.”
They founded Strategic Hospitality, which has an ownership group of two with shared vision.
“From Paradise Park to Pinewood Social, we have opened the kinds of places where we’d be the first to go if we weren’t the ones owning them,” says Max.
They are so comfortable at Pinewood Social that they prefer it to their “official” offices. Like their loyal customers, they enjoy working from their special booth, MacBooks and iPhones always open for business.
“Everyone feels comfortable here,” says Max. “We get a great mix of all demographics and ages. We try to exceed the expectations of every guest we have.”
A subtle demonstration of this business-friendly attitude is the fact that at this point in the interview, Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” is not blaring in defiant, conversation-drowning volume, as it would be at most establishments. Instead, the king Heartbreaker sings “Hey, baby, there ain’t no easy way out” in tones quieter than the level of coffee conversation. It’s intentional.
Stark and industrial at times, this sleek gathering spot also sports jolts of urban color and art. For example, one wall of the bowling alley is lined by shelves filled with quart paint cans, bearing different colors of labels. The local artist who designed it intended for the cans to be shifted by season or by whim, changing the color scape.
The brothers are hardly new at innovation. Their Catbird Seat, for instance, lacks servers. It’s just chefs who serve seven-course meals of their choosing to no more than 32 diners seated around a U-shaped kitchen. According to Eater Nashville, Henrietta Red's debuted "crisp, bright, coastal vibes"—designed by GM/sommelier Allie Poindexter’s sister Kathryn Lager of Kathryn Lager Design Studio out of Los Angeles and local firm Manuel Zeitlin Architects—that couldn't be found anywhere else in Nashville.
“The chefs are right there, cooking everything every night. It forces people to think outside of the box when dining there,” says Benjamin. “We try to bring true, genuine happiness. We are local guys. We’re not in business to bump and run."
“We see people we haven’t seen since middle-school on a daily basis,” says Max. “We’re Nashville kids. We’re playing to the home team.”