A good old-fashioned yarn that spans generations and eras, A Generous Pour: Tall Tales From the Backroom of Jimmy Kelly’s traces the remarkable origins of a beloved Nashville, Tennessee, establishment: Jimmy Kelly’s Steakhouse. Mike Kelly, the restaurant’s current owner, tells the intriguing story of how his Irish immigrant family established a thriving restaurant business after an adventuresome start in whiskey making and liquor running. Filled with moonshiners, bootleggers and crooked cops, A Generous Pour is a book that’s as bracing as a shot of Kelly’s best.
Divided neatly into four parts, the narrative documents the rise of the Kelly family enterprise—an achievement made possible by the clan’s natural instinct for commerce and spirit of hardscrabble ingenuity. The author’s great-grandfather, James Michael Kelly, left Ireland in the 1840s, became a moonshiner in Tennessee at the age of 17 and lost an eye in the Civil War. His son John made clandestine liquor deliveries and, in 1934, opened a restaurant in Nashville called the 216 Club, “a respectable drinking alternative to the rowdy downtown speakeasies.” The 216 Club served a clientele that included notable politicians and musicians (Elvis Presley was a patron) with first-rate steaks and spirits.
John died in 1948. A year later, his son Jimmy opened Jimmy Kelly’s in Belle Meade, an upscale suburb within metro Nashville. Both restaurant locations flourished. Always a family enterprise, the business passed into the hands of Bill Kelly (Jimmy’s brother and the author’s father) after Jimmy retired.
Kelly handles the book’s complex chronology with wonderful assurance. He seasons the story with fascinating bits of Nashville trivia and demonstrates an undeniable gift for setting scenes. (The book’s sensational opening chapter chronicles the kidnapping of John Kelly by Al Capone’s henchmen.) Kelly himself was raised in the restaurant trade—as a boy, he bused tables with his brothers and slid down the banister of 216’s staircase—and his insider knowledge gives the book a special spark.
Mixed in with his colorful account of the ambitious Kelly clan is a fascinating survey of Music City history, from the upheaval of World War One to the payoffs and police raids of Prohibition, through economic booms and busts, to the landmark event of 1967: the legalization of liquor-by-the-drink in Davidson County, which Kelly identifies as the starting point for Nashville’s ascendance as a business center and major tourist destination.
Today Kelly manages Jimmy Kelly’s at its current home on Louise Avenue in Midtown Nashville. His book is a charming, briskly written narrative, rich with adventure and detail, that provides a compelling look at Nashville’s past.