Photo and story by Gracie Martin / Studio M
Murfreesboro is a town of traditions, loyalty and family, and nothing exemplifies that more than the home-cooking hotspot, City Café, located just off of the square on Main Street. The diner, open for breakfast and lunch six days a week, is the oldest restaurant in Murfreesboro and believed to be one of the oldest restaurants in the state, having opened for business nearly 120 years ago.
Middle Tennessee State University students have been crowding the doors hungry for a taste of home cooking since it was a “normal” school, preparing students to become teachers. Henry and Dorsey Cantrell opened the diner on Feb. 10, 1900.
That’s long before the café’s signature item, freshly made yeast rolls, appeared on the menu. The rolls, which continue to be a draw, didn’t become a tradition until the 1950s, according to current owners, Teresa and Rollin Kellogg.
The Kelloggs, who purchased the diner in March of 2018, have been in the food business for five years. Their intent was not to change much but to keep up the tradition of being an outstanding meat and three eating establishment. Naturally, the yeast rolls, made daily from a 60-year-old secret recipe that’s been handed down from owner to owner, weren’t up for discussion when changes were considered.
City Café has always been a place known for a good home-cooked meal. The walls are filled with several Ruthie Awards from over the years. The Ruthies, given by the Daily News Journal, awarded the hotspot over five times with first place for “best place to hear gossip.”
The white and black checkered board floor gives a feel of an old-timey café. Daily specials are hand-written every morning in chalk on a large board placed smack dab in the middle of the restaurant, making it easy for customers to see what’s new that day. Teresa would like to eventually put a timeline of the café along the walls for people to see the establishment’s transition over the years.
Making yeast rolls fresh means some early hours for the Kelloggs. In order for the piping hot rolls to be ready by the time customers arrive at 6 a.m., Teresa and Rollin arrive a few hours early to mix the dough and let it have time to rise.
“Legend has it that the way the owners would advertise City Café was, they would open the doors in the front and the back. As the yeast rolls were baking, they’d let that smell go out the door,” Teresa said.
She believes Ernest and Ethel Watson, who owned the diner in the 1950s, were the original roll makers. In a news article, Ethel Watson said her husband Ernest was going to sell homemade rolls at the café even if they didn’t serve anything else. The Watson’s were producing 400 rolls a day, six days a week, for over 15 years.
The recipe is a guarded secret and contains a few special ingredients.
“People would be shocked if they knew, I think,” Teresa said.
The Kellogg’s wanted to add a personal touch to City Café’s menu and introduced homemade cinnamon rolls. Teresa started the new cinnamon roll tradition, which are as big as a plate.
“That’s one of the things we contributed to the business, and we’re hoping that it goes through the traditions and stays here,” Teresa said.
Like the yeast rolls, Rollin said the cinnamon roll recipe is kept hidden away.
“The things that we do, and that she developed the cinnamon roll is something that you can only get here,” he noted.
City Café has local diners who come in everyday to have breakfast and lunch. Nelson Smotherman has been coming for breakfast and lunch most week days since the 1950s.
“We treat everybody like family here. Whenever you come in, we want you to feel relaxed and enjoy the meal. If you walk in the door, you’re immediately known as family,” Teresa said.
The Café has a special “community table” located in the center, informally reserved to seat judges, real estate agents and lawyers who come in for lunch.
Meanwhile, Table 11 is known as “the table of wisdom” where locals come to try to solve the world’s problems.
And probably eat a roll or two.