The Southern Oven in Palmer Offers Great Food and Welcoming Atmosphere

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The Southern Oven restaurant in Palmer, Tennessee; Photo by Jeff Adkins

Felicia Nolan and her younger sister Miranda Cleek have lived in the Palmer area of Tennessee all their lives. Their first jobs were at the now-shuttered Palmer Market, flipping burgers and selling pizza.

For years they dreamt of opening their own restaurant, using recipes from their paternal grandmother, Rose. But it was just talk. Then, one day in 2014, they saw a building on TN-399, the former home of a series of barbecue restaurants, was for sale. They bought it in October 2014 and opened the doors of The Southern Oven in January 2015.

“We have a good ole time, owning a business together. It has brought us closer together,” Nolan says.

The sisters were ambitious from the get-go, open for all three meals, six days a week. In the beginning, Nolan says, they each worked 12 to 16 hours a day, creating the welcoming, homey feel they wanted their Southern eatery to have. Then, Nolan found out she was expecting (she now has two kids, a son and a daughter). So, they called in for reinforcement, including their mom and their maternal grandmother, to help man the kitchen.

“There were no sit-down restaurants here that offered breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Nolan says of the rural area. “There are pizza places, but nobody out here has sit-down meals.” The women wanted to bring something different to their community. “I’ve lived here all my life. The local doctor delivered my sister, my brother and me.”

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The Philly Cheese Steak sandwich made with bell peppers, onions and mozzarella; Photo by Jeff Adkins

Diners devour the homemade meatloaf with peppers and onions (Nolan’s favorite), country-fried steak, spaghetti with homemade red sauce, and meat-and-three-style entrees and vegetable sides. But what they really love are the homemade desserts sold by the slice, such as Grandma Rose’s coconut cake.

The kitchen is small – Nolan dreams of an expansion – so staff bump into each other while working. “There’s not enough room to cuss a cat in here,” Nolan jokes. “But it works.”

The menus change daily, and each sister has her specialties, such as Cleek’s taco casserole and Nolan’s General Tso’s chicken. The duo makes 40 to 50 pounds of meatloaf to meet demand…in a restaurant that seats just 35 to 40 people.

About 80% of the customers at The Southern Oven are locals, some come in multiple times per day, but tourists stop by in the summer and fall, when leaves start to turn colors or to hike at nearby Savage Gulf State Natural Area.

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Not only are customers local, but the ingredients are, too. The sisters buy locally grown produce, including squash and cucumbers. Tomatoes come from Amish farmers in nearby Centertown.

They kept the cabin-style design from the previous restaurants but added their own décor, including a cardboard cutout of John Wayne, a favorite of Nolan and her husband.

“I do not want people to think this is a typical restaurant,” Nolan says. “There’s no pressure to move out because someone else needs the table. I want them to feel like they are at home, sitting and eating with their family.” – Margaret Littman

The Southern Oven

Location: 39 TN-399 in Palmer

Hours: 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday

Phone: (931) 779-6836

Website: facebook.com/southernoven399

While you’re there: Bring your hiking boots and tackle some of the 50 miles of trails in Savage Gulf or book a ticket to a live bluegrass concert underground at The Caverns.

As always, please call ahead before driving long distances.

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