This week, we get to know Jessie Merriam, the red-headed waitress behind The National’s chalkboard art of old and the front of house staff schedule each week. Somehow she also finds the time to create beautiful prints and study English at UGA.
What inspires your art, particularly the print that now hangs in the bar at The National?
The print hanging in the bar is the image of a cat, truly a lynx, inspired by the well-known image of the Parisian absinthe drinker. I wanted the lynx to look a bit snobby, like a faux-British dandy, similar to T.S. Eliot. Much of my work is inspired by the notion of animals doing human things. I think it forces you to think another way about an otherwise typical action. And it allows me to do portraits in a new way. Another image of this dandy artist lynx is hanging in The Four Coursemen House.
How did you end up at The National?
I studied printmaking, bookmaking, and letterpress at UVA and the Virginia Arts of the Book Letterpress in Charlottesville, Virginia. In 2007, I decided to move to Athens for something new. That year, just before The National opened, I was working at Bistro, a restaurant that was on Prince where A Tavola is now. My friend Lilly Kaplan, who worked at The Five and Ten, told me about the plans for The National, and I applied. I was one of the first group of servers at the restaurant, so I got to sit down with Chefs Hugh Acheson and Peter Dale at the first tasting of all the menu items, and listen to them really describe the ethos of the restaurant.
What distinguishes The National from other restaurants?
The nature of the staff, the food and the space all affect the overall experience. I think the layout of the interior, with a separate lively bar is unique. And our location allows us to crossover into the downtown Athens scene. We’re in a setting that is as urban as downtown Athens can be. People come to hang out at The National, especially the employees. We are open later, sometimes we have parties…this makes it comfortable. Although the food is exceptional and the restaurant is great for a special night out, there is not so much pressure on the experience. It’s easy to relax and enjoy a good meal. And there’s definitely an intimacy between patrons and the staff. The regulars all have their favorite restaurant personalities, their favorite servers. People can’t wait to see Zach and Cameron at the bar, or have Jill wait on them.
So the staff truly influences in the overall vibe of the restaurant?
Definitely. It all stems from Peter, the most laid back, yet passionate chef I’ve ever worked with, and it really comes through in the food and the atmosphere of the restaurant. The structure of the staff is important. Similar to The Five and Ten, we have a close knit group of servers, and the front of the house and back of the house are not so divided as in some restaurants I’ve worked in. There are no managers so everyone takes responsibility and helps each other out. Everyone has their heart in the food and no one is jaded. We aren’t rule-oriented and manage to maintain a sense of humor while being seriously committed to the success of the restaurant. I think this creates a nice balance that our customers notice and appreciate. The culture of the staff is clear; when new people are hired, they quickly learn.
What do you like most about the style of food?
I love that Peter offers food in cycles, from experimental or a little out there to very Southern or Mediterranean inspired. We can serve bone marrow and baked baby octopus on the same menu as a classic steak and potatoes dish…and people order the bone marrow! I like the Morrocan and Spanish side of our food the most. Many restaurants do Spanish tapas, but our Middle Eastern flavors bring a fresh taste to a southern town. The menu really reflects Peter’s travels.
What’s your favorite dish, of past or present, at The National?
Of all time, it has to be the Leg of Lamb served with a muhamara sauce over roasted cauliflower, couscous with mint, crushed walnuts, roasted red peppers and pomegranate molasses. Every year I ask Peter if he’ll bring it back. My favorite repeat staple would be the Gambas al Ajillo, which are always delicious.
In this photo…
Print by Jessie Merriam hanging in the bar at The National