Fork in the Road

Elsie’s Daughter: Chattanooga’s Choo Choo Charmer

A pair of blossoming restaurateurs bring a taste of refinement to a downtown landmark

A bowl of mussels


Mussels served in a broth with Calabrian sausage, lemon, and herbs.

Chloe Wright and Ryan Smith’s first project, the Rosecomb, opened in the North Shore neighborhood of Chattanooga in the summer of 2021 as the oakleaf hydrangeas in the front yard bloomed. The pair, who have since married, decorated the garden house bar and restaurant like a luxe bolt-hole in the Cotswolds, hanging blues posters and folk art portraits from his native Mississippi alongside gilt-framed mirrors and sepia photos that nod to her roots here in Tennessee.

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By that fall, regulars had claimed spots at the dogleg bar to sip cocktails garnished with mint harvested from pots by the window and eat bowls of cornmeal-fried catfish fillets, draped over grits and floated in a moat of potlikker. Wright, who had run a guerrilla restaurant in Chattanooga called Fancy Feast, began a successful campaign to register the Rosecomb’s backyard as a wildlife sanctuary. Smith, who’d built a career in New York City bars like the Wren, developed the cocktail roster and mentored a crew of young colleagues.

Chloe Wright and Ryan Smith at the courtyard entrance to Elsie’s Daughter.

The two thought they might stop there. Instead, last November, they opened Elsie’s Daughter, a sort of city club analogue to the Rosecomb, tucked in the downtown Chattanooga Choo Choo campus at the rear of the new Hotel Chalet, a Wes Anderson–style send-up of a midcentury Holiday Inn. Impressed, as I was, by the Rosecomb, the new hotel owners had pursued the young couple.

Smith and Wright took on the Elsie’s Daughter project for personal reasons: Wright’s father, Rick, had worked as a restaurant manager on the Choo Choo campus in the 1980s. As a teenager, she wore a pointy hat with bells to play an elf in the Choo Choo’s annual Christmas pageant. “Turning this down would have felt like turning down the universe,” she told me, after I returned home from two days in Chattanooga and three meals in their two spots. As she spoke, I played back my time at table and thought, This is how idealistic and energetic bar-and-restaurant groups begin.

I recall a moment, just after Elsie’s Daughter opened: Twenty-one tea candles flicker on the bar. Construction on the hotel remodel is almost over—earlier that day, amid the sound of nail guns, workers gathered beneath the train shed to turn old Pullman rail cars into new hotel suites. By six, twentysomethings, one in a silver lamé blazer, another in a burgundy corduroy pantsuit, pack the timber-ceilinged restaurant behind the shed, and a young tender pumps two gin-filled cocktail shakers like pistons, as the ice does its work and all eyes turn her way.

Drinks outnumber dishes on a menu that’s as tight and well crafted as a two-minute pop song. I begin with a house martini made with Cocchi Americano, a richer and more bitter take on vermouth. Served with a lemon peel perched on the lip like a hood ornament on a Benz, that cocktail drinks like a mission statement for Elsie’s Daughter: Do just a few things, do them with style, and practice until perfect.

The Elsie’s martini .

Trout dip, loosely bound with crème fraîche, arrives with a crown of wasabi roe and a pile of potato chips. A collard green salad follows, made from shredded leaves and tossed with a buttermilk dressing, topped with breadcrumbs toasted so dark they taste something like bacon bits. Craggy and crunchy in all the right places, scattered with wisps of cheese, the crushed potatoes suggest a deconstructed take on potato skins, rescued from a 1980s fern bar. They’re ideal ballast for a Delacroix cocktail, a sort of julep made with local bottled-in-bond whiskey, Bénédictine, and strawberries.

The roasted half chicken, cut into pieces and shellacked with a lemon-brightened ravigote, owes a debt to the chef Jonathan Waxman, who made his name in New York City—and later in Nashville, where Chris Greer, the chef here at Elsie’s, cooked. Like Waxman’s bird, this one requires a short wait, which gives me time to survey the wine list. Judging by how many bottles of Australian pét-nat the tender opens, all the cool kids are drinking that lightly effervescent and slightly orange wine.

Collard green salad with breadcrumbs and buttermilk dressing.

On night two, I call in reinforcements. Our son, Jesse, on his way back to college in Nashville, detours to join me. When I order a bottle of the pét-nat, he dubs it “grown-up Fanta.” The wine plays well with half a dozen Alabama oysters, presented on an elegant zinc tray, and a bowl of mussels, served “Portuguese style” in a white bowl decorated with a necklace of flowers. Scattered with sausage made in the Calabrian region of southwestern Italy, the mussels swim in a lemon-herb broth that tastes of Provence.

The burger, on the other hand, looks as though it has been airmailed from Los Angeles, where double stacks of meat layered with cheese often come wrapped in tissue. Cut in half, steamed in its own pouch, and served on a dainty white plate, it tastes of tallow and onions, swagger and elegance.

Dishes and drinks at Elsie’s Daughter sample many places, which seems right for a restaurant set behind a historic train station. They also gesture to the future of this dynamic city, now challenging Nashville as the place in Tennessee to dream big dreams. What began for this couple at the Rosecomb, and now gains momentum at Elsie’s Daughter, likely won’t end here.

Plus: Smoked Meats and Mezcal

Texas flavor from a Chattanooga mainstay

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Born in Fort Worth, chef Erik Niel made his name in Chattanooga with Easy Bistro and Main Street Meats, now city institutions. Located in a former VFW hall, his new restaurant, Little Coyote, interprets and elaborates Texas-meat-market barbecue and Mexican regional cooking. The crew makes tortillas in-house and smokes porchetta in a pit set in a wall. Begin with a mezcal from the bar’s ample collection, end with vanilla ice cream spiked with guajillo chiles, and all is copacetic. —JTE