Curious Nashville: Whatever Happened To Nashville’s Revolving Restaurant?

Curious Nashville: Whatever Happened To Nashville’s Revolving Restaurant?

Originally published Dec. 23, 2020 for Nashville Public Radio.

Architect Alan Hayes was driving home from his Brentwood office when he noticed something lighting up the downtown skyline.

“It was probably the fall, and the daylight saving time had happened, and all you see is this bright flashing … lights that look like movement on the skyline. It’s the only thing out there. Everything else is pretty static. And yet that light seemed like it was racing around and drawing attention to itself,” Alan says.

He was looking at the Sheraton Grand Hotel or, more precisely, its 28th floor, which looks like a UFO perched atop the building.

His parents had lived in Nashville in the 1960s and 70s, so he knew the hotel was once home to a restaurant. He asked Curious Nashville:

What is the current use of the rotating restaurant perched atop the downtown Nashville Sheraton Hotel? How long was a restaurant? Did it really rotate? And when did it close to the public?

To pin down some answers for Alan, we went in search of those who experienced the slow-spinning tower in its heyday — which many of you shared via Facebook — and found quite a few twists along the way.

Opening in a time of change

“I would give it credit for kind of launching Nashville. It’s taken a long time to get there, but it was definitely the first big one … and now it’s just, you know, going so fast,” says Deb Staver, who worked at the concierge desk on the hotel’s club floor when it first opened.

At that time, in 1975, it was the Hyatt Regency. It positioned itself as the luxury stay downtown. Just across from the Tennessee Capitol, and overlooking War Memorial Auditorium, the hotel attracted politicians, CEOs and celebrities, Staver says. She was used to greeting guests with custom-printed gold matchboxes and big golden keys.

Four glass bubble elevators carried guests to their rooms and took them up to the hotel’s most unique feature: its revolving restaurant, then called the Polaris.

Staver left after a few years, but she stayed on with the company in a New York office before eventually coming back to Nashville, where she’s now an artist who works on high-end restaurant interiors.

“But the experience, there’s nothing like it to go to a Polaris and just sit there,” she says.

When the hotel first opened, Nashville’s downtown was very different than it is now. The Hyatt came about just a few years after the city voted to allow liquor-by-the-drink licenses for businesses. In a 1977 article in The Tennessean, the director of the chamber of commerce said that was a factor in bringing the Hyatt Regency to town.

It was a time of major transition in the city. Tourism was booming, with city landmarks like Opryland and the Country Music Hall of Fame having opened. Close to 7 million tourists were visiting annually.

Polaris Nashville

This August 1975 feature story in The Tennessean highlights the views of the revolving Polaris restaurant atop what was then the Hyatt Regency Hotel.The TennesseanNewspapers.com

The revolving restaurant wasn’t only for the tourists and wealthy visitors — it was also a favorite among locals out to celebrate. It was known as a place for marriage proposals and pre-prom dinners, birthdays and retirements.

Polaris made a complete revolution in about 45 minutes, and some Nashvillians shared stories of losing their purses on the window sills as the restaurant slowly turned. The rooftop restaurant drew comparisons to the L&C tower observation deck, another vintage favorite made popular by its expansive views.

Yet even as fondly remembered as it is now, the restaurant had its struggles.

Changing hands

Via email, a manager for the hotel in the 1990s said rooftop restaurants in hotels are always difficult, since customers find it easier to park near the entrance to a restaurant. Plus, it was popular for special occasions, and when there weren’t enough people celebrating, it was hard to justify keeping it open in the same way.

The hotel changed ownership in the 1990s, going from the Hyatt Regency to the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza for a short while, before becoming the Sheraton Grand in 2000. The restaurant changed too — from The Polaris to The Pinnacle. Under Sheraton ownership, the space was rebranded as a catered event venue, with brunch events on Sundays and during holidays like Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day.

Andrew Atkins III, the hotel’s current lead concierge, came to work for the Sheraton in 2019. He’s worked in Nashville hospitality since the early 2000s and was familiar with the restaurant before its change, having dined there with hotel executives long before he came to work there.

Sheraton Nashville skyline

Looking from the north toward downtown, the prominent placement of the Sheraton is obvious, just across from the Tennessee Capitol.Tony GonzalezWPLN News

He remembers moving from Mississippi and not having much experience with fine dining. The Polaris was his first time being welcomed by a maitre d’.

“Like, whoa, really?” he recalls. “Then you’ve got this amazing view. It’s moving real slow, but it is moving.”

By the time Atkins joined the hotel staff, the restaurant had stopped spinning.

A resurrection had once been possible — a general manager in 2000 told The Nashville Post that the rotational mechanics had created very few issues and were largely maintenance free.

But a permanent change would follow.

The last turn

The rooftop restaurant was renovated and renamed for a second time in 2016, as part of the hotel’s $35 million renovation. And that’s when the Sheraton tore out the revolving mechanics, entirely taking away its ability to spin.

“That remodel was not just a remodel to change the way it looks cosmetically,” Atkins says. “There are new bathrooms that were built where it turned. You’d have to tear it all down almost to rebuild it.”

It’s now called the Skye Lounge, and it remained largely an event space in the years following its renovation.

But the coronavirus pandemic pushed the hotel to repurpose the space yet again. With the hotel’s first floor bar, the Library, too small to accommodate social-distancing, they made the decision to re-open Skye to the public over the summer.

“It’s this big oval, you know, kind of an empty canvas,” Atkins said. “And they’ve situated tables or or seats at certain spots, you know, spaced appropriately around Skye. … It’s the most awesome use of space. Because first of all, there’s a lot of it, it’s not real wide, and everybody has a view.”

The Skye has since closed to the public after its brief reopening over the summer. Atkins says the lounge is undergoing maintenance and is closed for an indefinite period of time. It remains to be seen whether it will reopen after the pandemic.

Sheraton Nashville hotel

The Skye Lounge is dark at the moment, although it had opened to the public this summer as an effort to accommodate social distancing requirements that were tough at the hotel’s other ground-level bar.Tony GonzalezWPLN News

And the view these days is a bit different: the north side is blocked by a newly installed bar, and high rises interrupt what used to be a view toward East Nashville. But, Atkins says, the space still feels as unique as it once did — whether for a celebratory drink or a nostalgic sampling of the city’s past.

And it can still set the scene for marriage proposals. He wouldn’t say who it was, but Atkins says someone “very VIP” rented the Skye last year to pop the question.