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Randy Rayburn

Updated: Oct 3, 2023

Indulging His Passion for Feeding Nashville's Hungry

Randy Rayburn may no longer roam the halls of Capital Hill on a daily basis, but the successful restauranteur is no less a politician today than when he worked in state and national politics 30 years ago. “I left politics because I discovered I couldn’t change the world, so I worked on changing me and my environment,” he explains. The physical environment to which he has devoted his adult life is Hillsboro Village, but it is the standards of the entire Nashville gastronomic environment to which he has dedicated the past three decades. As an owner/partner of three of the most successful restaurants in Nashville history--Sunset Grill, Midtown Café and the newer Cabana--Rayburn is a friend of zip code, profession or political persuasion, and charities too numerous to list have benefited from his largesse. A magnet for talented people, Rayburn has been instrumental in the careers of the current owners or managers of 13 Nashville restaurants.

“Kay West once said I’ve hired, fired and fed everyone in Nashville,” he laughs. “Nashville’s music industry is known for it’s A-team pickers, but it’s the same in the restaurant business. My job has always been to keep an eye on the current talent, to be friends with those I respected, and to always pay top dollar for quality. We can’t lower expectations because we’re in Nashville; our standards are national standards.”

The genial restauranteur speaks with an insiders’ knowledge of many professions, including the music industry and politics, because those were his early career choices. “I came to Nashville in 1971 from Knoxville to work for a booking agent,” he outlines. “He died the summer I arrived, so through State Senator Jim Roberson of East Nashville, I wound up running Beverly Briley’s final mayoral campaign. That exposed me to a unique world where I met people like George Cate, Nelson Andrews, John Seigenthaler, Gil Merritt and Clifford Allen. I learned to play liars poker from Dick and Jane Eskind, and Victor Ashe was a great ally.”

His subsequent work as a press secretary in several more campaigns, including three presidential campaigns and a brief stint as the public information officer for state Civil Defense, exposed Rayburn to a broad spectrum of people from across the state, the region and the city. “I was the tornado guy before Cecil Whalley,” he points out. “But I was living in Rick Sanjek’s house, and he was working at Renaissance in the Continental Condominiums on West End, so I helped him out at night, busing tables.” To please his family, he also attended law school at night, but it was in the restaurants that he discovered his real passion. “I tell people I couldn’t pass up a bar to pass the bar exam,” he grins.

Two other roommates, Jack Whalley and Peter Hudson, would go on to open Green Hill’s Box Seat, and they all combined “to pique Rayburn’s interest in becoming a chef. But it was a stint working for Mary Walton Caldwell and Mary Douglas Holt at the Café Ritz (where Mario’s is currently located) that fanned the spark into a flame. “Mary Walton had been classically trained at Cordon Bleu, and she gave us quite an education in classical French cooking,” he said. “I had good mentors in Jack and Mary Walton and others, and found I had a knack for it. My political training kicked in since I enjoyed being in the front of the house, and politics, after all, is people-centered.

He continued: “The restaurant business ultimately became a vehicle for me to indulge my passion for creating edible art while allowing me to interact with a cross section of Nashville. All that instilled in me a great sense of community.” His newfound passion took him to the Jack Daniels Saloon at Opryland Hotel, where he ran a $30 million department as beverage director, to the original F. Scotts on Bandywood, Moonbeams on Murfreesboro Road and Third Coast (current site of the Bound’ry). Giving himself a sabbatical after a divorce, he headed for culinary school in Hyde Park, NY, for six months of classes. “I would go into the city on the weekends and eat at all the great restaurants,” he remembered, “That fueled my fire to be a Nashville restauranteur who operated on New York, Los Angeles and Chicago standards, with no disrespect to the meat-and-three traditional I grew up on, not to mention the things my grandmother taught me on the farm in Milan, TN.”

Selling his home in 1989, Rayburn took the $90,000 equity and leased a bicycle shop on a side street in Hillsboro Village that his friend and fellow restauranteur, Jody Faison, had told him about. Sunset Grill opened in that location in 1990 and immediately became the favorite watering hole of artists and music executives from nearby Music Row, political movers-and-shakers, lawyers, doctors and CEOs and presidents of every major Nashville business. It became the place to see and be seen. Several years later, he and a partner, Jerry Baxter, bought a gem of an already-established restaurant, Midtown Café, and just two years ago, he bought a restaurant across the street from Sunset that had seen numerous unsuccessful incarnations and turned it into the hip-and-always-crowded Cabana. “I’m very, very proud of Midtown, which is our little crown jewel,” he boasts. “My quest is to make it the finest contemporary American restaurant in the region.

While quality food and service have become synonymous with Randy Rayburn’s name over the past three decades, so too has generosity. “I subscribe to cause-related marketing, whereby you’re giving back to and building up relationships in the community by supporting those you believe in and those who support you,” he maintains. “We give one percent of our sales to the community, and we probably handle over 500 donations each year in cash, goods and services.”

He contends that Nashville is the biggest small town in America. “I love the friendships and relationships I’ve fostered over the years, and after 36 years, I’m an overnight sensation.

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