Golden age or Bust?: The future of Louisville’s restaurant scene

On the very last day of what seemed like the Voldemort of years, 2016, I read a Thrillist article about the restaurant industry nationally, titled, “There’s a massive restaurant industry bubble, and it’s about to burst,” by Kevin Alexander. I read it, mulled over it for a bit and allowed its vast implications to seep in. It was well-written and researched, and had proof to back its claims. Yet, if this article could materialize into a human, I would want to punch it in the nose. Not because Alexander wasn’t warranted in his declarations, but because I felt his every word threatened the industry that is so dear to my heart. Who are you, Mr. Alexander, to claim that my sweet-baby restaurant industry is in grave danger? What is this fuckery? As it turns out, Alexander’s points may carry some weight — in 2016, and already in 2017, we’ve bid farewell to several newer restaurants and even some quintessential Louisville favorites. But, maybe, just maybe, we industry cronies know how to stay above the curb so that America’s golden age of restaurants doesn’t truly come to an end.

As 2016 ended, so did 10-year, Frankfort Avenue dining staple, Basa, the delectable Vietnamese upscale eatery, which closed the doors for good on Christmas Eve. The new and architecturally-beautiful Germantown Craft House, a sister restaurant of the original Crescent Hill Craft House, closed with an uproar from the community just three weeks before Christmas, laying off 20 employees (it has since reopened, absorbing most of the original employees, as Goss Avenue Pub). In mid-January, Monkey Wrench owner Dennie Humphrey announced he will close the bar on April 1, after a 13-year run as live-music venue. Talk about the closure of the Bluegrass Brewing Company’s St. Matthews location (the original) began to flutter amid our industry and their longtime patrons — some of the Wort Hog beer club members have even been around since Pat Hagan opened the doors 23 years ago. This rumor was soon sadly confirmed as true, and by the time you’ve picked up this LEO, the BBC St. Matthews will have closed, gone as restaurants are buried in a graveyard of soaring rents, an over-saturated market and, what Alexander calls, “the gentrification of food.”

It’s true that here in Louisville, we are so lucky to live among a thriving restaurant and bar scene, and to have so many stellar options. We will rarely go without an opportunity to eat good food and drink delicious libations, unless we’re just too lazy to leave our couches. Even then, we have Postmates now, so we really have no excuse. Yet, we are saturated. We have all the BBQ we will need, yet there’s at least one new spot due to open this year. Louisville has several pizza joints in every neighborhood. And, for the love of god, we are good to go on contemporary Southern, y’all. Per Alexander, “there are not enough skilled hospitality workers,” yet consumers aren’t satisfied if Every Single Thing isn’t made from scratch. We want our cooks to get paid a fair wage and our own neighborhoods to stay trendy and cool with restaurant options, yet we may patronize our local brewpub and whine about the higher cost of a burger on social media. There’s always a catch-22 — as consumers, it seems as though they, er — we, are never satisfied. So, what can we do? As restaurant and bar industry folk, how do we stay relevant and keep our establishments from bursting with said bubble? As patrons, how do we make sure our favorite watering holes stay afloat? Keep striving, growing, evolving and most importantly — keep patronizing the places you love.

So, for Mr. Alexander, I do get what you’re saying. I’ll take it with a grain of salt, though — a grain of bourbon-smoked sea salt. Because, my guess is, you’ve never been to Bourbon Country, or Louisville, for that matter. And you’ve never experienced the gumption, or patience, that comes with our heritage, and what we are truly made of through and through. Because, you see, not only do we have bourbon history surging through our veins, we’ve got Mike Wajda and Edward Lee and Darnell Ferguson and Annie Pettry and Bruce Ucan and Bobby Benjamin and Adam Burress. The list goes on. We’ve got creators who will push the boundaries of that bubble, not until it bursts, but beyond what any journalist or award or hot shot thinks our city can accomplish. Louisville’s golden age has just begun.