LEO Eats: Something special at the Cottage Inn

May 13, 2008 at 6:07 pm

The meatloaf dinner is the Thursday special.
The meatloaf dinner is the Thursday special.

Serving up simple, affordable down-home fare since 1929, the Cottage Inn is one of Louisville’s oldest eateries in continuous operation. It trails Mazzoni’s (1884); but unlike the peripatetic home of the rolled oyster, which has moved repeatedly and only settled down in its new Middletown quarters this year, the Cottage Inn has remained in its original home. Kaelin’s didn’t come along until 1934, and I’m having a hard time thinking of another contender.

It goes back so far that both my mother and my wife’s mother dined there regularly when they were young, and I doubt that there’s been much change in the food or the mood or, adjusted for inflation, the cost of a good meal. On the other hand, a sign by the door promises “now entering a trans-fat free zone.” I’ll bet they didn’t have that in 1929, or a non-smoking policy, either.

New owners — the Kreso family, which also operates Mr. Z’s at Third and Breckenridge — haven’t changed the menu, and they’ve made only minor changes in the decor, scrubbing down the place and replacing the old country-style wallpaper with a paint job in a classy peachy beige color.

Tables remain draped in heavy green oilcloth and set with simple flatware wrapped in white paper napkins. Bright carnations are placed in vases that look like soda-fountain sundae glasses; every table is provided with a big jar of ketchup.

It’s usually crowded at lunchtime, and it can be noisy; it may take a while to get your order taken and served. My advice: Choose the fried chicken, which is excellent and requires a 15-minute wait anyway, then relax and enjoy the break and people-watching.

In recessionary times, Cottage Inn offers the kind of easy-on-the-wallet fare that invites frequent return visits. Entrees, with two side dishes and bread, range from $6.99 (for baked or fried white fish or Salisbury steak) up to $9.99 (for two Kentucky-raised center-cut pork chops).

Stick with the daily specials (as columnist Marsha Lynch advises in her “Industry Standard” column below), and you’ll enjoy classic road food for $6.99 for most items, or $8.99 for “all you care to eat” fried chicken on Wednesday and Friday evenings.
I toyed with the idea of a three-way appetizer sampler with fried okra, wings and onion rings for lunch, but realized that this was crazy talk with a giant order of fried chicken coming down the line. We went with a basket of fried okra ($5.99) instead, and got a gargantuan portion, maybe 50 or 60 sizzling, marble-size veggie rounds in crisp cornmeal breading. They went down fast, and hey, it’s a green vegetable, so it has to be good for you.

The fried chicken ($8.99) was excellent, a breast, a thigh, a leg and a wing, all sizzling hot, juicy and tender, encased in a thin, glassy-crisp flour-dredged coating.

The day’s special — roast beef on a Tuesday ($6.99) — lived up to Marsha’s advice. A hearty portion of nostalgic comfort food, it was happily reminiscent of lunch-counter fare of another era. Thin-sliced and chopped beef came swimming in tasty gravy, with a mound of creamy mashed potatoes with a lot more of that meaty, spicy gravy in the traditional volcano crater. A side of green beans was properly long-cooked, a bit salty, with bits of ham.

My side dish of corn was underwhelming, canned yellow niblets in a pool of melted margarine. A side salad was better, crisp and fresh iceberg lettuce with sliced red cabbage, grated carrot and a surprisingly red and juicy out-of-season tomato quarter, with two small plastic tubs of thick, chunky blue cheese dressing on the side. Two small corn muffins were a bit soft and awfully sweet for my taste, but a wheat roll hit the spot.

Back for dinner another night, we tried the Thursday meatloaf special ($6.99), which consisted of two thick rounds, dense and beefy, slathered in the same spicy brown gravy and creamy mashed potatoes that came with the roast beef. I chose a wheat roll this time and was happier with the result. Limas, a special side dish, were long-cooked and tender, with bits of ham and a bath of melted margarine.

Meatballs and spaghetti ($6.99) were OK, but it’s probably wiser to save this kind of dish for an Italian restaurant. Cottage Inn’s version consisted of competently prepared spaghetti in a simple tomato sauce, with two burger-like meatballs, a couple of pieces of thick Texas-style toast with garlic “butter” and the house side salad.

Iced tea ($1.69) was excellent, strong and fresh, served in large plastic tumblers with lots of ice and plenty of lemon.
Lunch for two was $29.51, to which we added a $5.49 tip. A hearty dinner with no appetizer or dessert came in even more affordably at $18.40 plus $5 tip.
Cottage Inn
570 Eastern Parkway
Robin Garr’s rating: 90 points

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Industry Standard

It’s called “the special” for a reason!
“Hi, I’ll be your server tonight. Would you like to hear about the specials?”
Thousands of diners across Louisville hear this invitation every time they dine out. Most of them will smile, nod, and then order from the menu, not realizing what they could be missing.

One thing that distinguishes independent restaurants from the ubiquitous chains is the “special.” Chain restaurants adhere religiously to their corporate-concept menus. You won’t be offered a “special” at a nationwide chain restaurant. Those (very successful) types of restaurant chains are working from a formula that will tolerate absolutely no deviation: a formula, by the way, that yields fantastic profits month after month.

On the other hand, consider your local indie restaurant cooks. The ones whose food you want to experience are the cooks who are smart, creative and yearning for recognition. Despite scandalously low pay (less than half what a skilled server makes), and often without benefits of any kind, these dedicated professionals live to please their customers.

Even as you read this, there are dozens of these guys and girls all across Louisville, lying awake in bed or sitting in front of a computer terminal, their eyes switching back and forth feverishly as they brainstorm. What do we have in house? What can I get away with ordering? How can I blow everybody in the kitchen away tomorrow? That variety of cook is slightly bored by their normal menu items. They are skilled enough to get their regular menu prep out of the way quickly, and then they begin to concentrate on a fabulous “special.”

In the independent restaurant kitchen, we compete with each other to see whose special sells best. Where I work, it’s all about who can make the best-selling soup. Not necessarily the best tasting soup, mind you (we get bonus points among each other for that), but rather the one that sells the most servings. That person is king or queen for a day. We cooks take joy in conceiving and executing a dish that is tailored to the taste buds and cravings of our clientele.

Naturally, you might (and possibly should) be wary of the “special” at an unfamiliar restaurant. There are unscrupulous chefs out there that are trying to get rid of surplus ingredients that may be past their prime. However, at a good independent restaurant, you should never be afraid to order the “special.” Please do! It’s probably one of the tastiest things they’re serving today — and you just might be contributing to the making of a kitchen legend.

The writer, a graduate of Sullivan University, has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants, including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s and L&N Wine Bar and Bistro. She is now the pastry chef at Café Lou Lou.