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    Eat & Swig

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    Photos by Chris Witkze

    In a time when eating out has become less about the exquisiteness of the experience and more about back-of-the-house ingenuity, I felt an urge to visit Buck’s in the Mayflower Building in Old Louisville. Buck’s, now 25 years in business, is a Louisville staple I had never been to but had heard about. When I was a kid, my family rotated between Vincenzo’s and Pat’s Steakhouse on special occasions. Feeling nostalgic, I craved candlelight, music from another era, pretty flowers and seamless service. I wanted to dine. Sure, the menu might not have trendy or obscure ingredients, but since when is a professionally prepared filet mignon and wedge salad not a desirable night out?

    When my husband and I go the Friday before Christmas, the place is cozy and starting to fill up with couples and families. After performer Rick Bartlett sings a few numbers on the piano, he introduces a couple as they walk in to be seated, telling guests that they are visiting on their honeymoon. People clap and cheer. It’s jolly and fuzzy. The quiet atmosphere makes me feel less rushed, and I savor every bite. It’s hard to pass on dessert, so we split a slice of chocolate torte so rich that the jolt prevents post-meal lethargy. “We anticipate you will come in and you will spend two hours having dinner. No TVs, no Wi-Fi,” says Lisa Imrie, who owns the restaurant with her sister and brother-in-law. “It’s about sitting down, having a conversation and taking your time.” 

    Image: Buck's

    At Vincenzo’s, downtown at Fifth and Market streets, the servers bring lemon halves wrapped in yellow netting and green ribbons, so patrons can squeeze out the juice without fussing with seeds. If spreading butter over bread leaves a few crumbs behind, a server will come by and scrape them away with a metal wand. Vincenzo Gabriele, now 69 and in his 31st year of business, wears a suit and tie when I meet him for lunch on a snowy day in early January. He has a large gold ring on his right hand engraved with a cursive “V,” the same V that’s in the restaurant’s logo. A gold pen clip hangs over his coat pocket. Every once in a while he’ll reach into his other coat pocket for a handkerchief. Nat King Cole’s “L-OV-E” plays on the sound system. “I got to be able to put on a formal appearance to introduce the formal dining room,” Gabriele says in a Sicilian accent that reminds me of a Godfather Mafioso. Though the restaurant’s coat-and-tie dress code has faded with the times (Vincenzo’s welcomes all attire, dressy or not), what haven’t changed are the food and the service. “Two of the four people at that table had the tortellini Buddeke,” Gabriele says, motioning at a group of diners a table over. The dish has been on the menu since day one, right after Gabriele left legendary Casa Grisanti and recruited his brother, chef Agostino, to start their own restaurant. As for the service, Vincenzo’s continues to have a captain and an assistant at every table. 

    Other restaurants approach fine dining differently. At Seviche, in the heart of the Highlands, it’s less about a fancy ambiance, focused instead on the service and a modern approach to food. “People can come in here during the summer in shorts and sit outside and still have a beautiful bottle of wine,” owner/chef Anthony Lamas says. Despite what he calls his “OCD” nature of having a spick-and-span restaurant and serving high-end ingredients, he says he wants people to feel more relaxed. But even with a dress code described on OpenTable as “smart casual,” the prices keep Seviche from being a regular hangout spot for many. “My wife wants to come in here all the time. I say, ‘Honey, I can’t afford it,’” Lamas says. “You’re paying for everything. We’re able to give you these nice restrooms. We’re able to give you this beautiful bar. Not just the food is fine; the rest of our restaurant has to be fine in every aspect.”

    Though many would consider Lilly’s a fine-dining experience, with quality food and a comfortable, cozy, candle-lit ambiance, owner/chef Kathy Cary thinks the label is a misnomer. (California native Lamas got his first job in Louisville at her restaurant.) “Fine dining always put a stamp of ‘expensive,’ ‘reservation only,’ ‘once a year we go there,’” Cary says. “If you slap a hamburger on your menu, suddenly you become casual. Fine dining has evolved to where you can erase that word to some degree, because now everyone’s in this together offering great food and service, hoping you’ll come to the restaurant more often. If you have to have tablecloths because your tables are ugly, then so be it.” She’s serious about the tablecloths. She’d love to get rid of the restaurant’s cream-colored linens to reduce the fancy appearance, but new tables are an investment that she and her husband aren’t ready to make. 

    The high-end Louisville dining scene has grown dramatically from 30 or so years ago, when a sprinkling of eateries dotted the map. With the addition of La Chasse, Ward 426, the Fat Lamb, most restaurants on East Market, and others, places are adjusting to get more people in the door. Cary has encouraged people to come in more often for a burger or a soup and salad or to just sit at the bar with a beer, trying to do away with the expectation that you should be coming in for a four-course meal. Cary has started small-plate Wednesdays, when customers can come in for live jazz and have tapas costing $8 to $12 apiece. At Seviche, Lamas hosts dinner-and-a-movie nights, which he says regularly sell out. Gabriele, who depends on longtime customers, especially now that the convention center is under renovation, has a spot on WAVE-3 for the next year in an attempt to stay at the front of people’s minds. When Lisa Imrie joined her family at Buck’s in 2009, she says, the clientele was mostly 60 and older. But after investing in Groupon, she says that the off-the-beaten path restaurant now attracts people 30 and older, and that the same people seem to be coming back even after benefiting from the Groupon price.

    Le Relais, which opened in 1988, serves classic French food in an old airport terminal at Bowman Field. In most ways, the place has remained the same. Last year the restaurant started offering half portions for those who don’t want to spend or eat too much. When I visited on a recent Friday night, there were several couples who looked to be in their 20s and 30s. For all the high-end places encouraging a more casual atmosphere, owner Anthony Dike says that traditional, romantic fine dining will never go away.

    “The customer almost gets into a role when they go to fine dining,” says head server and event coordinator Amy Zinner. “They are very mindful of their posture, their manners. They don’t have to be; I think it’s just a natural thing that happens within them when they step foot not even necessarily here but any fine-dining restaurant.”

    Image: La Relais

    The Seelbach Hotel’s Oakroom is listed as “business casual” on Open Table and “dressy” on Facebook, but I feel I look the part when I walk into the old-fashioned, wood-paneled dining room wearing a fur coat (albeit faux) while a man in a suit plays “What a Wonderful World” on the piano. It’s a Saturday night and my husband and I didn’t make a reservation, but we’re not treated as though we needed one. After ordering drinks, Jamal, the lead captain, arrives with what look like cups of espresso on saucers. It’s an amuse-bouche, sweet onion soup, he tells us, and just as we start to look for a spoon, he mimes for us to sip it like a drink. It’s delicious, but I think it’s the idea of getting a small treat that I didn’t order that triggers my brain’s pleasure center. I’m embarrassed to pull out my cell phone, holding it down by the edge of the tablecloth to take a few notes — about how the chairs might be the most comfortable in town and how this must be what fine Kentucky dining looked like more than a century ago when the restaurant originally opened. The Brown Hotel’s English Grill website explicitly bans cellphone use, and I can imagine they are frowned upon in the Oakroom too. For a place so steeped in the elements of traditional fine dining, it recently debuted a small-plates menu. 

    I get a Bibb salad and lobster-and-grits small plate and my husband orders a pork loin/belly dish with apples and olives and sweet potatoes — an inventive but approachable combination. The experience is one I would like to have more often: the quiet, carpeted dining room, the piano, well-prepared food brought to the table at a relaxed pace — but I remember something Imrie from Buck’s told me: “You would get tired of it.” And then it probably wouldn’t feel so fine.

    Cover Image: Pat's Steakhouse

    This originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, click here. To find your very own copy of Louisville Magazine, click here. 

    Mary Chellis Nelson's picture

    About Mary Chellis Nelson

    Mary Chellis Nelson is the managing editor of Louisville Magazine.

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