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    Eat & Swig

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    Driving down Main Street in downtown Louisville, maybe you’ve noticed that Manny has disappeared from his place beside Merle. Formerly known as “Manny and Merle’s,” owner Tony Palombino said of the restaurant, “It was time to give homage to what was coming,” alluding to the popular resurgence of Whiskey Row. Palombino is also the owner of Tony Boombozz’s and Joella’s Hot Chicken, the latter being an inspiration for Merle’s as a remodeled dive bar joint. The building was first dubbed Manny and Merle’s when they opened as a “TexMex” restaurant. Now, four years later, Palombino decided to embrace the idea of a Southern menu, he gave the restaurant its singular name, “Merle’s Whiskey Kitchen,” in part to honor his favorite musician, the late Merle Haggard. Like most of the buildings on Whiskey Row, Merle’s atmosphere offers a refined version of the typical “honky tonk” bar – with over 100 bourbons and a staff of official bourbon stewards trained by the Stave and Thief Society, or as they like to call it, “Moonshine University.”

    Image: Merle's Whiskey Kitchen

    Palombino admitted that when it was Manny and Merle’s, the attention wasn’t there like they had always hoped. “People would say, ‘Oh my gosh. I didn’t even notice this place before.’ Just through the grapevine we got the sense that people would walk by and say, ‘Okay, what exactly is Manny and Merle’s?’… I think changing it to a more classic, southern menu with a dive bar feel… It was just the right move.”

    It was an instinct he’s carried with him for about two years, his vision finally coming together at the beginning of the month. “When I first found the location in downtown Louisville, driving by it every day and knowing it was available… I swear that building just kept winking at me,” Palombino gushes about Merle’s progression. The barbershop next door has been vacant for years, as indicated by some of the boarded up windows and the faded barber pole. Now, Palombino leases the space and plans on making it an event space for tourists and locals alike.  Hoping to make Merle’s a “premier destination for dining and entertainment,” he’s also preparing “Merle’s Garden” behind the building, which will hopefully be ready next spring, accompanied by corn hole, ping pong and live music.

    Image: Merle's Whiskey Kitchen

    “When it was Manny and Merle’s, we had a few great weeks, if there was a game or a convention in town or something, but I think this, this is a place I’ve always wanted to open. Especially after seeing the significance and response to the Urban Bourbon Trail… The timing of this place was perfect and I thought to myself, ‘What do I want to do here that’ll connect me to where I am?’” Palombino goes on to talk about his origins in the restaurant community. His family, originally from Naples, Italy, moved to the United States in the mid-70s. Palombino’s father, also in the restaurant business, was looking for retirement with a business on the side. Palombino laughs, “Yeah, I don’t know. But it worked out because he found this place on the water… a real old school place. That’s where I cut my teeth on the southern style of food.” He remembers its “classic-ness” all too well: breakfast any time of day, the biscuits and gravy, the coffee bar, the big pressure cookers. “It was called Churchill Manor, and they were famous for their fried chicken.” He pauses, and suddenly brings himself back to reality. “I mean yeah, I’m Italian and I’ve always loved Italian food. I’ve done that for a bit, but really throw some pork and beans in front of me… That’s what I like.”

    Image: Merle's Whiskey Kitchen

    Palombino makes sure to mention not all of the “Manny” from Merle’s is forever gone. I stopped in the other day and saw they still had their famous tacos, alongside herb roasted mac n’ cheese and sweet potato casserole. Palombino certainly gave recognition to Louisville’s long-standing history with bourbon, as the entire wall behind the bar is a grand salute to the drink, bottles lining the old brick wall from floor to ceiling. On a mid-week lunch hour, suits and collars made themselves comfortable in the booths along the shotgun styled building.

    Towards the end of my time with Palombino, he interjects for a moment. “I have to thank the locals. I think that’s been the base of this whole thing. They are our biggest customer. When we have a lot of tourists in town, that’s just a little something extra. Louisville has been supporting us.” And I think I speak for everyone when I say, no one plans on stopping anytime soon.

    Merle's Whiskey Kitchen
    Tuesday-Thursday: 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
    Friday: 11 a.m.-1 a.m.
    Saturday: 4 p.m.-1 a.m.


    Cover Image: Merle's Whiskey Kitchen

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