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C- c- changes ... all around our dining scene

by Robin Garr » Wed Jan 25, 2023 7:50 am

C- c- changes ... all around our dining scene

The best brussels sprouts I ever tasted: Korean roasted brussels sprouts and an Absinthe Old Fashioned at Rye during a 2013 review dinner. LEO photo by Frankie Steele.
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We lament a lot about all the restaurants we love that have closed during the pandemic. Heck, we lament a lot about all the restaurants we love that have closed before that, probably all the way back to the days when Louisville was just a growing river port town.

But we all know that the pandemic has made things worse. The loss of Decca, Harvest and Rye changed the face of the Nulu district forever. No, those spaces won’t stand vacant for long. But the look and feel of the neighborhood is changing, and that involves more than just new names on the signs out front.

Consider: Decca’s replacement is Lou Lou on Market. Rye’s replacement is the Olé Group’s Guacamole. To be perfectly clear, I’m not bashing those places. Good for them for stepping up. But neither Lou Lou (which bills its fare as “Southern food incorporating influences from New Orleans and Italy”) or Guacamole (“authentic Mexican cuisine with a modern twist”) attains either the price point or the creative spirit of their predecessors.

A worrisome trend

Suddenly there’s a worrisome trend: Some of the city’s fancier restaurants – our top tables – are disappearing, leaving behind vacant spaces or more modest successors.

The Brown Hotel’s English Grill and the Seelbach’s Oakroom are both closed for now, while the hotels’ more basic breakfast and lunch spaces remain open. Harvest’s space remains vacant, and so does the longtime home of Lilly’s Bistro.

Louisville is no outlier. Similar trends shadow the national and even the global scenes. This may be most notable in the well publicized plan to close Noma in Copenhagen. Arguably one of the world’s top restaurants, Noma is also among its most expensive, at $500 for a meal of 20 tiny courses, often ending with, um, reindeer-blood caramels.

In a recent New York Times story headlined “Dining Is Going Out of Fashion. As an Ex-Chef, I’m Relieved,” Noma’s chef René Redzepi told writer and former chef Genevieve Yam that “running a fine dining establishment at the highest level was financially and emotionally unsustainable. This seems to be realizing something most restaurant staffers have known all along: The business model that allows the world’s most exclusive restaurants to thrive was never viable.”

Despite our fierce pride in the local dining scene, few of us would claim that we have now, or have ever had, a restaurant at the level of Noma, or even at the level of top-tier eateries in Paris, London, or America’s coastal metropolises. But we’re good, and we know it. And if the kind of fancy, creative dining rooms that have made us proud do start going out of fashion here, it’s going to hurt.

Here’s where it gets murky: There’s a closer connection that one might think between Noma’s closing and the staffing issues that seem to be afflicting restaurant service around the world.

Some of her unnamed chef contacts, Times writer Yam disclosed, “found it laughable that Noma would rather close than figure out a solution to paying their staff equitably, while others were convinced that Redzepi wanted out before his reputation was tarnished by the ‘dirty little secret,’ as one person put it, that his restaurant had been run on a huge amount of free labor [unpaid interns] for most its life.”

Do pay and benefits drive worker shortage?

Not many restaurants – and none in Louisville, as far as I know – make their budget by relying on a staff of unpaid interns. But there’s little doubt that the current and ongoing restaurant labor shortage is driven by dissatisfaction with worker pay and benefits.

Thinking about my own restaurant visits since the pandemic – and comparing them with reports from many friends – it has become almost standard to enter a restaurant and find only one server handling every table. This is a practice that almost guarantees delays and customer frustration. So why is it happening?

Initially, the rather unlikely conventional wisdom was that laid-off servers weren’t coming back because the Covid-forced break had given them time to reflect on, and be soured by, server pay, lack of benefits, and daily pain. Now, though, I’m starting to sense another issue: As some restaurateurs begin offering higher pay and basic benefits to lure staff, they try to make the numbers work by using fewer but better-paid staff. Given the frustration I’m seeing, I wonder if this is a winning longer-term strategy.

Meanwhile, pulled by labor issues in one direction, restaurants face inexorably rising food prices in the other. If you’ve moaned at your grocery bill lately, imagine the pain for an executive chef trying to feed 80 diners during the dinner rush, pay servers and kitchen staff a higher wage, and, oh yeah, end up with a few bucks in their pocket at the end of the month.

Bumpy road likely to continue

It’s no surprise that, as Nation’s Restaurant News reported in its report on a National Restaurant Association survey earlier this month, “Restaurant operators expect a continued bumpy road in 2023.”

Much of the pain, the survey revealed, came to nobody’s surprise in food and labor costs. Food costs were called a significant challenge by 92%, while 89% said the same for labor costs. Coffee and egg costs alone fired a 30% jump in breakfast inflation last year.

On the labor side, survey responses showed a 4% increase in restaurant wages and salaries and a 5% hike in benefits overall. “These are the most significant line items for restaurants, accounting for about 33 cents of every dollar in sales.”

The stark result, according to this report, was an 8.5% increase in menu prices nationally. Fully 87% of restaurants reported that they increased menu prices last year.

In spite of it all, the restaurant association observed, consumers so far remain willing to spend money at restaurants despite higher menu prices.

Our town has prized its restaurants since the 19th century, and we’ve faced challenges before. Neither of these things seems likely to stop.

Read this article on LouisvilleHotBytes:
https://www.louisvillehotbytes.com/chan ... ning-scene

You'll also find this commentary in LEO Weekly online later this week:
http://www.leoweekly.com/category/food-drink/
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Re: C- c- changes ... all around our dining scene

by Mark R. » Wed Jan 25, 2023 10:44 am

Great summary of the situation Robin! It certainly sad that we have lost some of the great downtown dining experiences. We continually miss the Oakroom we really love their brunch. Hopefully, the English Grill will reopen that was always our go to place for Thanksgiving dinner! Those 2 great white tablecloth restaurants combined with the others you listed so only show a decline in the fine dining experiences available here in Louisville. The replacements just aren't the same!
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Re: C- c- changes ... all around our dining scene

by Terri Beam » Wed Jan 25, 2023 10:19 pm

As I said in my other post about Angio's closing, I wonder how much of this can be attributed to commercial properties being bought by venture capitalists who then turn around and jack up the lease rates so high that existing tenants cannot afford to renew.

I know of at least a handful in Louisville that fell victim to that, and since they haven't opened in other locations, I assume more and more properties are becoming unaffordable.
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Re: C- c- changes ... all around our dining scene

by Robin Garr » Thu Jan 26, 2023 7:11 am

That’s very sad, Terri. Historically, I can think of quite a few places that have closed due to unreasonable landlord expectations.
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Re: C- c- changes ... all around our dining scene

by James Natsis » Thu Jan 26, 2023 7:11 pm

No argument here. Robin did some good soul searching and research. But I'll pivot and broaden the perspective.

Its interesting to watch vintage baseball footage where the fans are wearing suits and hats as to treat attending a baseball game as a sacred event. When I went to church as a kid we always had to wear a suit. Many folks who dined wore nice clothing and treated the occasion as something very special. Even business folks wore suits during lunch. Well, those days have passed incrementally with the last few generations.

Downtown Louisville is no longer the destination of locals to get their steak dinners. They are gravitating towards the east and their idea of how to dress is simply different. When we arrived here about 25 years ago or so, the Galleria was clearly on its last leg and closed shortly afterwards. The downtown was quiet and rather drab. The east end of town was of little dining interest and Norton Commons was still a twinkle in someone's eye at the time. Some of the classic places like the Seelbach, the Brown, etc. were the places to go for classier dining, especially before or after a show. Those places (and others) had great brunches as well.

The downtown now is so much more touristy, especially as you go towards 2nd St (Omni and Marriot), Whiskey Row, and NuLu. Bourbon has a huge footprint and folks come from all over to haunt our local distilleries and drink bourbon in the bars. Also, these places can serve drinks and food and cater events. These are sweeping changes from 20 years ago. In addition, New Albany and Jeffersonville were of no interest as food destinations. That has changed and we can not talk about the food scene without including them. Oh yeah, did I mention gambling and gaming coming right smack downtown complements of Derby City Gaming?

And finally, the "fast casual" food scene, such as Moe's, Qdoba, Panera, etc. has grown enormously over time. These places are not real cheap either---$10-$20 average per person. They fill a need and draw money from the collective kiddy.


So there are challenges. There are winners and losers. And there are shifts in the foodie paradigm here (and elsewhere). I'm not gleefully optimistic. But I think Louisville has the talent and clientele to metamorphosize with the trends--and maybe even set some ourselves!
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Re: C- c- changes ... all around our dining scene

by Robin Garr » Thu Jan 26, 2023 7:34 pm

James Natsis wrote:... I'll pivot and broaden the perspective.


Excellent pivot and well broadened. I think you've nailed it.
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Re: C- c- changes ... all around our dining scene

by Mark R. » Thu Jan 26, 2023 10:08 pm

James Natsis wrote: Some of the classic places like the Seelbach, the Brown, etc. were the places to go for classier dining, especially before or after a show. Those places (and others) had great brunches as well.

I definitely agree that the loss of these 2 dining destinations of the great loss to Louisville in many ways. Not just the fine dining experience which they certainly were but also the great history they represented. We didn't go there that often maybe 3 or 4 times a year but we really enjoyed the experience when we did go!

The downtown now is so much more touristy, especially as you go towards 2nd St (Omni and Marriott),
I'm not really sure about the Omni because we haven't been there since it opened but the Marriott has changed significantly as far as its dining experience goes. It used to have Blu, which in itself was a great dining experience, not quite as fancy as the Oakroom or the English Grill but it was certainly significantly nicer in both atmosphere and food than Porch which replaced it.

Oh yeah, did I mention gambling and gaming coming right smack downtown complements of Derby City Gaming?

I actually think this may help downtown Louisville, it will certainly draw people downtown and by doing that may create more business for the restaurants downtown. I personally hope that Kentucky will pass legislation to allow casino gambling like Indiana and somebody other states have done. That would be a great help to the Kentucky economy in many ways.
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Re: C- c- changes ... all around our dining scene

by James Natsis » Thu Jan 26, 2023 10:59 pm

Mark R. wrote:
James Natsis wrote:

Oh yeah, did I mention gambling and gaming coming right smack downtown complements of Derby City Gaming?

I actually think this may help downtown Louisville, it will certainly draw people downtown and by doing that may create more business for the restaurants downtown. I personally hope that Kentucky will pass legislation to allow casino gambling like Indiana and somebody other states have done. That would be a great help to the Kentucky economy in many ways.



I believe so as well. But it adds another variable to the equation. One that influences the tourist industry downtown. Foodwise, who knows. Sports bar, fried onion rings, chicken fingers, club sandwiches? Perhaps. People in suits seeking good seafood, steak, sushi? Perhaps as well. A lot of bourbon--yep! One positive is that they will offer music entertainment in addition to the slo...... uh, historical racing machines. All-in-all, it is a much needed addition to a strategic corner. I'm looking forward to it.
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Re: C- c- changes ... all around our dining scene

by Iggy C » Fri Feb 03, 2023 3:35 pm

Like you, I felt the loss of Decca, Rye, and Harvest was a real blow to NuLu and the general dining scene, so last week we decided to return to Wiltshire on Market, and we had a great experience. That place flies under the radar a bit, but I’m really grateful it’s still around.

The standout for me was the mushroom appetizer, which was one of the best mushroom dishes I’ve ever had anywhere. They were brined and then grilled, and were so outstanding that I’ve been trying to reproduce something like it at home. The menu seems to have changed this week, but it looks like they now have upgraded something similar to entree status, so I highly recommend it if you stop by. Everything else was delicious, too.

Whether it’s Wiltshire Pantry or the branch at the Speed, or Wiltshire on Market, they always have a great, distinctive sense of taste. And their new eastern Mediterranean menu looks really fun, too. I hope that people support this place, because it fills a niche that is getting harder to find.
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Re: C- c- changes ... all around our dining scene

by Robin Garr » Sat Feb 04, 2023 8:56 am

Iggy, I agree. I love Wiltshire on Market (and the other Wiltshire properties too). I'm not at all sure why it flies under the radar, but it really does.

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