Think of a quintessential Louisville neighborhood, and chances are your thoughts will turn to Germantown or Clifton, the Highlands or Crescent Hill.
“That stretch out past Lyndon where Whipps Mill twists around the railroad tracks and tangles with Lagrange Road,” not so much.
But riddle me this: When we list the quintessential Louisville neighborhood eateries, the most memorable spots for comfort food, friendly service and fair prices, we start by checking off favorites like Check’s and Shady Lane Café. Then up pops Corner Café, a 20-year tradition that doesn’t actually sit on a corner but right in the middle of a strip shopping center in … wait for it … “that stretch out past Lyndon where Whipps Mill twists around the railroad tracks.”
So, how does that work? I’m not quite sure where all these people come from, but this place always seems crowded, and the crowds always seem hungry and happy. It’s been like that for more than two decades under the long-term management of Robert, Randy, Scott and Peggy Frederick and their friend Alice Bowling.
Right off the bat, it’s warm and welcoming. Park, pop in the door, and you’re in a comfortable, rather dark bar, but not the kind of bar where everyone turns in unison and glares at you, the intruder. It’s more of a “Howdy, stranger, we’re glad you’re here” spirit.
Stroll on into the dining room, and just for a moment you’ll catch a momentary feeling that this might be more like a fancy club than a neighborhood joint. The walls are a tasteful burgundy color, and they bear classy museum-like chiaroscuro still-lifes that look like old masters but are actually done by local artist Don Burchett.
The tables are set with dark cloth napkins and elegant flatware that looks like your mom’s, and they’re draped in white cloths; the oversize menus are bound in leather-look books. But a peek at the menu quickly reassures us that for all its upscale trappings, this is, after all, a friendly neighborhood joint, and the prices are right.
Dinner entrees range in price from $17.75 (for chicken parmesan) to $27.50 (for grilled tenderloin medallions stuffed with crab and topped with lime-caper Hollandaise). Pizzas, on the other hand, start at $10, pasta dishes are $14.75 to $19.75, and subs start at $6.50. Only the hilariously monikered “Nuclear Sub,” a full Italian antipasto on a roll, reaches double digits at $10.95.
My sister Amy and her husband Paul were in town last week, so we saddled up and ventured out to Corner Café to load up on delicious carbs and fat.
Equipped with pints of Widmer Hefeweizen ($4.25) and a basket of warm dinner rolls with foil-wrapped pats of real butter, we tried something from just about every menu category but the higher-end entrees.
Two apps proved more than ample for the table. “Our Famous Bread Stix” ($7.25) looked like a sub bun split lengthwise and cut in half to make four big “stix,” loaded with mozzarella and provolone, scented with herbs and garlic, slathered in butter and baked until the cheese was molten and the bread golden brown. It was served with a textured, sweet-tart marinara sauce.
About 20 crunchy, golden-brown bites of Red Hot chicken ($8.50) were something like boneless buffalo wings but whittled from breast meat.
A side Caesar salad ($6.25) was good and, like most everything here, generously portioned. Crisp but pale romaine was dressed in what seemed more like a vinaigrette than Caesar dressing, topped with fine croutons and shaved Parmesan.
The regular sub ($7.50) was a standard model with all the usual suspects: sliced salami, ham and pepperoni topped with mozzarella, bedded on shredded lettuce and perched on a good sub bun, baked until the mozz was warm and melty, and served with chips and a pickle spear.
The Mediterranean wrap ($8.50) was worthy, too, with crisp romaine and cucumbers, sliced plum tomatoes and black olives, tossed with feta cheese and slathered with hummus, all tightly rolled in a large green tortilla wrap. It was served with a spicy, earthy black-bean salsa salad and a crock of something like tzatziki sauce.
Corner Café’s pizzas rank in the city’s top tier. A small five-cheese and sun-dried tomato pizza ($10) was built on a puffy, browned-edge base that evoked good, crusty Italian bread. A mix of mozzarella, provolone and fontina plus Jarlsberg and smoked gouda cheeses was melted into an earthy, complex mass, studded with bright, tangy bits of tomato. A 7-incher may sound small, but this pie was so rich that it made leftovers for two good lunches at home.
Gorgonzola ravioli with beef tips ($14.75) started with tender ravioli stuffed with tangy Italian blue cheese dressed with a light demiglace, added a layer of beautifully cooked sirloin tips, beefy and tender and, remarkably, still pink at the centers, topped with a complex tomato-based sauce.
Corner Café’s desserts (all $6.50) are memorable, and the lava cake, peanut-butter pie and Italian cream cake in particular were tempting. But no. Just no. We couldn’t even have accommodated a wafer-thin slice.
Our share for two came to $44.26, plus a 20-plus percent tip in appreciation for first-rate service.