Well, 2018 sure came in with a “Brrrr!” The temperature didn’t rise above freezing for a week, and relief took its sweet time coming. When the air makes my face hurt, my instinct is to keep the doors shut and hole up at home with the thermostat cranked up to high.
When hunger and cabin fever set in, though, and the urge to get out in the world becomes irresistible, I can hardly think of a better cold-weather destination than the friendly confines of a cozy bar and grill that takes its commitment to good food as seriously as its beverages.
Last week we ventured out twice for warming lunches. One trip took us to Old Louisville Tavern, a longtime landmark made new again. The second expedition led to bar Vetti in the 800 Building, one of the city’s newest watering holes.
Old Louisville Tavern, a 70-year-old neighborhood watering hole at Fourth Street and Gaulbert, just north of the U of L campus, was struck by a serial arsonist one summer night in 2014. A trash fire behind the tavern spread to its roof and did heavy damage.
It took almost two years to restore it, but the refinished building may be better than ever, and that goes double for the food. Co-owner Dan Borsch, who also runs Burger Boy and Toonerville Deli/Old Louisville Pizza in Old Louisville, brings a similar focus on quality fare to all his properties. The Tavern’s menu features pub grub, to be sure, but it’s pub grub with a difference, comfort-food dishes at a level that wouldn’t be out of place in fancier quarters.
The restored Tavern isn’t fancy, but it’s neat and clean, with polished terrazzo floors, sturdy wooden tables, and a hefty plank bench. that lines one side of the room opposite the long bar. We chose a seat near the front windows and enjoyed the warming pleasure of a bright sun spot.
The menu is appealing, extensive, and fairly priced. It features a dozen sandwiches, nine burger treatments, seven hearty entrees, and a stack of pub-grub starters. Most of the sandwiches are under 10 bucks, and only one or two items on the menu – a chicken-bacon Alfredo and steak frites – barely crack the $15 ceiling.
A basket of beer-battered onion rings ($6) got us started. A generous portion of thick, golden-brown rings came out sizzling hot. They were a little greasy, in a good barfood way, and a hint of cayenne gave them a pleasant kick.
A double-decker grilled cheese sandwich ($7.99) was attractively quartered and skewered in a neat row A molten mix of Cheddar, American and Provolone was slathered with sweet caramelized onions, pickle chips and crispy bacon. A side order of green beans were grilled crisp and bright.
The “Best Beer-Battered cod sandwich” ($11.49) lived up to its moniker. A smallish mild, flaky cod fillet reposed in a thick, golden batter and perched an eggy brioche bun dressed with shredded lettuce and a tangy dill dressing. A side of slaw was decent, fresh shredded cabbage in a creamy dressing.
A filling lunch for two came to $27.01 plus a $6 tip. Adult beverages would have been good, but it was early on a working day, alas. Next time.
I was hankering for an excuse to get back to bar Vetti and try more good stuff, and the recent launch of lunch hours and a separate midday menu gave me the reason I needed.
Same as the first time, we couldn’t find a thing that we didn’t like. All our dishes were well-made and flavorful, and plentiful too. The short lunch menu of soups, salads, five pizzas, a half-dozen sandwiches and a single pasta dish tops out at $19 for a salumi pizza topped with three kinds of sausage.
A steaming cup of tomato soup gratiné ($8 for a generous cup, $10 for a bowl) was soothing and rich, a subtly seasoned tomato and heavy cream puree topped with crunchy toasted croutons on a raft of mild Fontina cheese seared under the broiler.
A crispy pork parm sandwich ($12) consisted of a fine, sizable boneless pork loin pounded thin, and crisply breaded, schnitzel-style, and fried dark and crisp. It was coated with a thick, savory tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, and scattered hot peppers. A side of charred cabbage was a creative take on slaw, barely cooked crisp shredded cabbage dressed with olive oil and red pepper flakes.
Baked rigatoni with house-made pasta ($11) was a classic Italian comfort-food dish. House-made rigatoni noodles were toothy yet tender, coated with thick, subtly spicy tomato sauce and topped with a blanket of mozzarella, earthy Pecorino cheese and fresh basil.
Lunch, with the tip built in, was $35.51, plus a fine homemade chocolate chip cookie for $1.59. Service – ordering at the bar, with delivery to the table, was as courteous and thorough as if we had tipped the old-fashioned way.