What could be more elegant than the classy confines of a turn-of-the-century hotel bar? Turn of the last century, I mean – a scene more familiar through classic cinema than personal experience. I’m not that old!
Take Louisville’s new St. Charles Exchange, for example. Pull open the tall, heavy doors, and it’s like stepping back into another era – you suddenly hear the clop of horse hooves and the creak of buggy wheels replacing the drone of traffic on Seventh Street.
Look around the tall, high-ceilinged room, with its mirrored and curtained back bar that looks a bit like a Broadway theater’s proscenium arch, and you might almost expect to see Greta Garbo stroll in. Is that Hepburn and Bogart flirting at a table in the corner? And a guy in a white linen suit declaring that he’s shocked – shocked – to learn that potatoes are being fried in lamb fat in here. And then up jumps diminutive Johnny the Bellhop, yelling, “Call for deviled eggs!”
It’s easy to daydream images like these at St. Charles Exchange, and you don’t even need a mug or two of the bar’s classic punch to make it happen.
St. Charles Exchange comes to Louisville through a friendship connection with the owners of Philadelphia’s Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co., a hot spot on the City of Brotherly Love’s Rittenhouse Square. Local entrepreneurs Rob Frey and Amy Hoffmann Frey, friends with the Franklin Mortgage founders, invited them down to set up a similar gig here, and St. Charles Exchange is the delightful result.
Set in a 180-year-old building that now houses Brown-Forman’s offices and, in a separate part of the complex, Morton’s of Chicago, St. Charles Exchange does a remarkable job of making the new look old. The aforementioned, purpose-built bar looks like an antique burnished by the hands of generations of revelers. Watch for a patio to open next month, set below street level but featuring natural light, shade trees and another bar, this one al fresco.
Speaking of the bar, the drinks menu is memorable, including a well-chosen, if not over-long, selection of wine and beer that includes a number of local brews; an estimable bourbon list; a serious sampling of imaginative cocktails (and not a ‘tini or Margarita in the bunch); as well as the aforementioned punches, which are perhaps best illustrated by an example: The Well Deserved Punch includes Wray and Nephew overproof and Barbancourt four-year rums, Marie Brizard cacao, fresh lime and pineapple juice, house strawberry basil syrup, and Fee’s aromatic and house orange bitters ($10).
Where the Philly original is strictly about libations, St. Charles Exchange melds an exceptional beverage program with a quality restaurant’s bill of fare, with another Philadelphia import, Mitch Prensky, late of Philadelphia’s farm-to-table eatery Supper, as executive chef.
Prensky’s dinner menu leads with a half-dozen hors d’oeuvres — no mere “starters” for a place as classy as this — ranging from $5 (for the popcorn flavor du jour) to $8 (for smoked chicken wings breaded with buttermilk, black pepper and root beer). The “Larder” comprises a quartet of heavier snacks or light plates for noshing, including spring veggie crudites or a Broadbent Kentucky country ham plate with pimento cheese, pickled okra and a biscuit (both $7); an olive-and-pickle platter ($8); or cheese boards for $16 or $20. “Firsts” (salad or soup) are $7 for a salad of greens and herbs, $8 for smoked tomato soup, or $12 for an appropriately retro rock-shrimp Louie.
Ten main courses — “Plates” — are competitively priced for downtown fine dining, from $15 (for the St. Chuck lamb burger) to $29 (for the Carpetbagger, a grilled filet steak with fried oysters and blue cheese). Pescavores will applaud the line-caught market fish ($27) or Scottish salmon ($25); lovers of Bugs and Donald will admire rabbit croquettes ($22) and duck Diane ($28); there’s a pork-belly Reuben ($22) for fat lovers, and a locavore mushroom risotto ($16) for the plant-based crowd.
St. Charles recently opened their doors for lunch, with a similar but slightly abbreviated menu. We rushed right in and all but swooned with delight at the deviled eggs ($5), a daily changing selection that, on this particular day, featured five items flavored with truffles, Sriracha sauce, anchovy-scented bagna cauda, almond and pimento.
The lamb burger ($15) was robust and tender, cooked medium-rare pink as ordered, topped with a dab of cheddar, crisp curry-scented tobacco onions, a mint sprig and sweet-pea mayo on an English muffin. A crisp, sinfully seductive pile of thick, rough-cut potatoes fried in lamb fat came alongside.
The mushroom risotto ($13) was outstanding. Creamy short-grain rice was cooked with wild mushrooms and crisp-tender bits of fresh asparagus, then topped with a crispy tempura-fried asparagus spear.
It was too early for adult libations, but iced tea ($2) was flavorful and clear; coffee ($2.50) was hot and strong; and a couple scoops of house-made ginger and cinnamon ice cream ($2 each) were creamy delights. Lunch for two mounted to $54.06 without alcohol, plus a $12 tip for attentive, professional service.
St. Charles Exchange
113 S. Seventh St.