Halloween has come and gone, taking with it another piece of collateral damage from the pandemic: There was no Hillcrest Avenue halloween decoration extravaganza this year.
But there is still a doggone good reason to go to Hillcrest – or to be more exact, to cross the railroad tracks, turn left onto Frankfort Avenue, and drive a few blocks past Louisville Water Co. to Hillcrest Tavern.
You won’t be sorry. The bar-style comfort food at this relatively new Crescent Hill eatery is good enough to help us forget the ghosties and ghoulies and things that didn’t go bump in the night this year.
Hillcrest Tavern opened in August 2019, joining a growing cluster of bars and eateries – FABD, Patrick’s, and Hooked on Frankfort – in this busy block where Crescent Hill starts edging toward St. Matthews.
It gained immediate popularity. Starting with exposed brick, high ceilings, and multi-paned front windows, it doubled down with vintage neon local beer signs and a spectacular antique bar. That iconic 120-year-old mahogany Mont Oro bar was made by Brunswick, the famed billiards table maker. It makes an evocative home for Hillcrest’s extensive bourbon collection, beers and wines.
Owners Dan Borsch and Scott Lukemire also own the Old Louisville Tavern as well as the Toonerville Deli, Burger Boy, and Burger Girl restaurants and have won praise for them all.
Co-owner Scott Lukemire serves as chef over the group’s kitchens, and, Borsch said, “has spent the last seven years at the Old Louisville Tavern perfecting our scratch-made sauces and recipes while training all our cooks to be focused on executing every order to our high standards, including to-go orders. We are always looking at ways to improve our operations and continue to tweak recipes in the process.”
In the face of the pandemic, Borsch said, the team overhauled its to-go operations to ensure quality, including premium packaging and intense staff training. They’re focused on pandemic-level sanitation and constantly working to keep the restaurants’ environment safe.
Hillcrest’s menu is similar to Old Louisville Tavern’s. It’s bar food all right, comfortable and unthreatening, yet it’s elevated here and there with touches that go beyond the ordinary.
It starts with ten appetizers and five soups and salads, any of which could make a fine light companion to a drink at the bar or at home. The apps range in price from $7 (for hand-breaded fried pickle spears a.k.a. frickle spears) to $13 (for the Tavern Triple, a basket of buffalo wings, frickle spears, and portobello fries). The soups and salads are priced from $6 (for cheese-topped tomato-basil soup) to $14 (for a salad topped with crispy fried-chicken tenders).
Eleven sandwiches range from $10 (for a double-decker grilled cheese with American, cheddar and provolone cheeses) to $15 (for an appetizer portion of soy-glazed ahi tuna on a brioche bun). Nine burgers are similarly priced, from $12 (for tavern sliders on steamed buns) to $15 (for The Fancy Pants, a gourmet-style burger seasoned with white truffle oil and topped with herbed goat cheese and wild mushrooms). Burgers and sandwiches are all served with house hand-cut fries.
Ten generously portioned entrees wrap it up, with prices from $14 (for a veggie mac’n’cheese) to $21 (for the Tavern surf and turf, a seared garlic marinated sirloin with seared lump-crab cake).
It’s an impressive selection, and everything we ordered for takeout scored, not only for preparation and flavor but because the sturdy black-and-clear plastic clamshell boxes kept our food hot all the way home … and yet, mysteriously, also kept a burger pink in the middle.
If you don’t think portobello mushrooms can be turned into tasty fries, you haven’t tried Hillcrest’s thickly hand-breaded treats ($9). An entree-size appetizer, it included a dozen thick portobello slices the size of Indi’s potato wedges, each dredged in seasoned flour and and deep-fried crisp. The crunchy coating and the tender mushroom within made a winning combination. It came with small tubs of creamy, tongue-tingling horseradish and chipotle ranch sauces.
The rye patty melt ($13), pictured at the top of the page, was outstanding. Two thick ovals of quality marble rye sandwiched a thick, juicy, and tender beef burger that was still warm and touched with pink on the inside, with a nicely browned crunchy-crisp exterior. The mild swiss cheese on top was melted by the heat of the burger, and the bread had been spread with a thin schmear of what Russian dressing. It came with a free side of excellent french fries, long, thin and crisp.
Mac & cheese is another favorite comfort food, and it gets even more interesting when you mix in tasty goodies. Hillcrest offers it two ways: Tex-Mex style ($16) with spicy ancho chile ground beef, jack cheese, and poblano corn relish; and our pick, a warm and filling veggie version ($14), which was outrageously good. Bite-size ridged pasta shells were cloaked in a rich, creamy, gently tangy cheddar and cream cheese sauce with fresh, small tomato dice and caramelized onions, and four more delicious portobello fries on top!
An excellent takeout diner dinner came to a reasonable $36, plus an $8 tip.