Heir to the Kaelin’s original cheeseburger, the 80/20 burger is fashioned from a five-cut beef blend.

80/20 @ Kaelin’s makes the old tradition new again

Kaelin’s is back, and it’s got cheeseburgers!

Well, let’s parse that a little: Meet the new 80/20@Kaelin’s. It’s not like the old Kaelin’s, but it’s certainly rooted in the mystique of the beloved old eatery at Speed Avenue and Newburg Road.

The original Kaelin’s was a Louisville favorite for most of the past century, family-owned from 1934 until its family owners sold the business in 2004. Owner Carl Kaelin was allegedly inspired to invent the cheeseburger on a brisk October day in 1935. (This may sound like an urban legend, but if Kaelin wasn’t likely the first human to put cheese on a burger, his bragging rights to having coined the name and placed it on a menu seem well established.)

The restaurant sputtered along for a while as Kaelin’s, and later as Mulligan’s, but it closed after a few years and remained vacant until partners Chris Fenton, Bill DuBourg, and Matt Staggs bought the building and undertook a major rehab. The dramatically renovated 80/20@Kaelin’s opened last month and appears to be drawing capacity crowds nightly. The name Kaelin’s pays homage to the old place; 80/20 represents the lean-to-fat ratio in a good hamburger.

The new Kaelin’s certainly has burgers. You’ll find eight on the appetizing menu, ranging in price from $12 (for a black bean burger) to $16 (for a fancy beefburger made with a New York strip steak, tri-tip and sirloin blend).

Kaelin’s appetizer lollipop drumsticks are meaty and flavorful.
Kaelin’s appetizer lollipop drumsticks are meaty and flavorful.
The menu also features a load of apps, soups and salads (from $6 for heirloom tomato and watermelon gazpacho to $16 for the slider trio of the week). There’s also a slate of bistro-type entrees that range from $17 (for a dark-meat fried chicken plate) to $22 (for a prawn and crab cake).

The makeover has retained a neighborhood bar feel, but expansive new floor-to-ceiling windows at the rear open the main dining room up to a light and airy space; the now connected house next door adds a warren of rooms, each with its own style. The cozy bar room is likely to become a favorite gathering place, with its long U-shaped bar that serves both the room and the comfortable front-porch patio. A comprehensive adult-beverage list includes abundant bourbons, fair selections of wines, mostly local beers and house cocktails. I enjoyed a well-drawn draught Guinness ($6).

We found our way to the upstairs ice cream parlor room, a pretty, bright room with a ’50s feel, turquoise booths and an old-style bicycle hanging over the mantel.

Grilled corn and jalapeños kick up the hush puppies at Kaelin’s.
Grilled corn and jalapeños kick up the hush puppies at Kaelin’s.
Three appetizers got us off to a great start: Fried green tomatoes ($7) are cut into bite-size pieces and deep-fried in a coarse, crunchy cornmeal batter. They’re served with choice of crispy country ham strips or meat-free shiitake bacon, with a tangy buttermilk-dill dip. Hush puppies ($6.50) gained a spicy kick with jalapeños and grilled corn, enhanced by a creamy-spicy piquillo pepper dip. Lollipop drumsticks ($8) were meaty and flavorful, almost gamey, sizable balls of tender drums with crisp skin.

The 80/20 burger ($14.50), heir to the Kaelin’s original cheeseburger, pictured at the top of the page, was exceptionally tasty. Made from three cuts of beef ground in-house, it was juicy and flavorful, hot-pink medium-rare as ordered. The pretzel bun showed grill marks. Dressings were unexceptional: A halved yellow tomato slice, a rather tough ring of raw onion, a couple of small pieces of ghost-pepper bacon, barely piquant despite the pepper’s fierce reputation, and thin yellow aioli-like 80/20 sauce. It was such an ample sandwich that it couldn’t easily be picked up and eaten; better to deconstruct it with knife and fork.

A side of collards ($3) was disappointing, a lump of long-cooked leaves flavored with a couple of small cubes of mystery meat. Fries were better, crunchy and hot, a bit on the salty side.

From Kaelin’s entree list, the pan-seared ravioli sport a seasonal vegetable filling.
From Kaelin’s entree list, the pan-seared ravioli sport a seasonal vegetable filling.
From Kaelin’s entree list, pan-seared ravioli ($18) was an interesting meatless option. An idiosyncratic variation, it was constructed from two large pasta triangles sandwiching, rather than enclosing, a seasonal vegetable filling that currently consists of neatly cubed pink beets in a thick sweet-potato Parmesan broth that also decorated the plate, topped with peppery arugula leaves and a nest of fried thin pasta strips.

A pair of desserts at Kaelin’s: A bourbon-brown sugar tart and spiced chocolate panna cotta.
A pair of desserts at Kaelin’s: A bourbon-brown sugar tart and spiced chocolate panna cotta.
Desserts, made in house, were amazing, and served in large portions. A bourbon-brown sugar tart ($9) was rich and dense, topped with a crunchy oatmeal cookie crust and lightly browned cinnamon meringue, and decorated with pretty dabs of orange, red and yellow carrot marmalade. Spiced chocolate panna cotta ($9) was creamy and light, subtly flavored with espresso syrup and topped with brown-butter white-chocolate crumbles, smoked maldon salt and airy cinnamon whip.

Dinner for two was $70.49, plus a $15 tip for our cordial and competent server, Abigail.

1801 Newburg Road

Robin Garr’s rating: 86 points

Noise level: The large venue has several rooms with varying sound levels. We dined in the Ice Cream Parlor, a relatively quiet environment; the bar would likely be much louder (Average sound level 64-72 dB.)

Accessibility: The main floor and rest rooms are easily accessible to wheelchair users. An elevator gives access to the upper floors.