The bar area at Sidebar at Whiskey Row. All photos by Jason Pierce (who is the restaurant’s assistant GM and culinary director).

I go to a lot of soft openings/pre-openings/VIP receptions/previews/peeks … whatever you want to call them … before a restaurant officially takes off the wraps, and I sometimes leave those events thinking, “This one’s not long for this world.”

I harbor no such thoughts about Sidebar at Whiskey Row, which smartly conducted several private dinner services over the past week to get its staff trained and perfect its kitchen execution.

I’m a lousy bettor at Churchill Downs, so I don’t play the ponies. But I’d confidently lay money on this restaurant being a winner.

Why? It is thoroughly buttoned up:

Location: 129 N. Second Street, directly across from the KFC Yum! Center and steps from Main Street. It’s above the Troll Pub by the Bridge, around the corner from Doc Crow’s, and a stone’s throw from BBC on Main, Manny and Merle’s and Impellizeri’s Pizza.

Décor: Subdued, causal yet elegant, lots of cushy seats, stools and button-tucked banquets.

Food: The menu is centered on six cleverly prepared beef burgers ($10-$15), one veggie burger and one tuna burger, joined by six appetizers, four salads and four types of fries. Desserts are limited to three tasty milkshakes with or without alcohol and a special of the day. (I had the Triple Chocolate milkshake ($8) with Frangelico liqueur, vanilla vodka and Bailey’s Irish Cream, and it was outstanding. It’s also something best shared.)

Bar program: Again, smartly limited (six draft, 13 bottled beers), four wine choices, a half dozen, a good range of spirits and about a small rotation of barrel-aged cocktails that, as far as I know, no one else in town is doing. (Just imagine mixing all the shelf-stable components of a cocktail and aging the mixture in a charred barrel.)

Service: Granted, I’ve only been once, but the two who served us were thoroughly trained and confident, a trait that’s increasingly rarer these days.

Management: Lots of experience here, including operating partner Richard Ruth (formerly of The St. Charles Exchange) and Jason Brauner, co-owner of Bourbons Bistro. Culinary director Jason Pierce has extensive kitchen chops, too.

To wit, when I asked Ruth about what’s gone well during soft openings, he immediately said, “I’d give us a 90 overall, but there are some things we need to work on.” His critique included detailed stuff, especially service-oriented issues.

“We were having some cases where there was some food auctioning,” Ruth said in industry-speak that means servers were coming to tables and asking out loud which customer got what dish. “If it’s a big table and people are moving around, I get it. But I believe customers feel comfortable when a server doesn’t have to ask them questions like that.”

More good news: The restaurant’s formal grand opening is May 14, but it’s already open to the public for lunch and dinner. Currently, operating hours are 11 a.m. to midnight Sunday through Wednesday, and 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday through Saturday.

“We didn’t want to be judged on our quality trying to open during Derby week,” Ruth said. “But we’re ready to go now.”

Not surprisingly, he said customers so far have raved about the hamburgers (during my visit, I had the Court Reporter which is topped with a honey-chipotle aioli and red pepper relish) and the barrel-aged cocktails.

“People have really loved the Kentucky Maid (bourbon, simple syrup, fresh lime juice, mint and cucumber) so far,” Ruth said. “And they love the barrel-aged Old Fashioned.”

Faced with the same issue all restaurants downtown battle—getting locals to come to the area when there isn’t a big event at the Yum Center—Ruth said they’re working to get customer parking validated at nearby lots, hosting live Bluegrass music on select nights, and they’re promoting a deal with Yellow Cab that allows Sidebar patrons to get a flat-rate ride home to neighborhoods within the Watterson beltway.

Tables in the main dining room and a snippet of the Constitution on the wall. See explanation at the end of the blog.

“We’ve not necessarily built the place with a cocktail focus, but what we’ve put out there is above average,” Ruth began. “So I do think Sidebar will become a place where people come for latenight cocktails. It’s relaxed but kind of upscale, too.”

** A “side” item: In case you were wondering about the name, Sidebar, here’s Rich Ruth’s explanation:

“… a double entendre … Sidebar is a conversation between the judge and attorney away from the scrutiny/judgment of the jury, and our physical location being on the side of Whiskey Row. … We’ve created our own set of Sidebar Statutes (such as) 1. All burgers are not created equal! … There are approximately 12 Sidebar Statutes that tell our story or what our focus is in terms of quality and service.

“I have always had a love affair with the Constitution and think it is the document that binds us all as Americans. I am going to start using pocket-sized Constitutions as check presenters so that the guest can then hopefully read or take with if he or she chooses to raise awareness or to just have souvenir.”

Steve Coomes is a restaurant veteran turned award-winning food, spirits and travel writer. In his 24-year career, he has edited and written for multiple national trade and consumer publications including Nation's Restaurant News and Southern Living. He is a feature writer for Louisville magazine, Edible Louisville & The Bluegrass and Food & Dining Magazine. The author of two books, "Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke," and the "Home Distiller's Guide to Spirits," he also serves as a ghostwriter for multiple clients.


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