Pete Peters remembers two things about Sept. 27, 1977, the opening day of Bristol Bar & Grille: He waited on the second table of customers — Willie Faversham waited on the first — and the skillet fries weren’t up to par.
One of the employees was cooking the fries in a cast-iron skillet, said Peters, who to this day works as general manager of The Highlands Bristol. “That did not work, and there was a fryer in there the next day. It was like ‘Oh, this is a disaster.’ There were a lot of things we tried at first that didn’t work.”
Now 40 almost years later, the Bristol remains a community staple and has grown from a single location in the Highlands to four locations in Louisville and Southern Indiana.
The Bristol was nearly not the Bristol at all, though, said Bristol owner, Doug Gossmann, who has no memories of the first day as he was home sick with a 103-degree fever. Gossmann’s then-partner, Tim Martin, wanted Gossmann, who already was running the bluegrass and jazz club Great Midwestern Music Hall on Washington Street, to open another bar with him in The Highlands.
“There were plenty of bars in this neighborhood, but there just weren’t many good restaurants,” Gossmann said.
In the latter part of the 1970s, he said, people were starting to eat out more regularly. (The now well-known Zagat guide to dining started in 1979.)
“It wasn’t anything like it is now, but there was a definite need, I thought, for a restaurant in this area,” Gossmann said.
So, rather than another bar, the Bristol opened at 1321 Bardstown Road, selling $1.85 burgers and 45-cent soft drinks — among other menu items.
“It was our vision to make it an everyday place,” Gossmann said, later noting: “We still fancy ourselves a place you go to get good food at a good price.”
It’s also been a place for anybody, Peters said. Back in the day, Barry Bingham Jr. would be sitting at a table in a $2,000 suit, and the next table over was a guy in a T-shirt and cut-offs.
And boy, were they busy, according to Gossmann and Peters.
Even on University of Louisville basketball game nights, Peters said, “We’d be busy. After the game, it was like an avalanche” of people celebrating a victory, he said. “And we were good, so we won a lot of games.”
The Bristol in The Highlands was about one-third the size it is now, so customers would fill up the dining room. Those waiting for a seat would wait in the bar, and when that filled up, people would gather outside the restaurant. Peters said the bar would get so crowded that servers had to part the people to get food to the tables.
Throughout all of its years, Gossmann said, the Bristol has always been a profitable and successful business. Part of that is because of loyal employees.
Working at the Bristol, or any restaurant, isn’t the highest paying job, Gossmann said, but it is a social atmosphere. The employees get to know the regulars and form bonds with their co-workers. He also tries to maintain a good work place and give employees latitude, he said.
“They all add up to: it’s kind of like family in a way. That’s the feeling that you get,” Gossmann said, adding that multiple employees have left only to return.
Indeed, the Bristol is responsible for creating families. By Peters’ conservative estimate, 40 couples have met and married after working at the Bristol together.
“My daughter’s the result of a Bristol marriage,” Peters said.
Many people, no matter what industry they’re in, don’t work for the same company for four decades. In the restaurant industry, the average employee tenure is considerably shorter, but Peters has been at the Bristol since Day 1 and said it’s the people who keep him there, working five days a week.
“It’s been a good place to work,” Peters said. “I get to go to a cocktail party in a sense every day. I get to see a lot of people, get to talk to a lot of people, meet interesting people, get to work with interesting people.”
The only time he didn’t work at the Bristol in the Highlands was when he worked a brief stint as a carpenter for Martin and for three years after he broke his hip.
Gossmann is “a good guy to work for. I broke my hip. I missed three years of work, and then I came back to work,” Peters said tearing up a little bit. “You figure it out. I’m a lucky guy.”
If you go: Bristol Bar & Grille is hosting a family friendly 40th anniversary party at the Bardstown Road location on Saturday, Sept. 9. The event includes a Biergarten with Goodwood Brewing Co. and New Albanian Brewing Co., with New Albanian serving a special beer just for the celebration. The event also includes entertainment, drawings and games, and the winner of the green chili wonton contest will be drawn.