The proscuitto and arugula salad at Cena. | Photo courtesy of Facebook.
The proscuitto and arugula salad at Cena | Courtesy of Cena

Cena, the modern Italian restaurant nestled below Mussel & Burger Bar in J-Town, will host its final dinner service on Saturday, Nov. 28. OLE Restaurant Group (ORG) will convert the space for use as overflow for the wildly popular M&BB and a private party room for patrons of its other concepts, including Artesano Vino Tapas y Mas and Guaca Mole.

ORG partner and executive chef Fernando Martinez said Cena was modestly profitable, but that the energy required to maintain the concept’s high standards taxed the staff disproportionately to the restaurant’s net return.

“It’s taking too much energy and time to run it, and when it’s not producing like our other places, that’s not OK,” Martinez said. “We figured out that using that seating for Mussel-Burger and upcoming Christmas and business parties would allow us to do much more than what Cena’s doing.”

Martinez said his Guaca Mole and M&BB managers constantly turn down requests for private parties at each location because neither has space to host them. He said his leadership group has known for some time it was missing out on a large opportunity to host private social and business functions. And with a company that cross-trains all its staffers, serving any of its food from any ORG menu will be possible in the Cena space.

Martinez said Cena’s kitchen will become its full-time pastry commissary for all its Louisville restaurants, plus a prep kitchen for Mussel & Burger Bar upstairs. Taking prep to the basement will free up space in the top floor kitchen that will be reconfigured to produce even more food for customers nearly always lined up for a seat at the restaurant.

“Changing it will open up room to add more equipment for the main line,” Martinez said. That means “one to two more guys on the line, new burners, a grill and a salamander,” an instant-on broiler used for melting cheese.

OLE Restaurant GroupWhen Cena (pronounced “chenna”) opened in August of 2014, it replaced ORG’s cutting-edge The Place Downstairs concept. Both were remarkably different than not only any ORG concept at that time, but wholly unique to J-Town. When The Place Downstairs closed in July of 2014, Martinez acknowledged its location was its primary downfall.

Yet Martinez says that concept and Cena are not dead, that both will reappear in some shape or form in other locations in the city where customers are already programmed to seek higher-end experiences.

“Oh, definitely I think we would have killed it in a neighborhood other than J-Town, some place like Bardstown Road or Frankfort (Avenue) or NuLu or downtown,” he said. “People don’t think about driving to J-Town for fine dining, which is why Mussel-Burger does so well there. It appeals to a broader market.”

He admits that closing The Place Downstairs and Cena is personal for his leadership team, a painful, albeit temporary end to a pair of restaurant dreams. Years of planning went into The Place Downstairs especially, including his team’s visits to similar concepts in other cities, such as The Catbird Seat in Nashville, for reference.

“Sometimes what you think is a good idea is not such a good idea,” Martinez said. “And what we were doing downstairs with both concepts was as good as any of those places. But we’ve learned a hard lesson that they are not what people are willing to pay for and drive to in that neighborhood. You cannot be hardheaded in this business. You have to stay flexible.”

So when might Cena or The Place Downstairs re-emerge in Louisville? Martinez said probably not as quickly as some might wish. He admitted that following those closures, his team needs a bit of recovery.

“It’s like love: When get your heart broken, it takes a while to heal and fall in love again,” Martinez said, laughing at his analogy. “I know The Place Downstairs isn’t done. We’re going to do it down the road again for sure. We talk about it all the time. It’s not done. Cena isn’t either.”

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Steve Coomes
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.