The bar at Jessie's. | Photo by Kevin Gibson.
The bar at Jessie’s. | Photo by Kevin Gibson.

“Nostalgically now.”

That’s how the menu at Good Ole Jessie’s Dixie Diner describes the place, a reimagined eatery dating back to the 1960s that actually began as an automotive shop built from a Sears & Roebuck kit in the 1920s.

Yes, the past is everywhere at Jessie’s. And yet there is a distinctive feeling of “now” in the place that, quite frankly, is difficult to describe or even understand. It’s at once cozy and cool, a place where your grandparents can get an order of fried chicken livers and your hipster friend Iver can impress his pals with the out-of-the-way coolness and a big order of bourbon waffles.

And it’s in Valley Station, seemingly miles from the nearest hipster.

“We did something that should have been on Bardstown (Road) in Valley,” says owner Tom Whitted.

A look back at Jessie's Family Restaurant in the early days. Photo courtesy of Tom Whitted.
A look back at Jessie’s Family Restaurant in the early days. | Photo courtesy of Tom Whitted.

The small-ish diner (about 2,200 square feet) is still built around the original counter from that Sears kit; it is now a bar that is the focal point of Jessie’s, surrounded by booths and long tabletops equipped with electrical outlets and USB ports for laptop and phone charging. The barstools are original. In the back of the diner is a Kentucky Derby room as well as a Fort Knox room. Photos of the original structure through the years and its former owners dot the place. In the women’s restroom is a funhouse mirror.

The structure, located at 9609 Dixie Hwy., was owned by a family named Hardy for decades, and in the early ’60s, Bill Hardy took over and converted it from a garage to Frank’s Dixie Drive-in, a place that quickly became a hangout for the younger set. It was later purchased by Jean Jessie, and it became Jessie’s Family Restaurant in 1974.

Jessie sold the business in 2002, and by 2012, it had fallen upon hard times and was again for sale. Whitted, who had worked in the restaurant industry for nearly two decades and was running his own construction company, saw an opportunity. He wanted to restore the place to being a quality diner, but with a bigger presence. And he wanted it to return to being a big part of the community.

Six months in and so far so good, according to Whitted. Relying on word of mouth and aggressive social media engagement – Jessie’s has 4,000 Facebook likes – Whitted says he sees business growing and familiar faces returning. Whitted also is front and center as the host at Jessie’s.

Owner Tom Whitted meets and greets at Good Ole Jessie's. Photo by Kevin Gibson.
Owner Tom Whitted meets and greets at Good Ole Jessie’s. | Photo by Kevin Gibson.

“I like to be here to meet every guest and shake every hand,” says Whitted, a barrel-chested, self-assured man.

He also pays plenty of attention to the menu, which is clearly why one opens a restaurant in the first place. The menu is sort of a modern-Southern-cuisine-meets-greasy-spoon concoction from which one can order classic ham and eggs any time of day or a Valley Fresh Sandwich with shaved turkey, bacon, cucumber and cranberry wasabi sauce.

I arrived hungry (thank god) when I visited and asked Whitten for a recommendation.

“You like spicy?” he asks. I respond with a “hell yes.” In a few minutes, I’m staring down the barrel of a South-of-the-Border Omelet, a layer of fluffy eggs stuffed with chorizo, fresh jalapenos, red bell peppers, onions and black beans, and topped with onions, three slices of avocado and drizzled with bright red Sriracha sauce. A mound of skillet potatoes flanked the omelet.

As I eat, Whitted talks about how he continually tries menu items and finds subtle ways to improve upon them. For instance, he recently added the Sriracha to the South-of-the-Border to increase the heat profile.

It was spicy, but my taste buds found the heat levels to be just about right for such an omelet. The fresh jalapenos and spicy chorizo shone more than the Sriracha, which is how it should be.

Bacon Bombers.
Bacon Bombers.

I also sampled a Bacon Bomber: various cheeses wrapped in onion biscuit dough, then wrapped in bacon and deep fried. It’s a difficult thing to describe, but the combination of salty pork with the creamy cheeses is delicious — then add the house-made poppy seed dipping sauce, and you’ve struck gold. (A tip: He and Kim Oliver, who runs the kitchen, are experimenting with bacon-wrapped onion rings.)

Jessie’s got off to a slow start when it opened in June, but Whitted remains hopeful, saying, “We’re right around the corner from being where we want to be.”

He cites recent commercial development and the opening of the Southwest branch of the Louisville Free Public Library as evidence that Valley Station aspires to be more than just a never-ending stretch of chain restaurants and department stores. He also says he is working on adding a country store on some real estate behind Jessie’s, as well as a “country garden” with baked goods and coffee. He wants it to be a destination spot for diners and travelers not just in Valley Station or even Shively, but from all around the region.

Heck, the place already looks like it needs to be featured on The Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.” And just down the street there is a Spinelli’s — if a hip, independent pizza joint can find a home in the South End, Jessie’s should be a natural. It’s like a little remote piece of the Highlands or NuLu.

Whitted asks, “Why can’t cool come this way?”

[dc_ad size="9"] [dc_ad size="10"]
Kevin Gibson
Kevin Gibson tackles the 3Rs — retail, restaurants, real estate — plus, economic development. He loves bacon, loathes cucumbers and once interviewed Yoko Ono. Check out his books, “Louisville Beer: Derby City History on Draft” and “100 Things to do in Louisville Before You Die.” He has won numerous awards for his work but doesn’t know where most of them are now. In his spare time, he plays in a band called the Uncommon Houseflies. Email Kevin at [email protected]