The Oakroom at the Seelbach Hotel is one of the city’s most elegant restaurants. Its combination of baroque chandeliers, carved wood accents, generous, weighty cutlery, an Anna Karenina-length wine list and food as fine as any in the city is extraordinary. Not surprisingly, it earns the coveted AAA Five Diamond rating year after year, a prize never claimed by any other Kentucky restaurant.
But the stately Oakroom is expensive, and it’s a place that can intimidate customers unfamiliar with the nearly forgotten protocol of fine dining. Its classic opulence practically screams special occasion dining for average folks unfamiliar with $100 per-person dinners. Such price tags practically ensure it’ll never become a weekly stop for anyone not on a CEO’s expense account.
Yet the venerable restaurant’s chef, general manager and sommelier want to change that perception, at least to a degree, by making meals there more approachable. By creating more affordable special events, serving small plates along with cocktails in its anteroom, and through a grassroots marketing plan of putting faces to names, they want to invite the community to experience The Oakroom anew.
Oh, they’ll still keep it classy with the whimsical food, elevated drink and elegant service, but they’ll do so without with dress codes or pretension.
According to Oakroom chef de cuisine Patrick Roney, the repositioning will require him, general manager Liz Carson and sommelier Aaron Wilson to become the personalities behind the brand.
“We want to get our faces out in public doing more special and charitable events,” says Roney. The attention-generating effort is also a move to address to growing competition. “There are so many dining options in Louisville right now that you have to recreate yourself to stay in the public eye.”
In just three years in Louisville, Roney has proved his mettle on the plate with truly dazzling cooking. His chef peers share pictures of his dishes regularly in social media and talk about their compadre’s skills.
But as anyone who’s met Roney knows, while he’s deadly serious about his food, he’s as friendly and engaging as they come. And it’s that lighter mood that he’d like to see people enjoy in The Oakroom.
“We try not to take ourselves too seriously,” Roney says. “At the end of the day, we want to have fun doing what we do.”
As long as tradition and high standards aren’t harmed, he adds.
“We’re a Five Diamond restaurant and proud of that fact,” he begins. “We have rules to abide by, and we’ll do nothing in any way, shape or form to cause The Oakroom to lose a diamond.”
So how does this trio tweak the image of a true dining institution without harming it? By finessing the details some, says Wilson, who joined the staff as a dedicated sommelier this summer.
(When longtime Oakroom GM and sommelier Juila DeFriend left her position this year to take the GM’s role at 8UP, Wilson was her sole recommendation for The Oakroom’s next sommelier. She also recommended the GM become a standalone role, which opened the door for Carson’s appointment.)
“Wine is incredibly interesting and people enjoy it, but they don’t always know what to choose,” Wilson begins. He says despite some costly bottles on The Oakroom’s wine list, it also is loaded with affordable treasures not every guest would recognize. In his role as a guide, he wants to help guests unearth them. “There are a thousand selections on the list here, easily the biggest in the state. But there are so many values on there that you don’t have to drop a fortune on wine.”
Do you like wine but aren’t as knowledgeable about it as you’d like? Just ask Wilson and let the easygoing instructor do his thing.
“People my age come to a place like this and think that the sommelier is going to make them feel stupid or try to sell them something expensive,” Wilson says. Researching and sourcing unique wines is his passion. “There are plenty of classics on our list, but drinking what’s unusual and new is as fun, to me at least.”
That what’s old is cool again is an advantage The Oakroom must seize upon, Carson says. She believes customers eager for more than just a meal want to know about the dining room in which F. Scott Fitzgerald and Al Capone took their repast.
“I want to embrace the vintage aspects of it to make old cool again,” Carson says. She adds it’s not about stripping the tables to bistro bareness or piping in rock music, rather the opportunity lies in featuring the room exactly as it is. “They don’t have to go to the hippest restaurant on a night out. We want them to see it’s cool to go to a white tablecloth restaurant with wood that’s 100 years old. Most people haven’t done that.”
Most people probably wouldn’t consider The Oakroom a place for an Oktoberfest meal either, but that’s what they’ll find later this month (Sept. 29-Oct. 3) when Roney and Wilson produce a menu of modernized German classics paired with German beers and wines.
“People don’t think much about the hotel’s German heritage, but that’s what we want to focus on,” Roney says. “The menu isn’t totally complete, but I can say it won’t be a bunch of schnitzel.”
Wilson says the dinner will give him the chance to showcase some unusual selections of both beer and wine.
“When you compare Louisville to bigger cities, it’s an evolving market as wine goes,” he says. “But beer has done well here, so it’ll be easy to feature that.”
One super-affordable event scheduled for Dec. 11 and 18 will be a pair of holiday buffet lunches costing just $25. Meals Roney calls “the bargain of the century” will feature an extensive menu of beef Bourguignon, roasted chicken, grilled salmon, striped bass, multiple salads, sides and desserts.
Other special events, such as last year’s “Mad Men” dinner, which celebrated the end of the TV series with a period-correct menu, will be on offer in 2016.
Roney credits recent hires Wilson and Carson with helping him see the restaurant in a new light, and he’s excited about the team approach the trio has planned for The Oakroom’s future.
“It’s like I have two new sets of eyes to look at these walls with,” he says. “This place has always been well-run, but we think we have some great ideas to add to that.”