The main dining room at St. Charles Exchange. Click to see full size.

Few restaurant rooms in town are as inviting as the main dining space at the St. Charles Exchange.

Balancing simplicity and sophistication, the décor takes you back a century to a time when the restaurant-bar was a common feature in the lobbies of classy hotels.

Button-tucked high-backed leather booths, black bistro tables, soft light emanating from lamps near its soaring ceiling, exposed brick walls and aged wood floors serve to convince you’re anywhere other than the center of a busy, modern city.

It seems almost tacky to call it a place to “hang out,” but the place is made for adults who want to do just that and in style.

Many talk about its bar, its ponderous carved wood features, shelving filled with recognizable and unrecognizable intoxicants and a monstrous mirror capped with a period correct clock. And indeed, it is lovely.

But my favorite feature there is debatably no feature at all: It’s the restaurant’s generous space … to walk without bumping your hip into the shoulder of a seated diner, to stretch out your legs in the lounge near the front windows … space between the bar and the island of tables dividing the main room … space to spread out and take it easy, space that’s visually striking in an industry where wise operators calculate dollars generated per every square-foot.

Such rooms supply subtle opulence of a bygone day and grant implied permission to slow down, settle in and have a craft cocktail.

And that’s has been the buzz about the place since it opened last May—as in Kentucky Derby Week. (As in something only out-of-towners would try. Turned out it was a clever call by its Philadelphia-based owners who correctly forecasted most horse fans would have scheduled plans other than swarming the new spot downtown.) Fans of its bar don’t come for “the usual,” they seek surprises (I’m particularly fond of the gin swizzle, the old maid and the restraining order) from its skilled bartenders, who are known for socializing with the bar flies.

This is an engaging lot led by Colin Shearn, a veteran of The Franklin Mortgage Investment Co. in Philadelphia (same owners as St. Charles), who came here at the owners’ request to get things rolling last year. (As the story goes, he fell in love with Louisville and moved his family here last fall.) So if you’re the morose type who prefers to brood over your drink, perhaps another bar would be a better fit.

Other than enjoying a full lunch in a booth one afternoon, I’ve mostly had appetizers at the bar on visits here. Dinner will come (if only people will stop opening new places here!) sooner than later. And I look forward to it, a long-seated affair perhaps capped off by a downtown hotel stay.

Executive chef Patrick McCandless.

To the food (click here for a great gallery of pics): Before becoming executive chef late last year, Patrick McCandless served on the opening team with consulting chef Mitch Prensky. With the kitchen under his control, the Sullivan University grad is making his mark on the menu, a list with recognizable names that deliver lots of tasty twists and turns.

Credit Prensky with the highly popular Elvis on Horseback (peanut butter stuffed dates wrapped in bacon), root beer wings and deviled eggs (who would have ever thought this ‘60s picnic standard would become so chic?), and McCandless with the pumpkin fritters, squash salad, foie gras, charcuterie plate, lamb shank and Scottish salmon.

There’s much more that bears his fingerprints, so click here to see all the restaurant’s menus.

If you lack the time to loll about, especially at lunch, you might look into the recently added Power Lunch option.

For $15 you get a choice of soup and salad or sandwich and a non-alcoholic beverage served in 30 minutes or less, or if you’ve got 45 minutes to spare, consider spending $20 on a choice of hors d’oeuvre and salad or sandwich with beverage.

Want to cruise around the menu? I highly recommend the lamb burger with curried onions, mint and sweet pea mayo (seriously original) and any po’ boy of the day served with spicy slaw and remoulade.

But frankly, take your time here. You’d miss too much in a rush.

The basics:

St. Charles Exchange
113 S. 7th Street
502-618-1917
http://stcharlesexchange.com/

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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.

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