Seems nearly everyone except the owners of St. Charles Exchange recognize the recently shuttered restaurant’s potential.
Since writing my post mortem on its July 25 closure, I’ve received 13 calls, texts and emails from chefs, single-unit operators and multi-unit operators asking for info on taking it over.
Some have no money, but they’re seeking investor partners. Others have more than enough dough to buy the building from Brown-Forman — and the buildings around it — if they wanted. (That’s not an exaggeration.) Others are in the middle: successful operators recognizing a good opportunity for expansion.
One of the most ironic comments I received was, “I’m sure Dean (Corbett) and Fernando (Martinez) are already looking at it.” But of all the restaurateurs I thought might be looking, neither is (as far as I know).
I’m not even an off-the-clock real estate broker, but the requests have flooded in like never before. I’ve written about actual or pending closures at places like Mozz, Mozzaria, De La Torre’s, Park Place, Browning’s, Papalino’s and more, yet no one ever called me on those.
Why the frothy interest in St. Charles Exchange?
Because it’s different from all those, better than any of them. Arguably better than any available facility in town.
Not only is it one of the city’s most beautiful restaurants, only a handful of diners and operators have seen some of its most appealing attributes: its private dining space and stunning courtyard. It’s a semi-revealed treasure.
Oh, but it has its Temple of Doom features, too, and any operator daring enough to claim that jewel could risk the costs of an egregious facility lease, an equipment lease and about $55,000 in unpaid bills.
But according to general manager Lauren Farrar-Molina, St. Charles is a turnkey deal, a quick-opening proposition LouVino co-owner Chad Coulter said is strong incentive to look.
“A large portion of the risk of opening and running a restaurant is the start-up cost,” Coulter said. “But here you have a space which is already developed. Someone’s already put about a million dollars into it, so that build-out cost is already done.”
NA Exchange owner Ian Hall also believes the transition to an already well-appointed restaurant would ease its conversion to his vision.
“I think you can look at what Anoosh (Shariat) has done with (Anoosh) Bistro as a great example,” he said. “He took over Henry’s Place, and he’s had this seamless transition to his concept without changing much at all.”
Not everyone who called me wanted to talk on the record about this, but most everyone shared some of what they’d do if they got it.
One man and his business partner said they’d reopen it as St. Charles Exchange, but give it the attention only local owners can.
Two chefs I spoke with (both of whom need funding) say they’d not change the facility or possibly even the name, but they’d overhaul the menu.
One said he’d turn it into a 1920s-era steakhouse with serious tableside service.
“Caesar salad made at the table, flamed desserts, steak Diane — all that old cool stuff,” he said.
The other took the opposite tack, promising to make it more relaxed and affordable than St. Charles Exchange by redefining the menu as “Southern charm with innovative nuances.”
“It would have something for everyone,” the chef began. “Steak, seafood, pork chop, country fried steak, even a breakfast item on the menu for dinner. It could be that eclectic, and everything would have its own little spin on it.”
Coulter said that if he were to get the spot, LouVino executive chef Tavis Rockwell already has a menu in mind.
Hall is even a bit further along than that.
“I think what we’d do food-wise would be an extension of what we do already at the Exchange,” said Hall, who admitted he probably won’t pursue St. Charles seriously since he’s opening a new restaurant, Brooklyn & The Butcher, late this fall. “I’d also push more craft beer than they did. St. Charles really lacked that.”
Coulter’s lone apprehension is rooted in the neighborhood. Choosing LouVino locations in the Highlands and Douglass Hills were “no brainers,” he said. He believes downtown to be trickier with locals since most workers flee the area at 5 p.m. or never come downtown at all.
Despite Proof on Main’s location across the street, he likes the idea of 21c Museum Hotel’s guests having more options. The construction of a Holiday Inn nearby also is positive, he said.
“The location is definitely a little harder to wrap our heads around,” he said. “The sporadic nature of business down there — slammed on a Saturday, dead on a Monday — would definitely make staffing a little harder.”
When I heard Mike Cunningham was a possible contender, I called him to confirm. Long story short: The president of Cunningham Restaurant Group, which owns Mesh, is not as jazzed about the place as others.
“Officially, our interest is very minimal right now, but I will take a look when I come into town next,” he said. “It’s more of a curiosity at this stage.”
That’s partly because Cunningham restaurants typically are purpose built (though some are in rehabbed spaces) and far larger than St. Charles Exchange. And unlike Coulter, Cunningham doesn’t like the potential cost of assuming another’s package of leases and unpaid bills.
“The economics of the existing situation are not real strong for us,” which also means recent sales numbers posted by St. Charles did not impress him. “So I’d say we’re not a serious suitor at this time.”