In a time when TV news and basketball games are the background sounds of many meals eaten out, even Muzak played softly is a welcomed sonic departure.
Restaurateurs Kevin Grangier and John Varanese want to take tastes and tunes much further, however, by betting Louisvillians have an unmet hunger for live music with their meals.
In April, Varanese opened a relaxed dinner and music venue named Levee at the River House, while Grangier took the wraps off Blue Moo, a space in the remaining untouched corner of his Highlands steak restaurant, Le Moo.
Music and munching aren’t foreign to the city. Monkey Wrench, Buck’s, Captain’s Quarters, even Varanese’s namesake operation, have provided it for years. But both new operations combine dinner and tunes as a unified experience, not just co-operating components.
“I love live music and I love good food, because what’s not to like about that?” said the plainspoken Varanese. But customers come for food first at Varanese, while music is a side item. “At Levee, we want them to come for both.”
Blue Moo is Grangier’s miniature recreation of music and dining experiences he enjoyed at New York City’s famed Rainbow Room. The elegant spot, located 65 stories above the city atop Rockefeller Center, closed in 2009.
“I was blown away; I loved it,” Grangier said. The Rainbow Room typically featured big bands and headliner signers. (It’s also widely credited as the site of America’s cocktail rebirth.) “That’s what I want to recreate here, but on a much smaller scale.”
Meaning singer-musician ensembles of three to five people. Though roomy, the 76-seat space is small enough that the signer’s voice is amplified, but instruments aren’t.
“Do you think it’s too loud in here?” Grangier asked on opening night as Karan Chavis and her four-piece jazz band played for about 60 diners. Other than seat cushions and curtains edged along three elevated and semi-private booths, the room is made up of hard surfaces. “I don’t want it any louder than it is now. I want people to be entertained, but I want them to talk to each other, too.”
Blue Moo is open Friday and Saturday only. Dinner service from Le Moo’s menu (beef cuts range from $39 to $235, fish, chicken and seafood from $17 to $34) runs from 5-10 p.m. with live music, and tables can be reserved within those times. After 10:30 p.m., it’s open seating, cocktails only and more music.
“I’d like to see customers who’ve had dinner at Le Moo end their evening at Blue Moo with a cocktail and some music,” Grangier said. As he spoke, a dinner guest joined Chavis for a duet. Amused, Graingier added, “Well that wasn’t expected. But he’s having fun.”
Though Blue Moo isn’t dressy, Levee is intentionally more relaxed, a riverside spot where outdoor seating and short pants and skirts will soon become the norm. Capacity inside is more than double Blue Moo’s, and customers can sit at tables around the large circular bar or in a lounge area. Nearly every perch has a view of the stage where a variety of bands play Wednesday through Sunday nights. Guests can expect modern rock covers on Friday and Saturday, and a mix of jazz, show tunes, blues and more on other nights.
Levee’s menu draws heavily from the fresh seafood supply at its sister restaurant, River House, while blending in some casual fare like flatbreads and sliders. Entrée prices range from $8 to $15, and tasting platters of fresh seafood and charcuterie run between $8 and $25.
“I wanted to have a place where people could relax, listen to live music, eat a little and drink a little at their own pace,” Varanese said. “You could spend your entire evening here if you want.”
Both men said they’re surprised it’s taken so long for live music and dinner combos to hit the market, but both agree such operations can be challenging. Candidly, Grangier said “it’s a gamble, and I hope people will like it,” while Varanese addressed his situation more broadly.
“For us, it’s a whole new restaurant to deal with, our second one in six weeks, and one that’s totally different from anything around it,” he said. “It’s hard enough to have a place where you serve dinner and drinks to everybody, but this is entertainment. I’m excited to see how that all works.”