Mesh opened on Feb. 25 in the old Azalea spot. | Photo by Steve Coomes.
Mesh opened on Feb. 25 in the old Azalea spot. | Photo by Steve Coomes

The long and unnecessary wait for a new restaurant in Indian Hills is officially over.

The opening of Mesh (3612 Brownsboro Road) on Wednesday, Feb. 25, ended an eight-year eatery drought that began with the 2007 closure of Azalea and ended when 250 people scooted to the table for Mesh’s first official dinner.

Mesh’s opening should have happened sooner. But preservationists delayed the Bauer family from removing its namesake Bauer’s 1870 Tavern from the grounds and transforming the property into something useful.

The contentious conflict began losing steam nearly two years ago when Mike Cunningham, owner of the Indianapolis-based Cunningham Restaurant Group, convinced all parties his concept was a fitting replacement for the wretched eyesore some mistook for a historic restaurant. But eventually, common sense won out and it was agreed the time had arrived to move ahead and raze the decrepit building.

The new design. | Photo by Steve Coomes.
The new design | Photo by Steve Coomes

The structure that took its place is radically different from its quaint predecessor: an edifice that looks nothing like any nearby business building. At 7,600 square feet, Mesh is huge, and its roadside stance only adds to its striking and ponderous presence. In the low winter sun, it even casts a shadow into the four-lane thoroughfare. Since I recall what the property looked like when Azalea was there, my immediate reaction upon seeing it up close today was, “That doesn’t quite fit in.”

But as parents often tell insecure children, fitting in isn’t everything.Especially when a building is as dramatically designed as Mesh.

I lack the architectural or design vocabulary to explain it justly, but believe me when I say it’s a stunner. The mix of cut stone, wood and metal exterior surfaces blend to create an arresting visage that stands out, especially when juxtaposed with nearby residences.

Part of that is due to the temporary lack of landscaping — thanks, Old Man Winter. A muddy brown band streaked with fading snow encircles the property like a poorly fitted belt. But when warmer weather allows for greenery to be installed and the ensuing seasons coax those trees and bushes upward, it’ll blend in just fine.

Mesh’s modern exterior design extends to the inside as well: to the bar, the dining room and the fully open kitchen. Wood and cut stone elements are repeated throughout and augmented by bare wood tables and simple chairs, but don’t assume it’s at all austere. Though billed as an upscale-casual restaurant, the only thing separating it from a fine dining look are white tablecloths and napery. Perhaps elegant and efficient is an appropriate way to describe it.

For now, Mesh’s menu is identical to that at its sister restaurant in Indianapolis. (To see its brunch, lunch, bar, dinner and dessert menus, click here.) Gradually, corporate chef Carl Chambers and executive chef Tim McIntosh will begin adding seasonal and regional dishes to the lineup to give it a Louisville feel.

Executive chef Tim McIntosh and corporate chef Carl Chambers. | Photo by Steve Coomes.
Executive chef Tim McIntosh and corporate chef Carl Chambers | Photo by Steve Coomes

“For now, we’re bringing it up slowly, just training our team and teaching them to cook what we’re comfortable with,” said Chambers, who oversees menu development at all 15 CRG properties in Indy, Cincinnati, Lexington and Louisville.

In order to build staff strength steadily, the restaurant will not seat every table until Chambers is confident the crew is capable of feeding capacity crowds. “So our private dining area will stay closed for a while, and of course it’s too cold to open the patio now anyway,” he said.

Oh, the patio. Remember it? That incredible outdoor plot where many of us supped below the leafy branches of that expansive tree when the building housed La Paloma and later Azalea. The brick floor, made precariously uneven by the tree’s craggy, reaching roots, has been replaced by level concrete aggregate. A full outdoor bar has been added and overall seating increased. There will be long waits for seats there when the weather turns.

“This will be a perfect place to have brunch, a Sunday drinkin’ brunch,” said Jay Denham, the charcutier at Woodlands Pork, who joined me for lunch on Thursday. “Or Saturday brunch, for that matter. This will be packed.”

Yep, Saturday and Sunday brunch. That’s swell in a neighborhood short on sitdown breakfast offerings.

The main dining room. | Photo by Steve Coomes.
The main dining room | Photo by Steve Coomes

Call Mesh’s cuisine contemporary and eclectic, a collage of culinary influences that, well, mesh nicely across a broad but not overly expansive menu. The few dishes Denham and I had were delicious and exemplified quality ingredient selection and sound cooking technique. There are lots more dishes that caught our fancy and will be sampled on return visits.

The sprawling space is designed for volume, so CRG chose Bonefish Grill veteran Bryan Norman to be its general manager. Interestingly, his work with that company brought him to this very property years ago. Outback Steakhouse cofounder Chris Sullivan (its parent company, OSI, owns Bonefish Grill) actually traveled from Orlando to Louisville to consider the site as a possible second Bonefish location for Louisville.

“It was more space than we needed for that concept, but to think he came here to see it tells you a lot about what people thought of this location,” Norman said.

It’s likely Sullivan also knew of the battle being waged by preservationists and didn’t want the deal become immersed in it. Back then, they still refused to consider any alternative other than a rehabbed struture, and the Bauer family was equally steadfast in its insistence on leveling it. So the deadlock remained and the building continued decaying, shedding its not-even-historically-correct siding like so much sunburned skin.

I don’t imagine any similar degradation will scar the stone and metal exterior of Mesh — at least not in my lifetime. What I imagine is neighborhood folks flocking there every week. Many will head straight for its classy bar, grab a perch and settle into nibbling on charcuterie from its bar menu and sipping good bourbon and scotch. My money says it’ll be a favorite Indian Hills watering hole in short order.

Once those living nearby get over the surprise of having a good restaurant within walking distance of their homes, I see them dumping money there. It will be a hit.

I almost hate to admit that what pleases me the most about this opening isn’t so much that Mesh is finally serving customers. It’s the fact that its long-awaited beginning marks the official end of the needless, tedious battle to revive the tavern and deny locals a good restaurant. For several years, irrationality triumphed reason, or at least kept it at bay until common sense prevailed.

The open kitchen. | Photo by Steve Coomes.
The open kitchen | Photo by Steve Coomes

Razing that ramshackle building was the right thing to do, regardless of whether a structure the quality of Mesh took its place. The tavern was too far gone inside and out. Long before Azalea closed, employees joked about the tavern’s aged and dysfunctional innards. Its rusty pipes, sagging floors and inadequate HVAC were just its obvious problems. And regardless of whether the Bauer family should have invested in its upkeep, it was their private property to treat as they pleased. They deserved to decide what would be done with it, and their choice was to progress rather than preserve.

No, I’m not always in favor of paving paradise to put up parking lots, but I still believe private property owners should have the final word in such matters, not outsiders without skin in the game.

And just because a site has history doesn’t certify that it belongs in the present. Typically such history boils down to sentimentality and memories worth preserving only in mind, photos and conversation.

The tavern is now long gone, replaced by a viable business that employs 125 people and entertains customers. It generates tax revenue for the city in a reputable and valuable way. Mesh will contribute to the community and local economy as the tavern once did: with good food, mood and drink. Anyone with any sense should celebrate this change by having a good meal there.

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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.