Sometimes you hear bad news and report it because the public needs to know.
Other times you hear it and ignore it because it’s just gossip.
Other times you know it’s true, yet you don’t report it because you’re just airing dirty laundry. It’s not news readers can use, so you avoid tossing any more trash on the heap.
That’s what I chose to do with the bad news leaking out of St. Charles Exchange for the past few years. I let it go unreported. Mostly anyway. I wrote about the constant turnover of its executive chefs (five total), but I didn’t report what I’d heard about the uncomfortable circumstances that led to the departure of its first general manager, Richard Ruth. (He later opened Sidebar at Whiskey Row, but left there also and headed back to Philadelphia.)
I didn’t report about the total disconnect of its original operating partner, Michael Welsh, or the short run of its first chef, Mitch Prensky, who really served as a consultant. Same for Josh Durr, who helped start St. Charles before leaving to create Hawthorne Beverage Group. Colin Shearn later became St. Charles’ bar manager, but he left to do the same at El Camino (before leaving there also).
The mysterious and frequent turnover was a pattern I’d seen before, and it spelled bad news.
I admit I didn’t sense the smell of its inevitable death early on, but the reek of owner neglect was unmistakable. About a year into its operation, I sat down for a lengthy interview with some of its investor owners. Yet I walked away from the chat feeling that St. Charles Exchange was not a serious business venture for them. They had no plan for its future, no big ideas for events it could host, no dreams about the mark it might make on the city. It seemed they just liked owning, but not operating, a restaurant.
Not only did I not follow the interview with a story, I deleted the digital recording shortly after. The whole enterprise seemed so vague that I just stepped back and watched, wondering all the while why this costly restaurant was headed nowhere only a year after opening.
St. Charles Exchange opened during Derby Week of 2012. It was one of the city’s most beautiful and promising eateries, and the fact that high-profile operators from Philadelphia opened a business here gave credit to the belief that Louisville’s dining scene has gained national prominence.
I loved the dining room, the simple but elegant button-tuck leather booths and all the ancient restored wood. It looked like something out of a 1940s movie: clean, classy and cozy. But the historic bar was a stunner, a gorgeous place to sip drinks, especially when the late afternoon sunlight poured through its soaring windows.
As a bartender, Durr was amazing to watch: the care he took in making his drinks, the passion with which he explained his craft and his ingredients. Shearn was great, too, as was his successor, Michael Anderson (now in Pittsburgh), who was followed by another talent, Sean Thibodeaux (who left to open up 8UP, but left there last month). The food was always good, but I never craved the crafts of that kitchen like I jonesed for those cocktails.
That’s not terribly surprising when you review the turnover in the back of the house. In 2012, Prensky got the restaurant going, but wasn’t around much afterward. (Same for Welsh.)
Next thing I knew, Patrick McCandless took charge of the kitchen somewhere in 2012, until leaving in April 2013, just weeks after cooking at The James Beard House in New York. General manager Lauren Farrar-Molina wouldn’t say why he left, but it was clear he wasn’t bid bon voyage. All she could say was sous chef Tyler Powell was now executive chef — a claim that lasted just one month until he was lured away with the executive chef’s job at The Silver Dollar.
When Mark Ford took over in the kitchen’s top spot, his charge was to get in and give the place some consistency. Farrar-Molina called him “the hardest working chef I’ve ever known,” and he fought it out for nearly two years until announcing this past June he also was leaving. (He’ll be the chef de cuisine at Artesano Vino, Tapas y Mas, when it opens this fall.)
When Rick Adams was hired to replace Ford two months ago, he discovered real problems. According to a Facebook message he sent me last week, St. Charles was well behind on payments to food vendors, and he was concerned employees might not be paid. Frustrated that vendors he’d known for years weren’t getting paid, he complained about the restaurant in several public Facebook posts, an act he now admits was foolish. (Also, employees did receive final paychecks.)
At least one problem was the restaurant’s lack of marketing. A place into which at least a couple million dollars was poured was never advertised in a super-competitive market. And don’t forget that this was a restaurant sitting directly in the shadow of Proof on Main.
That’s like the hottest and handsomest putting their phones on silent in the run-up to senior prom. It’s as if St. Charles Exchange’s owners wanted it to fail.
Even weirder was one Saturday night when I, my wife and some friends went there at about 10 p.m. and saw the curtains drawn over the windows. Not only was this Saturday freakin’ night, it was the Saturday of the Bourbon Classic going on just a few blocks away. The year prior, Bourbon Classic attendees flooded the place. (Proof on Main? It was so crowded you’d have been hard pressed to slip a cocktail straw into the room.)
Yet on this night when St. Charles’ curtains should have been open and its seats filled, we opened the door to find about 20 guests in the 160-seat room. When some colleagues from the Bourbon Classic trickled in and sat beside us, they said, “We couldn’t tell whether it was open, but since we couldn’t get in to Proof, we took a chance.”
When I left that night, I was confident I’d never return. I just didn’t know that the choice would be made for me.
In the days since its Saturday closing, I’ve received three texts from operators interested in taking it over. Were someone willing to take it turnkey, the cost is the assumption of the seven years remaining on the facility lease, equipment leases and accounts payable. And who knows? Maybe the landlord (Brown-Forman) will be eager enough to get a new tenant and give them a good deal.
Of course, I can’t disclose who’s sniffing around, but rest assured that all are proven, top-notch restaurateurs. And that’s what I hope that incredible space will get: operators who give a damn about their business, their employees and giving Louisville another great restaurant.
I’d recommend they move in, turn on the lights, but change the name to start anew.
But then again, given that the St. Charles Exchange brand was never marketed, maybe they can keep that as is, too.