Michael Paley, co-owner and chef at Garage Bar, takes a breather between dinner turns. (Photo by Steve Coomes for Insider Louisville)

Save for Flabby’s, I’m not sure there’s a Louisville restaurant with a name as unromantic as Garage Bar.

Who other than Ricky Bobby could imagine pitching a first-date dinner to a lady at a place with such a name?

A guy who likes a place with incredible food, busy ambiance and the sense to find a lady who likes the same, that’s who.

Garage Bar, NuLu’s newest restaurant, is housed in a 93-year-old, largely nondescript building that first served as a saloon and later as an auto service station.

Were you not looking for it, you easily could drive right past it, mistaking the perpetually crashing cars out front (see the website for a description of this modern art) as abandoned heaps long common to the once neglected, but now reawakening East Market Street corridor.

Even its modest neon sign, which reads only “garage,” is lit just at night and difficult to see during the day.

But that’s the industrial minimalist look co-owners Steve Wilson, Laura Lee Brown (founders of 21C Museum Hotel and Proof on Main) and Michael Paley (Proof’s executive chef) set out to achieve, and it’s carried throughout the inside as well: lots of unfinished woods, exposed air ducts, bare fluorescent and incandescent bulbs, and even a rack of old tires mounted to a wall.

A communal table centered in the main room is a terrific piece fashioned from poplar reclaimed during the overhaul of the building housing 21C. The fixture is surrounded by simple wood chairs Wilson found in Italy and brought here; none matches the other, giving the lot a charming rummage sale look.

Owners approached the exterior with just a touch of tongue-in-cheek garage kitsch. (Photo by Steve Coomes for Insider Louisville)

The display kitchen is of modest size: a corner of it consumed by a colorfully tiled wood-burning pizza oven (also imported from Italy), the center by a large table used for plate assembly and prep work, the rest subdivided between stations for meat slicing, oyster shucking, salad making and snack crafting. Its crew works efficiently and quietly—well, at least I couldn’t hear them over the happy din from within busy dining room.

It’s definitely casual: Several families were there the night I dined, including some infant-toting parents. Unlike the fashionista scene at Proof’s bar, Garage Bar’s long bar was surrounded by pretty regl’ar dressed folks being served by bartenders in jeans and T-shirts.

In addition to Garage Bar’s drinkin’ bar is a ham bar, where about a half dozen diners rest upon tall stools affording them a crow’s nest view of the kitchen.

(Despite the “ham bar” name, don’t imagine the redneck equivalent of a sushi bar … artfully arranged slices of boiled ham, shingles of American cheese and Ritz crackers … it’s just a fun name for a nice, high counter with a view of the action.)

The whole is largely Paley’s vision, and a seemingly subtle attempt to say, “This is anything but Proof on Main,” where he still proudly serves as executive chef. He said the menu and mood are twin manifestations of a desire to “serve great food that goes great with beer, really nothing more than that.”

It is that deliberately and purposely uncomplicated.

“Part of being a good chef is being confident enough to serve people the foods you like to eat,” added the soft-spoken New Jersey native with a Midwestern non-accent. “This is what I like to eat and the kind of place I’d like to go.”

(Since this isn’t a review, I’ll not bore you with too many details of this ever changing menu. So click here to see the latest version. Also, visit GB’s Facebook page to see loads o’ good food photos.)

“This,” specifically, is a streamlined menu including a funky and flavorful merger of cuisines few would imagine emerging from the same kitchen: Neapolitan-style pizza, fantastic country hams, cold briny oysters, a few salads, crispy turkey wings and outright homely snacks like boiled peanuts and pimento cheese on white bread. Again, foods Paley craves on his day off.

But it’s the pizza … that incredible nothing-like-it-in-Louisville pizza … that you should come for first. The Neapolitan-style pies bake for about 90 seconds in a wood-fired burning at about 850 F. No kidding, 90 seconds. The combination of intense heat and highly hydrated dough yields a crust that’s light, puffy around the edges, razor thin toward the center and mottled all about with black blisters.

Black is beautiful: The lovely “leopard spots” of a perfectly cooked Neapolitan-style pizza crust. (Photo by Steve Coomes for Insider Louisville)

Those blisters and their peppery bitterness—which I love—might not appeal to everyone.

Plus, because such a crust cannot hold massive amounts of toppings—for which I don’t care—some may find it too austere. Regardless, it’s still something all should try since it’s the best local representation—so far, because at least one other Neapolitan-style place is on the way—of what pizza was like when perfected a century-and-a-half ago. This is educational food.

To master the difficult wood-fired technique, Paley studied with Dan Bavaro at Pizzaiolo Bavarro in Tampa, who also gave Paley his dough starter (imagine getting that through the TSA checkpoint). The finished crust has a faintly sour aroma and bears just a hint of acid. I love it.

I also am taken with the country ham selection, which includes a regular rotation of at least four from Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee. I’ve enjoyed some of the world’s finest prosciutto and Iberico hams, and I’m proud to declare that American hams are easily of equally extraordinary quality. GB’s selection represents that admirably.

I suggest treating a meal here like a tapas dinner. Gather a foursome that likes sharing and order all the little bits and bites you want to try. (Though it’s not on the current menu, I was blown away by a simple side dish of roasted rapini with smoked grapes was unbelievably good. Yes, smoked grapes. Brilliant! On the menu, those come alongside the housemade sausage.)

Of course the oysters on the half shell were delicious, too, and, thankfully, sold by the piece. (I don’t always want six and sometimes can’t cut myself off at anything less than 18, so for me this is a sort of forced moderation.)

And despite the local love given the rolled oyster, I didn’t try one at GB, but surely will later. (Honestly, I was never all that crazy about Mazzoni’s version, but the one at Blue Lagoon is just terrific).

If you’re a fan of Proof, expect to see some familiar faces at GB. The owners wisely moved some experienced staff from the mother ship to ensure the satellite was running correctly and quickly.

Former Proof manager Melanie Tapp is the GM at GB, which means lots of smiles for everybody. And even Steve Wilson was working the room the night I was there, which should tell you something about his interest in the restaurant.

Truth be told, I’ve received mixed reviews about GB from restaurant goers whose opinions I respect, people I sometimes invite to join me for Louisville magazine review visits.

That up and down performance can happen in the early stages of a restaurant’s life (GB has been open a bit longer than a month), which is one of many reasons why I rarely drop by before a restaurant has at least a few months’ experience.

And while my dinner companion was the restaurant’s publicist, I’m confident that whatever kinks others have encountered have been worked out.

Let’s face it, you can’t fake any element of proper Neapolitan pizza, and you can’t serve sham ham: it’s either right when it comes in the door or it’s not. (Recently I was simply dumbstruck when served salami at a local Italian restaurant that I learned later that night was Boar’s Head brand!)

You also don’t just create crazy good ingredients like smoked grapes and pickled peaches (served with the ham) on the fly for a visiting hack like me. To do that and the rest you have to know what the hell else you’re doing in the kitchen. So without a doubt, the elements are there, which is a signal to me that Garage Bar is well worth recommending.

Garage Bar is located at 700 E. Market St. and is open Monday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to midnight, Saturday, 5 p.m. to 1 a.m., and Sunday, 5 p.m. to midnight. Call 502-749-7100 for more information, or visit www.garageonmarket.com, where you can book reservations.

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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