John Varanese at this morning's press conference | Photo by Steve Coomes
John Varanese at this morning’s press conference | Photo by Steve Coomes

John Varanese announced plans this morning to open a “Southern flair” and raw bar restaurant in early 2016. It’ll be called River House Restaurant & Raw Bar and will be housed in the Fall City Boat Works building at 3015 River Road, beside KingFish.

The announcement ended the worst-kept secret in the local restaurant industry. According to David Allen, general manager at Varanese in Clifton, “John and I have been talking about putting a concept here since 2001, so it’s no surprise most everyone knows about it. … It just appears that the timing finally is right.”

Long before opening his namesake restaurant on Frankfort Avenue, Varanese said, he wanted a waterside establishment at this exact location. But he admitted the idea was too ambitious at the time.

“After eight years (since the opening of Varanese), it’s now time to get this project going,” said Varanese. “It’s taken the last three-and-a-half years to finally put this together.”

Photo by Steve Coomes
Photo by Steve Coomes

According to Varanese, the food will draw on culinary influences from Kentucky and the South Carolina Low Country. Menu details aren’t yet available, but he said recipe testing is ongoing at Varanese.

Adding a raw bar, he said, reflects a need for one locally.

“There really isn’t much of that in Louisville,” he said. He’ll also lean on the benefit of UPS’s shipping hub here “to take full advantage of our seafood purveyors in Hawaii and Florida.”

Per-person check averages are expected to be about $15 at lunch and $32 for dinner. To keep the menu affordable for both meal periods, Varanese said items such as salads and sandwiches will be shared on both menus.

“This won’t be priced like Catch 23 or (Jeff) Ruby’s,” he said, though he stressed the concept would be positioned a few notches above its neighbor, KingFish. “We’ll also offer half portions of some items.”

Bar details are vague thus far as well. (Varanese is known for a solid wine program and well-made cocktails.) Varanese only allowed that he’s looking at an extensive line of house-made frozen drinks to fit the waterside theme.

The 27,000-square-foot, two-story building will undergo a significant two-phase gutting and build out. The 16,000-square-foot ground floor will be dedicated to River House, while the upper floor will be reserved for “other concepts I’m not ready to reveal yet,” Varanese said. (Though he didn’t provide details, it’s likely that area will be used for large-scale catered affairs.)

River House will seat 230 inside (including a 50-seat private dining room) and 100 outside. By next spring, 15 boat slips will be added to serve water traffic.

Local architect Doug Karnes, who designed Henry’s Place (now Anoosh Bistro), will draw the plans for River House. Like Varanese’s restaurant, it will include some retractable windows to let in fresh air. Swope Design Group will decorate the space.

Construction is set to begin the first week of September.

“To find a building of this size and scale located next to a river is not easy,” Karnes said. “It has great bones and lots of clear spans. It has an industrial character that we’ll keep some of in the final design.”

A rendering of River House
A rendering of River House Restaurant & Raw Bar

Varanese expects the restaurant will employ 150 and said leadership of that staff will initially come from current management at the Clifton restaurant.

He said the fact that the massive space will be leased slowed the project down some and required he take on more investor partners in the business. Commonwealth Bank, which also financed the Varanese restaurant, will help fund this new project and its estimated cost of $4 million.

“It will probably cost $8 million to fund the whole project,” Varanese said, adding that other buildings on the property may become used as well. “But we’ll piece that out over time.”

Varanese said having a waterside restaurant is a dream come true. The Cleveland native boated on Lake Erie and fell in love with the Atlantic Ocean while in culinary school in Charleston. Clearly, however, River House is a calculated business decision long fretted over by its chef-owner.

“When I came here in 2001, I realized how underutilized Louisville’s waterfront is, and I saw an opportunity,” he said. “In 2004, I actually had a group together to get this project off the ground, but it wasn’t the right time. … Now it’s going to happen.”

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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.