In this triple-digit summer heat, I guess you could say any neighborhood in Louisville is hot.
But the inner blue flame of Louisville hotness right now is a one-square-block downtown building at Second and Washington streets.
And the core of that heat is in a corner basement of that building, down the stairs into a brick-walled sanctuary filled with framed poster album covers of Charlie Parker, Billie Holliday, Duke Ellington and Philly Joe Jones – cool and hot simultaneously.
It’s called The Troll Pub Under the Bridge, and it has an appropriately gnarly-looking gnome as its symbol. So when you see the troll and you hear “pub,” your natural inclination is that it’s a 20-something meet-and-greet market where the beer flows until 2 a.m. and inebriated young masters of the universe who’ve just learned to gel their hair stuff beer nuts into their mouths while trying to impress that girl on the next bar stool.
Well, yes, the beer does flow until 2 a.m.
But accompanying that beer is one of the more serious kitchen offerings in a city full of outstanding kitchen offerings. And the 6,000-square-foot space – room after room of cozy nooks with beamed wood ceilings – is expansive enough to hold a post-game crowd of Cardinal basketball fans celebrating a win over Notre Dame.
Which is a good thing, because after a home win over Notre Dame – or Syracuse or Pitt or UConn – this place needs every available tabletop, bar stool, square inch of space.
It’s that crazy hot right now.
But let’s back up a moment – go back up those stairs and look at this neighborhood.
New York, which has a talent for naming its neighborhoods, has a Dumbo – District Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass.
I guess we could call this Yumbo, given its proximity to the The KFC Yum! Center and the Second Street Bridge.
But developers have already appropriated Whiskey Row for the neighborhood that housed the original Galt House and L&N train station.
Before the Yum! Center opened, much of Louisville may not have known about Washington Street, a narrow east-west thoroughfare running between Main Street and the river for a few downtown blocks, from Preston Street to the Clark Memorial Bridge.
It never really went anywhere. Now it runs almost smack into the arena.
Once the center opened, several established Louisville restaurateurs including Tommy O’Shea and the Ton brothers rushed to take advantage of the crowds sure to converge there looking for a pre-game meal or post-game drink.
But the ones who took the biggest risk might have reaped the biggest reward. Developer Bill Weyland of City Properties Group and restaurant veteran Bob Means had the Troll Pub vision, though at first they might have wished they could blink the vision away.
“This building had been largely abandoned since the flood of 1937,” said Ben Barker, the restaurant’s general manager. “And when they got down here, they found the space entirely filled with dirt. I don’t mean dirty, I mean mounds of dirt. It took them three months to get it all cleared out.”
Once the dirt was gone, though, the historic bones of the building show through. Not just the brick walls but also the original beamed poplar ceilings.
And with great care that the EPA would have applauded, they added a custom-built, 400-pound hickory bar with a curly myrtle wood bar top and a bar rail made of salvaged two-inch-wide plumbing pipe. They turned half-foot thick slices of local oak tree trunks they found into tabletops in the bar.
And they hired the Weber Group to design the distinctive brand logo, the kind of malevolent, pointy-eared, pointy-toothed troll who lives under nearly every bridge, demanding favors from those who wish to cross. (None under your bridge? You just haven’t looked hard enough.)
Fun, distinctive, a name and sight you’re likely to remember. And so the doors were opened in October 2011, just eight months after work began digging out all the dirt in the basement.
Okay, so, fantastic location – practically across the street from the arena’s Second Street side – a funky brand and an interesting space as cool as the jazzmen on its wall. So for about 20 or more Saturday afternoons and winter evenings between November and February, U of L season ticket-holders and students could pile in, spill beer on their shoes, punch down nachos and potato skins and drift out into the night.
Can you build a business on 28 nights of potato skins and two-for-one draft promotions?
No, said Barker, not if all you’re going to be is a downtown sports bar. “From the beginning,” said the GM, “we were determined to be much more than that.” That meant first hiring Barker, with 10 years of food and beverage experience – a Texan who came to Louisville with Howl at the Moon, managing its Fourth Street Live location.
And then it meant bringing in Chip Lawrence, a classically trained chef whose resume included Avalon (high-end food) and Wild Eggs (for an informal but demanding crowd – emphasize “crowd”).
How many bars have duck confit spring rolls? How many bars outside of Brussels have an exclusive Belgian blond beer? (“Cuvee des Troll, our most popular beer,” says Barker.)
I suppose lots of Louisville bars have this many flat screen TV screens (12 in the rear bar area alone).
But how many have a media room with a 103-inch screen, front-facing high-def projector and Dolby 5.1 channel digital surround sound? The Media Room, seating 45, is for the serious game-watchers who aren’t likely to ask “what’s a three-second violation mean?”
The menu and specialness of the place have allowed the Troll Pub to survive the five-month off-season, stretching from Louisville’s Final Four loss to Kentucky on March 31 to its opening football game, also against Kentucky, next September 2. It’s doing a lively lunch business from the nearby office towers and a lively after-work happy hour business. Plus it’s building its weekend dinner business.
The restaurant has added catering, private parties and delivery to any downtown location to its quiver. It’s taking its place both among Louisville’s vibrant community of outstanding locally owned restaurants and the city’s community of great drinking bars.
It’s at that intersection of really good, reasonably priced food and comfortable, casual, friendly service.
I have to mention the sensational half-pound burger I had there, and Alli Page, the self-proclaimed “coolest bartender in town” who may, in fact, be just that.
If you can become the go-to place for before, during and after a game in this basketball-mad city, you have to be doing something right.