Thu September 26, 2013
Remembrance of Bygone French Dining in Downtown Louisville
The other day I got an email from Jim Bruggers, my former colleague at The Courier-Journal asking me about an artifact he had discovered on a visit to the newspaper’s Food Department. The Courier-Journal has always prided itself on spectacular recipes, beautifully illustrated in color, and has boasted some of the top food editors in the country, including Sissy Gregg, Camille Glenn, Sarah Fritschner, Ronni Lundy and Lillian Marshall. The most recent of these, Ron Mikulak, is retiring tomorrow from the newspaper.
This was the message Jim sent: “Chateaubriand for two... $10... At the Old House Restaurant from who knows when? Hand-written menu. Wait until you see the drinks list. Found in the CJ kitchen.” What did I know about the Old House?
Well, quite a lot. The Old House, located in a true “old house” from the early 19th century, still stands across from the Cathedral of the Assumption on Fifth Street, but sadly it has been empty for a quite a long time. It opened in 1946 at a time when Louisville had no first-class French restaurants. Irma Dick, its proprietor, was an ambitious and innovative owner who emulated some of the best things from Paris, including hand-written menus.
Quickly the Old House began to draw acclaim far from the confines of Louisville. Particularly during Derby weekend, it was the place to go for dinner. All sorts of famous people from Walt Disney to President Truman came there to enjoy the food and drink. In the basement bar, autographed photos of celebrated visitors lined the walls.
That bar was on the ground floor, actually, only a few steps down from the street, and there were some tables for dining there, too. It was a bit like the lower level room at 21 Club in New York City, on which I suspect Mrs. Dick modeled the place. The Old House was particularly well-known for their whiskey sours, made with Old Forester bourbon, and for their martinis. The floor was brick, as I think were the walls. I guess it had been the kitchen/scullery for the house before it was a restaurant.
Upstairs there were more formal dining rooms. The second floor was generally for pairs of diners or small parties. The third floor had a large room, which The Courier-Journal frequently reserved for intern lunches (in those days they were elaborate, and we had intern classes of 10 to 15 on morning and evening papers, plus photo). The Binghams, who owned the newspapers until 1986, liked to use the Old House for private lunches for guests. There were a couple of smaller rooms on the third floor, and one that was in between the second and the third floor. It was all very eccentric and 19th century and for a young person like me—very romantic. I took special dates there, and we would take my parents there for their anniversaries.
I vividly remember one lunch to entertain Dr. Henry Heimlich, the inventor of the Heimlich maneuver, who came down from Cincinnati for a lecture somewhere. Barry Bingham Jr., the publisher, took him, with the executive editor, two managing editors, and the two medical reporters (I was The C-J's) for a delicious lunch. Afterward, Dr. Heimlich himself offered to instruct each of us in his life-saving technique, which he did. That came in handy a few months later on a Sunday evening when Merv Aubespin and I were both on the 4:30 to 1 a.m. shift. Merv was eating his favorite snack—pork rinds and hot sauce—at his desk when all of the sudden, he started turning grey and pointing at his throat.
I quickly realized what was going on, gave him the maneuver, and the pork rind sailed across the newsroom in the direction of Marie Geary, who was the Sunday night editor in those days. Merv lived to tell the story and we recall it often.
The Old House was notorious for its salad dressing, which was heavily laced with garlic. And anyone who had been to the Old House for lunch was well-identified in The Courier-Journal newsroom that afternoon...and more than likely the next day. Of course, it set off speculation. Was he or she getting a new assignment or promotion? Or was he or she in trouble?
The fact is that in those days if you were being hired, you were taken to the Cup and Stirrup Restaurant atop Stouffers (now the Wayside Mission Hotel) on Broadway. And if you were being fired, Bob Clark, the executive editor, took you to the Old House.
There's one famous story from the early 1970s. The Indiana bureau had a reporter who didn't do much but was a prodigious consumer of gin, which he kept in stock in his office desk. He always had a clean desk, and plenty of empty bottles in the deep file drawer. Bob Clark, who was a Presbyterian elder and a Purple Heart hero from World War II in the Pacific, was a no-nonsense sort of guy, but also had a big heart.
The decision was made by George Gill, the managing editor, that it was time for the reporter to go. He wasn't doing anything, and because he was drunk all the time he might be a liability. So Bob dutifully took him to the Old House for lunch, where the reporter, smarter than the average bear, drank only iced tea or Coke. When it came time for Bob to give him the bad news, he was asked, "Don't you think you would be happier in another situation?" the reporter replied, "No, Bob, I am very happy here." So the matter was dropped. The reporter got his lunch, kept his job and the Binghams paid the bill.
I went to my first (and I think only) baby shower at the Old House in 1973. I was the first male in the women's department—one of Carol Sutton and Barry Bingham Jr.'s efforts to liberalize things in the 1970s—and one of our colleagues, Maureen McNerney, was pregnant. The staff, which consisted of about seven people, all women except me, trooped over to the Old House for a wonderful lunch, gifts and many cocktails. I was unaccustomed to drinking at lunch, but I had a couple of whiskey sours. It was quite a time. Nobody played bunko. And I drank a great deal of coffee afterward.
I believe that the Old House had a pre-theatre dinner menu. Generally I went to the Fig Tree (Third and Broadway in the Weissinger Gaulbert, another story) before plays and concerts.
The food at the Old House was fine. It wasn't great by any stretch of the imagination according to our current standards. I think one of the specialties of the house was Chicken Breast Eugenie, which was a chicken breast covered with canned peaches or apricots and a thick cream sauce. It wasn't bad. The crepes were better. That was the golden age of crepes (Magic Pan, Madame Roumaine de Lyon in New York, etc.) Steaks with bearnaise sauce. But for Louisville, where "international" cuisine meant Luivisi's Italian Restaurant on Market Street, Kunz's the Dutchman and Gruber's on Bardstown Road, the Old House was special. Their coffee was very good, too.
Sadly, the Old House was eclipsed in the 1980s by fancier, and quite frankly more sophisticated places. Places where the china matched. Where the chairs were sturdy and alike. Casa Grisanti and the Fig Tree led the way. Then Vincenzo's. Stouffer’s opened Top of the Tower at the top of the First National Bank tower. But French dining in Louisville has always been rather erratic, and for a long time, the Old House symbolized it all. Before I ever went to France, I imagined it would be like the Old House. It wasn't, but what Mrs. Dick created was something else entirely. Certainly not Louisville. I believe that it was rated four star by Duncan Hines, Michelin and others back in the day. And I have a copy of the Old House Cookbook, published in the 1960s. The recipes are all complicated. And they don't give the recipe for the dressing, which is just as well!
Keith Runyon is a veteran Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal. He'll speak to WFPL's Jonathan Bastian at about 1:30 Thursday during Here & Now.