- 1800 Frankfort Ave. , Louisville, KY
- Overall User Rating:
- (1 rating)
- Sunday, 5 p.m.-midnight; Tuesday-Thursday, 5 p.m.-midnight; Friday-Saturday, 5 p.m.-3 a.m.
It would be totally unfair to say that the Hilltop Tavern has been hiding in plain sight since opening last winter. After all, lots of adventurous folks have found their way in, some lured by the sign on the sidewalk that announces daily specials, some by word-of-mouth, some by generously positive online reviews.
And yet, despite the fact that it sits catty-corner from the Silver Dollar — which has been the Bakersfield buzz of Frankfort Avenue lo these many months — the Hilltop has seemingly been content to develop a sort of obscure insider cachet. I can’t count the number of times I’ve stepped out of the Silver Dollar and thought — for a moment anyway — that I ought to check out the place across the way.
In retrospect, I wish I’d dropped in months ago. The Hilltop occupies an iconic space in the history of Louisville’s nightclub and restaurant scene. For decades, it was a watering hole and music venue (my late brother Jim’s band, Da Mudcats, were regulars back when the place was called Barry’s; but before my time it was known — or so I am told by my elders — as The Lighthouse). Later it was the first home of Cafe Lou Lou. And subsequently it housed a handful of ventures that didn’t fare so well.
But the Hilltop seems destined to stay around for a while. The space is pleasant and bright, and seating is comfortable. Pingpong and foosball tables — and a gigantic pile of board games — are available for those in the mood to while away a bit of time.
The owners — John Skelton, brother Mike Skelton and his wife, Erika, — have great credentials. John is a veteran of Seviche, and Mike’s resume includes stints at places including Wick’s and The Bristol.
But even if you didn’t know their histories, you’d be impressed by the food they’re putting on the table. Think of it as an idiosyncratic bar and barbecue joint, with vegetarian leanings, and you’ll be on the mark. (And yes, there is another eccentric Louisville barbecue place that offers lots of vegetarian options: Smoketown USA, 1153 Logan St.).
Alas, there are no ribs on the menu, but plenty of other good things come from the smoker. Whole chicken wings ($7.95) are smoked, then fried; on the plate they look like Alexander Calder sculptures, a mass of tangled angles. A pulled pork sandwich ($7.95) on a crisp toasted bun was juicy and smoky — and though it didn’t strictly need any help, the kitchen does offer three sauces in squeeze bottles, a Carolina-style mustard sauce, a spicy red sauce, and a smoky liquid that spends its own time simmering in the smoker.
The smoked items do plenty of multitasking. Pulled chicken is served as a barbecue sandwich ($7.95) or in a smoky chicken salad made with grapes and celery ($7.95). The pulled pork shows up as the main ingredient in a bowl of chili ($4.95) and on chili cheese fries (dolled up with provolone and mornay, $6.95).
But as good as the meats are, it’s a vegetarian sandwich that really stands out. Creating a great veggie burger is no easy task, but the Hilltop’s Southwest Black Bean Burger is the best in the city.
Hand-formed from black beans and onions, it’s a sturdy patty studded with smoked peppers and kernels of smoked corn that infuse it with vivid color, a big satisfying flavor, and a fascinating, satisfying texture. It’s the kind of sandwich that could render meat obsolete ($7.95).
And there are other outstanding sides and appetizers as well: Surpassingly light macaroni and cheese fritters cloaked in a delicate batter are served with piquant Southwestern aioli ($4.95) — a perfect light snack for those who want just a little something as they sip a glass of Shiner Bock ($4.50), Kentucky Ale ($4), Boulder Sweaty Betty Blond ($5) — or even a shot of Old Crow with a pint of PBR as a chaser ($5).
The luscious, creamy texture of the mustard-laced potato salad ($2) is straight out of a picnic fantasy. You could hardly hope to find a lighter, more refreshing summer salad than the Hilltop’s combo of tart apples, juicy cucumbers and sweet, slivered onions ($2).
And speaking of light, even the bread pudding ($4.95) — flavored with nuts and cranberries and a perfectly balanced Old Crow-based sauce — will surprise you when you pick up a forkful and realize it’s nearly as light as air.
You can email freelance restaurant critic Marty Rosen at firstname.lastname@example.org.