- 1761 Frankfort Avenue, Louisville, KY
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Here’s something you won’t find at The Silver Dollar: a quiet table for two. Here’s something you might never see: a whiskey lover adopting an air of reverential contemplation while gazing at a glass of single-barrel bourbon. Here’s something you won’t hear: the mad screams of Johnny Burnette (or the primal yodels of Dwight Yoakam) piping softly through the sound system like background music.
Here are things you will find: a grand space, steeped in history; the deliciously loud sounds of Bakersfield-style honky-tonk music and laughter; great cocktails; an extensive list of bourbons and tequilas; quick, smart service; a chef-driven menu filled with the vivid flavors from the Southwest — especially.
The space is the historic Albert A. Stoll firehouse, a carefully salvaged monument to the city’s past, complete with brick walls, fire poles, an old, hand-painted fireman’s map of the city, and old call boxes. Co-owners Shawn Cantley, Larry Rice (formerly of 732 Social) and Michael Rubel have preserved the firehouse’s essential character while adding new touches like gorgeous wooden booths, tables and a 42-foot bar made of wood reclaimed from old tobacco barns and distillery rick houses.
The cocktails (all $8) are crafted by co-owner Michael Rubel, a Kentucky native who rose to national prominence as beverage director at Chicago’s Violet Hour and Big Star (both owned by Paul Kahan, of Blackbird and Avec). The list of house-made ingredients includes things like root beer bitters and the orange-inflected Amer Picon, a Basque invention that’s the base for Picon Punch (which some describe as the definitive Bakersfield cocktail).
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better balanced drink than, say, the Gold Rush (Old Fitzgerald bonded, Kentucky honey and muddled lemon), unless perhaps it’s the Swingin’ Door (Heaven Hill bonded, grapefruit, raspberry syrup, lime and ginger beer). And you’ll be hard-pressed to find bartenders and servers with more encyclopedic knowledge of and admiration for the full range of Kentucky whiskeys (another co-owner is Larry Rice, one of the bartenders who developed the excellent bar program at 732 Social). These folks are just as happy talking about the distinctive qualities of 4-year-old Kentucky bourbons as discussing the fine points of rare bottling — and I think lots of bourbon lovers will be delighted to discover some excellent whiskeys being poured at three bucks a shot.
As for the food, chef Jonathan Schwartz, sous chef Dave Hawkins and their team are producing the best Southwestern flavors in the city. On my first visit, I wasn’t recognized until well into the meal — and by then the kitchen had already wowed me. On another occasion, when the crowd at the bar was four deep, I was wowed yet again, this time by the speed and quality with which food was arriving at tables all around me.
There is no handy label for what The Silver Dollar is doing food-wise, but I think I can safely call the place a “Gastro-Honky-Tonk.” This is ambitious cuisine with an emphasis on Southwestern flavors and ingredients, and it’s executed at a very high level of excellence. A salad featuring romaine and pickled jicama is dressed with a perky lime vinaigrette so delightful I’d like to buy it by the bottle ($8). Break through the sturdy shell of a vegetable empanada and the pale, saucy innards spill out carrying the rich aroma of fresh garlic ($7). A basket of perfectly fried onion rings is served with smoked ketchup — and where most ketchup modifications are failures, this is sublime ($4) — as are the cornmeal-breaded fried oysters served with an ancho chili sauce ($11).
A bowl of chili (with or without meat, with or without beans, $6) and a bottle of Shiner Bock will serve as a fine meal, but I can’t shake memories of the chicken and green chili soup ($8), which more than any dish in the city evokes the spicy essence of the borderlands.
Everything about Schwartz’s menu is mindful, from the bold, faintly gritty coffee rub and the deep-green poblano sauce that flavor a perfectly grilled flank steak ($18), to the cylinder of cornbread stuffing served with a plate of sauteed shrimp and roasted chayote squash ($15). That stuffing comes in mighty handy when you start greedily sopping up the shrimp’s garlicky sauce.
You could dine on a bone-in strip steak ($32), hickory-smoked brisket ($15) or chicken-fried steak with gravy and potatoes ($14). Or you could be content with sandwiches like a vegetarian molletes (melted cheese, spicy pico de gallo, black beans and slightly crunchy bolillo bread, $8) or a burger ($9). My only quibble might be that sandwiches come in wax-paper-lined baskets — and wax paper isn’t the best platform for, say, luscious, slowly smoked pork ($9) topped with coleslaw.
But I have no quibble with the house-made desserts, which recently included a crisp apple tart covered with a crusty lattice (and accompanied by a scoop of Comfy Cow vanilla).