By the entrance to Buck’s, the elegant restaurant on the ground floor of the quietly chic Mayflower Apartments building in Old Louisville, there is a curious plaque, listing all the different restaurants that have tried to make a go of it in that space.
It is quite a list, including some run by top names in local restaurant lore, such as Tim Barnes and Eddie Garber. Some of those businesses stayed around for a few years, others came and went in a flurry.
Buck’s displays the list with a sense of local history, and a bit of tongue-in-cheek self-satisfaction, for the last of those valiant but short-lived efforts listed ended its run in 1992. Ever since, Buck’s has been the tenant in that large, quiet space on Ormsby Avenue, serving an eclectic menu of well-crafted dishes to a clientele of locals happy to have such a stylish place in Old Louisville. East End diners come too, drawn downtown by the prime, rich appointments of the dining room, always awash in white flowers and the delightful piano stylings of the suave Rick Bartlett. And out-of-town visitors are pointed a few blocks south of their downtown hotels by savvy concierges or the recommendations of on-line listings such as Trip Advisor, which ranks Buck’s in the top ten on their list of Louisville restaurants.
The restaurant’s current identity was established by Buck Heath, who designed the look of the bar and dining room, with its mismatched fine china, and reigned as the front of the house man until he sold the business to its current owner, Curtis Rader, who has run it for 14 years. Heath retired to Florida, but after a few years moved back to Louisville, and joined Rader’s staff as fill-in manager, a post he has retired from, and returned to at least twice now. “I told him he is the Brett Favre of the restaurant business,” Rader joked.
Rader has made few changes to the look of the restaurant, which pleases the regulars. “I had some older ladies ask me, when I first took over, ‘You aren’t going to change the flowers, are you?’ I think the reason you buy an established restaurant is that you like and admire what it is, and I have tried to keep it that way.”
About four years ago, when Rader began his second restaurant venture, Cast Iron Steakhouse, with stores in Jeffersonville and on River Road, he devolved more responsibility on his chef, Andrew Welenken, and his General Manager, Lisa Imrie, who became minority owners. Welenken’s job was to create a menu that would respect Buck’s traditions, yet allow it to be freshened with some new directions. Rader gave Welenken a free hand — expect for the crispy fish, and the spicy noodles, which, along with the mocha dacquoise on the dessert menu, have been signature dishes not only through changes of chefs, but through changes of ownership. The crispy fish was a signature item when Eddie Garber ran a short-lived incarnation in what is now Buck’s space, and the mocha dacquoise became a favorite dessert about the same time, when Gerard Hampton was the pastry chef.
“I like the crispy fish,” Welenken said. “It’s sweet and spicy and garlicky, with that umami flavor of the fish. I eat it a lot. I am less of a fan of the spicy noodles, but Curtis (Rader) loves it and eats it all the time.”
So Welenken has been keeping those long-time favorites fresh in diners’ gustatory memories, as he has expanded and updated the rest of the menu. He is proud of his fried oysters Rockefeller appetizer, and is happy that customers sometimes come in to order large quantities of the tomato-bleu cheese soup to go. The pork chop, and steak bordelaise with mashed potatoes both speak to Welenken’s belief that top ingredients should speak for themselves, and not be overloaded with extraneous flavors.
Simplicity is the hallmark of the dessert menu especially. “I like to keep desserts simple, to stay with what people are familiar with, and doing them well,” he said, pointing to the apple cobbler, chocolate flourless torte and chocolate cheesecake, as well as daily ice cream flavor specials.
“The menu has always had some Asian dishes, and some Italian inspirations,” Welenken said. “And some Southern flavors, that I am trying to emphasize since my sous chef’s family owns a farm, and we get very good local produce. I see the menu as a blank canvas that I am painting with fresh flavors.”
Being a bit off the beaten track, away from the several restaurant corridors, has sometimes been a struggle for Buck’s, Rader admits, one that his membership in Louisville Originals has helped with. “We have to constantly remind people where we are,” Rader said. “But I can’t imagine Buck’s anywhere but Old Louisville.”