Three friends open the Butchertown Grocery, a culinary and entertainment venue where the community can get its collective groove on.
Quantum mechanics established long ago that one person could not exist in two places at the same time, but Chef Bobby Benjamin still had to learn this lesson the hard way. Benjamin was the executive chef at La Coop until the downtown restaurant closed in 2014. He then found himself working at Union Common in Nashville while his wife, Hannah, and their baby daughter, Copeland Pearl, stayed in Louisville. When Benjamin was in one city he often found himself thinking about what was going on in the other one. This dilemma was solved at the end of 2015 when Benjamin opened the Butchertown Grocery with attorney Jon Salomon and musician Patrick Hallahan, the drummer for My Morning Jacket.
While he’s excited about the potential of his new restaurant, Benjamin is happiest about having all the things he loves in one city. “It was stressful, shuttling between two cities all the time,” he said. “I wanted to stay on top of things at [Union Common], but at the same time Copeland Pearl, who is one and a half now, is my little princess. I knew the situation couldn’t continue for too long.”
For their part, Salomon and Hallahan are equally ecstatic that they get to collaborate with a chef whose skill they have long respected. The pair became friends with Benjamin when he was at La Coop. Salomon, an attorney at Tachau Meek PLC, made a point to stay in touch with the chef when he traveled to Nashville on business. After learning about the conflict between Benjamin’s work and family lives, Salomon realized it was an opportunity to create the music and dining venue that he and Hallahan had talked about for years.
“When we started thinking about the kind of people we wanted to work with on this project, we didn’t think we could get somebody like Bobby,” Salomon admitted. “But it became clear that he wouldn’t say no to an opportunity that meant he didn’t have to travel back and forth from Nashville to Louisville all the time. He had his hands full, and we jumped at the opportunity to work with someone of his caliber.”
Benjamin grew up in Rhode Island and Tennessee, and first came to Louisville to attend the culinary program at Sullivan University. After graduating he cooked at restaurants in Santa Monica, Beverly Hills and Nashville, where he worked with celebrated chef Sean Brock. He moved back to Louisville six years ago to work at The Oakroom in the Seelbach Hilton. After three years there, Benjamin was hired by Falls City Hospitality Group, the company behind Doc Crow’s, La Coop and Union Common. He quit in January 2015 to begin working on the Butchertown Grocery.
The new restaurant and bar is located at 1076 E. Washington St., the former site of The Blind Pig and the speakeasy Meat. In the late 1800s, the building housed Gunkel’s Grocery Fresh Meat & Produce. The restaurant’s name and décor, designed by Bittners, reflects this legacy. The dining room downstairs features shelves of dry goods along with exposed red brick and wood. A “Gunkel’s” sign is also painted on the brick wall behind the bar. Benjamin finds the atmosphere inspiring.
“There is so much soul in this building,” he said. “It’s got that New Orleans, Chicago feel. The restaurant’s design has been a constant collaboration. It’s been fun, but it’s been a lot of work. There is a different identity, a different flow to the Butchertown Grocery than when it was the Blind Pig. We expanded the bar upstairs, but we kept the natural beauty of the building.”
When it comes to the food, the Butcher-town Grocery is both a culmination of Benjamin’s career and a proving ground for his evolution as a chef. He intentionally kept the restaurant’s initial menu small so he could develop it gradually to reflect the desires of his patrons and his own culinary vision. There are some old favorites from La Coop and a few dishes that Benjamin added simply because he liked them himself.
The kitchen features a rotisserie from France because the chef enjoys eating rotisserie chicken. The bird served at the Butcher-town Grocery is stuffed with lemon, thyme and garlic the day before it is roasted. Then the chef rubs Spanish olive oil and other spices onto it before the bird goes to the rotisserie. The result is a chicken that is crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside. It is served with a grilled lemon and roasted carrots.
“I had to change my ways at La Coop because I went from fine dining to casual dining,” Benjamin said. “Now I’m doing casual dining, but I’m more refined at it. As the menu evolves, I will add more fresh pastas and there will be more focus on seafood and burgers. One of the burgers we are going to have on the menu features cured shoulder fat. To me that is exciting because it’s different. It will have pork so it will literally be a ‘ham’ burger.”
Benjamin is also planning to add other La Coop favorites like escargot and crab cakes to the menu at the Butchertown Grocery because of diner requests. The restaurant is also offering a 7-course Chef’s Table on a regular basis, where Benjamin will serve specialty dishes that will be paired with wine.
In addition to having the freedom to be as creative as he wants in the kitchen, Benjamin said a nice aspect of owning his own restaurant is that he was able to hire former co-workers from the Oakroom, La Coop and Union Common. “It is nice having people that have worked with me before,” he said. “I even have two people from Union Common who moved from Nashville to Louisville just to be here. That is a vote of confidence. I couldn’t be more blessed. It is unique how everything came together and everybody is so passionate.”
Former patrons of Meat will recognize the dark red walls and reclaimed wood upstairs at the Butchertown Grocery. Another familiar element is beverage director Marie Zahn, who worked in the same capacity at Meat. Zahn has tailored specific cocktail menus for the dining room and the bar upstairs to give patrons a different experience in each area. The biggest change upstairs is the addition of a glassed-in cheese and charcuterie kitchen. Wednesday through Sunday, late night patrons can order from a limited menu between 8 p.m. and 3 a.m. There is also a room available for private parties in addition to the main bar, which has been expanded since the days of Meat. Rather than thinking of the upstairs and downstairs as separate spaces as the former tenants did, the owners of the Butchertown Grocery want the two areas to complement one another.
“If you look around the upstairs you can tell we were big fans of what Peyton [Ray] did with Meat,” Hallahan said. “What he did with this space was perfect. We give a nod to Meat, but we’ve opened up both floors to work as one unit, which I think a lot of people wanted back then. We’re just trying to make this place what everyone wanted it to be all along.”
Although Salomon and Hallahan spent years daydreaming of a music and dining venue like the Butchertown Grocery, this was the first time either of them had been involved in opening a restaurant. But they do have some experience in the business. Before he took to the road with My Morning Jacket, Hallahan spent 10 years working as a busser and food runner in local restaurants like Porcini’s Restaurant and Buckhead Mountain Grill. Salomon is originally from Lexington. He worked as a server and dishwasher before earning his law degree.
Salomon moved to Louisville in 2008 after spending 10 years in New York City. He met Hallahan soon after, and the two became fast friends. The idea for the Butchertown Grocery grew out of Hallahan’s touring schedule and Salomon’s frequent travels for his job. Each of them saw things in other cities that they felt were lacking in the Louisville market.
“We would meet for cocktails and get caught up on each other’s lives,” Hallahan remembered. “It would always come down to how we could pursue this interest we both had in food and entertainment. We just kept brainstorming, and this place took shape once Bobby got involved.”
While Benjamin has control of the dining room, Hallahan and Salomon will program the upstairs bar, which they envision as a multi-purpose community room that will host music, spoken word poetry, comedy and maybe even a silent movie night. “Right now, we’re letting the space teach us what it wants to be,” Hallahan explained. “I sometimes have friends that are touring and they call me asking for a place where they can try out new material. Now I can steer them to the Butchertown Grocery. We’re having a lot of fun experimenting with what works in this room and what doesn’t. So far, we haven’t found anything that doesn’t work. We’ve had everything from deejay dance parties to jazz night.”
The bar is already getting a reputation as a place where anything can happen. During the holidays, Hallahan put together a show with a few of his friends. The makeshift band performed music from “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” By the end of the night, Mayor Greg Fischer was serenading actress Jennifer Lawrence and My Morning Jacket vocalist Jim James.
“That was pretty cool and not something I expected to happen,” Salomon said. “That was sort of the concept for the Butchertown Grocery, having a place here on the corner where the whole community could get together and have discussions or share cultural experiences.”
Hallahan and Salomon admit that for them one of the big perks of the Butchertown Grocery is that they get to eat Benjamin’s food on a regular basis. Hallahan’s favorite at the moment is the short rib, which comes with cauliflower, grapes and jalapeño. Salomon leans toward the Grocery steak, a bone-in, 55-day dry-aged ribeye served with black truffle béarnaise. He had to stop ordering the gnocchi with mushrooms, Parmesan and herbs, because he was getting too predictable.
“The crazy thing is that Bobby has more up his sleeve,” Salomon said. “We are going to see more and more interesting things rolled out as time goes by. It’ll be seasonal. That way we make sure we are getting the freshest ingredients that we can, which is a big part of what we’re trying to do. It also keeps it interesting. This won’t be a place where you come once and then when you return we’re offering the same thing.”
The three partners are not worried about their venue being so close to excellent Nulu restaurants like Decca, Mayan Café and Rye. Benjamin said the top restaurants on the Louisville culinary scene offer patrons unique experiences. “All the great chefs have their own personality,” he said. “They are going to do what they want to do, and it comes down to what the patrons are in the mood for that particular night. When I get a night off, I’m going to go to Decca and see what Annie Pettry is up to. Or, I’ll go to Seviche because I like Anthony Lamas’ food. There really aren’t any feelings that we’re competing against one another.”
The Butchertown Grocery plans to feature music in its upstairs bar every weekend in some capacity. The owners also plan to do pop-up shows on a regular basis. Salomon said there also will be a few fundraisers to support local charities.
The Butchertown Grocery is still a work in progress. Its final form will depend on the dialogue between the owners and the community. Hallahan draws a parallel between the relationship a band has with its audience and the one a restaurant has with its patrons. “We are constantly listening to our patrons to see what we can do better, just like a band does with its audience,” he said. “There are still questions that we don’t know the answers to. But I can say that any time we didn’t trust our instincts and did something anyway, we realized that we should have gone with our gut. Our instincts brought us here to create this space, and our instincts are what will guide it to success.” F&D