It was three years in the making, and then it happened in less than three days.
After lengthy consideration about making over his fine-dining restaurant, Corbett’s: An American Place, into a more casual spot, owner Dean Corbett made the switch in under 72 hours earlier this week.
Well, at least partially. One of the city’s longstanding gastronomy temples is now one half quiet dining room, one half casual lounge; and the latter half bears some of the name of its St. Matthews sibling, Jack’s Lounge. Under the new shared brand of Corbett’s An American Place/Jack’s at Corbett’s, all visitors will share a single menu while having a choice of spaces in which to enjoy their food and drink.
“I’ve thought seriously about doing this as sales in the fine-dining segment have declined,” said Dean Corbett, owner and chef. The new restaurant bears a similar model to his first restaurant, Equus, originally next door to Jack’s Lounge, until customers expressed interest in having two experiences. Convinced, Corbett opened the wall between them, allowing guests to move freely between both.
Yet this evolution at Corbett’s, however, was a financial decision, he said.
“It’s clear to me that a change in direction had to be made for sales to grow,” he said. “The era of three- to four-hour meals are over—or at least they’re exception and not the rule.”
Fans of Corbett’s will recognize the leftward space as unchanged: white tablecloths, cushy seating, candlelight and more formal service. On the Jack’s side, however, dining tables have been removed and replaced with coffee tables, cushy chairs and couches. More TVs will be added for those who want to watch games. When weather permits, Jack’s relaxed service will extend to the veranda and patio.
The menu will blend many favorites from Equus/Jack’s Lounge, such as Yankee pot roast, fried chicken, shrimp Jenkins, parmesan-crusted halibut, mushroom fumé, calamari and nachos and pizza. Those eager for more premium bites can expect choices such as prime filet mignon and lobster tails.
“We’ve taken the best of what’s worked in both spots and married them in a relaxed format,” Corbett said. “Frankly, after I decided to pull the trigger, I thought I should have done it sooner.”
In 2007, Corbett, then-chef-owner of Equus/Jack’s Lounge opened his namesake dream restaurant to both rave reviews and a nation feeling the onset of the Great Recession. Committed to his vision of owning one of the city’s best spots, Corbett pushed ahead, winning numerous awards along the way from local and national press, as well as AAA’s Four Diamond Award. The restaurant eventually became the host site of the annual Bourbon & Bowties fundraiser for the Kosair Children’s Hospital Foundation. The event has grown from 15 chefs serving 300 attendees to more than 40 feeding crowds of 1,200, and has raised more than $1 million for KCHF.
Over the past five years, as fine dining sales began drying up across the United States, Corbett sought the advice of an old friend, Danny Meyer, one of New York City’s most celebrated restaurateurs and owner of several high-end spots. Meyer was friendly and frank, telling Corbett the shift toward relaxed dining was a force not to resist, but one to accept and adjust to.
“He said I could lead the charge (from fine to casual dining) or follow it in Louisville,” Corbett said. “And he was right, of course, that this is the direction the country is leaning.”
Last year, the Oakroom, one of the city’s most formal dining rooms, relaxed a bit by moving a small bar and cocktail lounge into the space, in addition to adding small plates and lowering some menu prices. This year the Germantown Crafthouse–already a casual restaurant–rebooted with a sports bar concept that is doing well. And further down Goss Ave., Eiderdown also backed off its sort-of-serious gastrobpub theme to recreate itself as a casual neighborhood spot.
Several years ago, Lilly’s Bistro relaxed its food and mood, a move owner Kathy Cary told me two years ago was “one of the smartest things I’ve ever done for my business. Who can blame people for wanting to relax with their meal?”
As Corbett demonstrated this week, that logic’s hard to argue against.
Editor’s Note: For more photos by Jerry Zegart, including a look at the new menu, click here.