The Oakroom, one of the city's most elegant and historic dining rooms, will undergo a 2-month makeover to be unveiled in September. | Photo courtesy of the Seelbach Hotel

By Rick Redding and Steve Coomes

See that picture of The Oakroom? Look closely, because that’s the last it’ll ever look that way again.

Owners of this revered century-old dining room have announced the beginning of a summer hiatus during which the concept will get a significant makeover to be unveiled in September.

Despite being one of the city’s best restaurants, a venue that’s attracted top quality chefs, sommeliers and servers, the Oakroom’s sales have declined for several years. According to management at the hotel, the shift of consumer tastes to less formal dining and shorter meals means fewer want to dress up and dine there.

Oakroom general managers and chefs we’ve talked to over the past several years shared various ideas for making the stately and elegant restaurant more contemporary, but no action was ever taken. According to Barry Berlin, director of food and beverage for The Seelbach Hotel, that’s about to change.

“We’re evolving to adapt to changes in the American lifestyle, while still keeping the integrity and quality of our Five Diamond rating,” Berlin said. “The tried-and-true works, but people’s palates are changing. We’re seeing new customers who want a cocktail and a bite, but don’t feel like they have to put a tie on to come in.”

Berlin declined to provide details on how the room where F. Scott Fitzgerald dined will be changed. And in fairness to him, it’s hard to imagine how a room with such history and priceless appointments can be made anew without a significant gutting.

Even more confounding is considering how owners can possibly achieve the dual aim of making The Oakroom more approachable to modern diners (which means affordable, because the plates there now are pricey) while maintaining its coveted AAA Five Diamond status. Nothing about the peak of this ranking process of elite restaurants is designed to acknowledge spots that are anything less than formal. In AAA press releases, the qualities of a Five Diamond restaurant are summarized thusly: “Leading-edge cuisine of the finest ingredients, uniquely prepared by an acclaimed chef, served by expert service staff led by maître d’ in extraordinary surroundings.”

Extraordinary surroundings include, for example, an abundance of fresh flowers, high-quality silverware, (meaning “of a weight different than at your house”), delicate and elegant glassware and expensive table linens (read “not the polyester stuff that beads water”). Strip those away to make the place more relaxed and you’ve definitely lost one diamond and possibly two.

But does the pubic really care about The Oakroom being a Five Diamond restaurant? Perhaps it did at one time, but that status clearly hasn’t wowed them in years.

The truth is fine dining is on the decline nationally and internationally. Vincenzo Gabrielle, co-owner of Vincenzo’s Italian Restaurant (a AAA 4 Diamond restaurant), bemoaned the fact that restaurants like his were becoming less formal until he returned to his Italian homeland to see restaurant customers in the finest Sicilian restaurants without jackets or ties or dresses.

“When I saw that, I just accepted that this was the way it is now, that there’s no sense in asking the customer to change to my standards,” Gabrielle said. “Me? I’ll always wear a suit and tie, but the customer doesn’t want that. And if I want customers to come to my restaurant, then they don’t have to dress up.”

A similar relaxing of old standards is at work at the Corbett’s: An American Place, another Louisville fine-dining temple and AAA 4 Diamond spot. In early July, owner Dean Corbett changed the menu to make several dishes more casual by reducing portion size and cost.

“The three-hour dinner is dead, and we’ve got to adapt to what customers want,” Corbett said. Gone from the Corbett’s routine are the amuse bouche (a pre-meal taste) and mignardises (post-meal sweets given with the check). The restaurant’s bread program, known to feature as many as six different choices, has been reduced to one: a fragrant and chewy yeast roll based on Corbett’s grandmother’s recipe.

“The fact is I’m running a business and for that business to run well, we need to be busier, to bring in more customers,” Corbett said.

Told about changes underway at the Oakroom, Corbett said, “They’re facing a lot of the same stuff we are. The business is more competitive than ever, and so it’s up to us to change in ways that attract more customers.”

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