Edward Lee, chef-owner of 610 Magnolia and MilkWood. | Photo courtesy of 610 Magnolia

I never saw this one coming, and I’ll lay odds few others did either.

That Cordish Co.’s could get a serious, respected and well-known Louisville restaurateur—an actual operator, not just an investor—to join the ranks on Fourth Street Live’s (FSL) restaurant row, and that Edward Lee would be the guy, is a stunner.

He might have been the last person I expected to put a spot there, but as soon as I read the Courier-Journal headline about the restaurant, to be called Whiskey Dry, it made perfect sense that he’s the one.

It’s a massive marketing win for him and Cordish, the Baltimore, Md.-based real estate developer which operates FSL. Lee could have added a third restaurant anywhere in this city, so he didn’t need Cordish, didn’t have to locate in an area more commonly frequented by visitors than locals.

Steve Coomes | Photo by Nancy LaRocca
Steve Coomes | Photo by Nancy LaRocca

But based on many conversations I’ve had with Cordish executives here, they needed him—or at least another high-profile local restaurateur. Going after Lee was something they never discussed with me or anyone I’ve spoken to who might know the backstory. But whoever had the idea and whoever got the deal done, those folks deserve a raise for this culinary coup.

Some backstory: About three years ago, two Cordish executives took me to dinner to ask two questions: How do we get a high-profile Louisville restaurateur to Fourth Street Live, someone Louisvillians would follow to the area, and who would you suggest?

Instead of answering, I asked them who they’d asked before. They shared some growth-minded restaurateurs’ names, but said none signed on. When I asked why not, they shared two common reasons:

Though Cordish’s lease terms were arguably generous (in 2014 anyway), ultimately none of those operators wanted the large locations on offer because they weren’t sure they could fill them regularly enough to make them profitable.

But the second excuse was more telling: None wanted to be the local restaurateur who joined the chains on Fourth Street Live. As longtime local businesspeople, they believed their brands were inextricably grounded in the Louisville independent restaurant market, and that to dive in among a string of nationally recognized eateries would be perceived as mingling with the enemy.

Which included Cordish itself. Since it opened FSL in 2004, restaurant operators in the Baxter Ave.-Bardstown Road corridor of the Highlands have claimed business declined as visitors to Louisville, and some locals, have gone to FSL instead of their places.

But they mostly despised what’s been viewed by many as the financial incentive-laden deal given Cordish by then-Mayor Jerry Abramson to reinvigorate Fourth Street by bringing in national chain restaurant competitors. Once called “Mayor for Life,” Abramsom became Mayor of Strife for making an agreement that benefited more powerful businesses not from Louisville.

Fast forward 13 years and in steps Ed Lee to stake his claim at Fourth Street Live. Makes total sense. He’s the perfect guy because while he loves Louisville, Lee isn’t a Louisvillian. And maybe that gives him the non-native pass to go where he wishes. Heaven knows this “outsider” has done much to raise awareness for Louisville restaurants.

The Brooklyn-born chef moved here in 2004 to take over 610 Magnolia from founder Ed Garber. Lee not only made it better and more consistent and more accessible—as long as you could afford it—he positioned it in the national restaurant spotlight as a shining example of the culinary boom underway here. Adding MilkWood only reinforced his commitment to the Derby City, and appearances on several high-profile culinary shows gave him and Louisville a firmer foothold in the minds of the food cognoscenti.

And then the six-time James Beard Award-nominated chef went off campus to National Harbor, Md., a large, multi-enterprise entertainment venue, where he opened Succotash. A second Succotash is under construction in Washington, D.C.’s Penn Quarter, a downtown neighborhood in the city that’s been revitalized as an arts and entertainment district. Clearly he and his investment partners have found these visitor attraction venues to his liking, which is another reason he’s a good pick for Fourth Street Live.

Of the operators whose names were discussed between me and Fourth Street Live executives during those dinners, none has operations outside Louisville, and none has the national recognition Lee has.

But what about the perception that Lee’s joining the bad guys at Fourth Street Live? Doubtless some will say that, call him a sellout and heap all sort of “locals only” angst on this venture.

But I won’t be among them. Lee’s proving he’s become a shrewd businessman with the guts to enter the FSL fray. Several operators I’ve talked to who considered moving in basically said, “Oh, hell no, I won’t! That’s too big for me.” So give him credit for taking that risk.

Whiskey Dry will be a burger- and whiskey-centered concept that’ll feature more than 200 whiskeys on its liquor menu. Yes, that does sound a bit “more of the same” to me, too, but no two American staples are hotter right now. Restaurants are, after all, supposed to provide owners income, and few things generate more income than burgers and booze. So I think it’ll be good for the area, and good for Lee.

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Steve Coomes is a restaurant veteran turned award-winning food, spirits and travel writer. In his 25-year career, he has edited and written for multiple national trade and consumer publications including Nation's Restaurant News and Southern Living. He is a feature writer for Edible Louisville & The Bluegrass, Whisky Magazine, WhiskeyWash.com and The Bourbon Review. The author of two books, "Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke," and the "Home Distiller's Guide to Spirits," he also serves as a ghostwriter for multiple clients.