Image is everything, right? That’s why the popular Manny & Merle’s on Main Street is now Merle’s Whiskey Kitchen.

It’s not just that the high-end tequila selection has been pared back to make way for a more complete bourbon selection, or that the food emphasis is now all about fried chicken, mac-and-cheese and bacon, though it is about those things.

But the idea behind the image switch at Merle’s Whiskey Kitchen is really about preparing for something bigger, to become the kind of place that embraces the city’s image as a bourbon capital and to grow in size and shape just as nearby construction projects are completed.

Wayne Sweeney
Wayne Sweeney

“Being on Whiskey Row, we felt we really needed to tip our hat to the history and the homage of Whiskey Row and focus on Kentucky heritage,” said general manager Wayne Sweeney. “The Manny and Merle thing was kind of a modern Mexican, and we’re trending toward a Southern environment with Kentucky heritage and we just really started driving it home.”

The name change that brought with it new menu items and a revamped look took place last last month, but Sweeney said the transformation of Merle’s into one of downtown’s biggest and busiest nightspots is in the future. Owner Tony Palombino’s group has acquired the building next door, a former barber shop, that opens up the possibility of doubling Merle’s interior space. Sweeney also showed me some space in the building’s rear that is being designed as an outdoor patio space similar to the popular NuLu nightspot Garage Bar.

“We will be able to double our seating capacity and have a legitimate full-time stage and private party room,” he said. “We get emails every day from groups who want to have private parties.”

Merle's has acquired the barber shop space next door for expansion
Merle’s has acquired the barber shop space next door for expansion

Sweeney said there’s no timeline for the expansion into the space next door, but he is in the process of getting bids and setting a budget. Without doubt a larger stage could help make Merle’s a focus for live music on Whiskey Row.

“At some point, around 8 or 9, it almost turns into a nightclub,” said Sweeney, who grew up in Louisville but spent 11 years traveling the country for Hard Rock Cafe’s corporate parent. “It gets a little louder, the booze starts flowing a little bit more. There’s a lot of foot traffic downtown.  Downtown has really transformed, especially Whiseky Row, with couples walking around on dates, driving in for a weekend getaway. They’re looking for something to do, and we’re trying to fulfill that need.”

The music — country, Americana, Bluegrass — certainly gives the place a downtown Nashville vibe, as does the new food and drink menu.

“We’ve built a name for ourselves, and 30 percent of our customers are locals,” said Sweeney. “We do have some tourists, but a really good built-in crowd. Most of our staff has been here for a year now.

“I don’t see a ceiling, I just see us going up.  For the last 2 years we’ve constantly gone up in sales. There’s an exciting buzz in the city. The city’s getting ready to explode in the next two years which can only mean good things for us.”

You can hear Wayne Sweeney talk about Merle’s Whiskey Kitchen on the next episode of the EatDrinkTalk podcast, airing Nov. 8.