Four months of actual operation, however, told a different story. To make the legendary sports bar busy and profitable, it ultimately needed a significant capital investment and a makeover that would turn it into an upscale-casual restaurant and bar.
“I guess we didn’t think that through as much as we should have!” laughed Dean Corbett, one of three in the group, which includes front-of-the-house manager Nirmesh Agrawal and executive chef Shawn Ward. “We’re learning a hard lesson; I’ll say that.”
According to Corbett, the menu created several months ago by Ward dazzled guests’ palates, but left them a bit baffled considering it was within The Brewery’s dated setting.
“We kept hearing that the food was great, but that it didn’t really fit the place,” Corbett said.
The case of culinary cognitive dissonance especially affected Ward, who’d ended his 18-year run as a fine dining chef at Jack Fry’s executive chef to join LEG.
“I had three or four people all within a week ask me the same basic question: Why are you fighting city hall?” said Ward. “It hit home that everyone who comes in here is expecting a certain level of food from us, so we decided to give them what they expect.”
A look at sales records hammered home the point.
“What sold was mostly the food we’ve been doing the past 20 years at other places,” he said. “It’s what we’re known for, not the sort of new genre we were trying to create for The Brewery.”
Though LEG originally intended to update the restaurant and call it Junction 426, the partners agreed those plans weren’t drastic enough. In July they agreed a full reboot was in order, an event to commence in mid-September with a seven to 10-day closure for renovations.
The kitchen will be gutted, expanded and retrofitted with top-of-the-line equipment. The dining room and deck will get all new lighting, paint and leather furniture, and the exterior will get new lighting, signage and awnings.
Only a few of the nearly 30 TVs hanging throughout the facility now will remain.
“I can tell you this: It’s not going to look like the sports bar it is right now,” said Corbett. He said Bittners’ plans for the makeover stunned them, a statement Ward echoed.
“What they’ve done … it’s unbelievable,” Ward said. “You’d have never thought that they could take the space as it is and turn it into what they will. They went above and beyond for us on this.”
That early fall reopening also will mark the restaurant’s rebranding as Ward 426, a combined acknowledgement of the chef and the building’s address on Baxter Avenue.
“Shawn is easily one of greatest chefs in Louisville, and we want people to know he’s down there cooking every day,” said Corbett, who also owns Equus, Jack’s Lounge and Corbett’s: An American Place. “It’s going to be his food, his signature on all of it.”
The wine list will be expanded and the bar will feature “a really good tequila program,” Corbett said. “We’ve wanted that from the start, but we’ve been trying to fix other things.”
Corbett and Ward are confident Ward 426’s location at the corner of Baxter and Lexington Road is ideal because of its placement: about a mile away from Jack Fry’s and Lilly’s and about a 1/2 mile from NuLu’s restaurants.
“No fine dining down where we are,” Corbett said. “There will be a lot that makes us stand out.”
Since the slow pace of summer business in restaurants quickens in the fall, the timing couldn’t be better for Ward, who’s already considering cool weather dishes.
“That’ll be right around the corner from the cold weather months, so we’re talking about dishes like pork shank and veal shank,” Ward said. “The new menu will include some duck, local rabbit, and since we have so many good fish purveyors because of the airport, we’ll definitely use seafood. … We’re going to be doing what we like to do, and that’s fun.”
Corbett, who said service will be enhanced to the quality and standards at Equus, is pleased that so many staffers from The Brewery have continued to work there. He says The Brewery’s landlords and owners created a great workplace until the handoff.
“The people we’ve got here are really dedicated and have been outstanding,” he said. “Our landlords fostered an environment of decency that we’ve tried to carry on. That makes us excited to work with them as these changes come.”