River House Restaurant & Raw Bar, likely the city’s most ambitious restaurant project this year, is officially open and teeming with business. Its chef-proprietor, John Varanese, calls it the fulfillment of a vision he had for a riverside restaurant when he first came to Louisville more than a decade ago.
“I’ve said for a long time that there’s no great restaurant on the river, no special place to get really good seafood,” said Varanese, who stopped to chat during one of his customary dining room tours.
As regulars at his first restaurant, Varanese, would expect, he was in full uniform, the top of his chef’s coat unbuttoned, an apron wrapped snugly at his waist with a few towels dangling from its drawstring. Unlike some of his peers, he’s never shied away from greeting guests and inquiring about their experience.
“I don’t see us in direct competition with anyone around us,” he added. “I think this is really going to be big.”
That’s an ideal descriptor for River House. Formerly the Falls City Boat Works building, the space spans some 6,000 square feet and seats 250 inside and 125 outside (when its riverfront patio opens in April). Seating will jump 50 percent more when the Levee Restaurant & Lounge, a casual restaurant, bar and live music venue, opens next month.
From the outside, the whole resembles a massive, blue-and-gray dry-docked river cruiser. Inside the design is sleek, modern and industrial, a single wide-open space that, even when chockfull of customers, isn’t loud. A wall of glass facing northwestward toward the river, and smaller windows facing eastward, allow ample natural light to flood the space. While beautiful, the sunset view led some diners to don sunglasses to block the amber glare the night we visited.
The bar is at the room’s center and, according to Varanese, “is the first thing to open and fills up, and the last thing to close here. People love that space.” About 30 customers can perch ’round it for a drink or a snack there if they don’t want a table.
Varanese said he’s frustrated the two-story stone water wall is not yet operating, but he allowed that “you don’t delay opening because of that. It’ll be nice when it’s finally going.” To add to the outside-inside theme, he said a nearly life-size photograph of an ancient tree will be affixed to the wall beside the water wall.
The dinner menu (click here) is ample and varied, featuring selections from a rotating raw bar ($3-$70), 12 appetizers ($8-$14), four sandwiches ($12-$16), six salads ($7-$26) and 12 entrees ($18-$35).
Except for the dessert menu, every page is laden with seafood ranging from a tower of lump crab (for sharing) to oysters (raw, fried or grilled) to plank-grilled salmon, crab legs, whole lobster, king crab legs and more.
“There aren’t enough strong seafood places in Louisville,” Varanese said. “We want to change that.”
Four of us shared oysters (broiled and raw), diver scallops (seared), grouper cheeks (fried), octopus (roasted) and ahi tuna (blackened), and all were as impeccably fresh as one can expect from an inland restaurant. The kitchen’s twists of a smoky corn-butter (on the scallops), garlicky aioli (on the octopus), garlic butter and smoldering herbs (on the grilled oysters) and ginger chutney (on the tuna) were flavorful and correctly light-handed. That’s welcome given the tendency of some chefs to over-season, over-sauce and, consequently, overpower any and all seafood’s natural flavors.
After dinner we toured the rest of the space, which includes an elegant separate dining room used for overflow and private events. Should you prefer to dine in quieter environs, consider requesting it. (I like the energy of a busy room as long as it’s not deafening.)
Once finished, the outdoor patio — a concrete strip about 100 feet long — will feature multiple fire pits, high tables for standing and sipping, and tables at which to dine. The grass lawn extending off the patio runs down to the water’s edge, where several battered boat docks remain. Varanese said they will be repaired, but not immediately.
The kitchen is massive, easily one of the largest in town for a restaurant that size. Its capacity will be needed when the Levee opens, and when the second floor banquet space opens a year or two from now.
“I’m telling you, we’ll need everything you see,” Varanese said, pointing toward a freight elevator that will lift food to the second floor. Pointing toward a battery of ovens and burners in another corner, he added, “That equipment over there hasn’t been turned on yet. It’s just for when we need it later.”
Sales in the second week of March exceeded $150,000, more than quadruple a good week at Varanese, he said. It’s entirely possible, he added, to rack up $6 million of revenue in a single year — more than seven times the revenue of an average U.S. independently owned restaurant.
“It’s been crazy so far, especially doing that kind of volume while trying to train people continually,” he said. Adjusting an earpiece and microphone set he uses to communicate with managers in the massive building, he said, “I can’t be running all over the place to talk to people. I need this.”
He admitted River House is a massive undertaking, one for which he’s still struggling to assemble a full staff. He’ll need a complete team soon as warm weather crowds crush in and test the restaurant’s mettle severely.
“Cooks are hard to come by, trained ones for sure,” he said. “Servers, there are lots of them. My (general manager) has let some go who didn’t have the right attitude. … I mean, they’re working tons of shifts and making a lot of money. What’s not to like?”
Asked by one of my table mates when he last took a day off, Varanese responded without smiling, “New Year’s Day.” Asked when his next day off will be, he said, “Oh, Thanksgiving probably. But I’m not complaining. I asked for this. There’s nothing to do now but go forward. I’m just glad to see it come together like it has so far.”