Putting on the Ritz: SET at Theatre Square dresses up the former Cunningham’s Restaurant

There’s plenty of action, and even some cameras and lights, around SET at Theatre Square, a new lunch and dinner restaurant opening at 630 S. Fourth St.

The paper curtains covering the windows have been pulled back, and the restaurant is hosting multiple rehearsals to make sure everything’s running smoothly before the opening day on July 18.

SET has settled into the former Cunningham’s Restaurant across from the Mercury Ballroom and The Louisville Palace. Entrepreneur Kirk Stallings is the majority owner of the restaurant and has partnered with marketing and event planning expert Joey Wagner and chef Geoff Heyde.

Stallings used work at Cunningham’s as a server back when it was on Fifth and Breckinridge streets and has known the Cunningham family for 30 years. The family reached out to him about opening a restaurant, he said.

While Stallings, Wagner and Heyde are the main owners, several others have small stakes in SET, and Stallings is giving employees the opportunity to receive some ownership and bonuses depending on how well the restaurant does.

“If our team’s performing, then they should get rewarded,” Wagner said.

The idea for SET came from restaurants Stallings and Wagner have visited in Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

For example, STK, a steakhouse in Las Vegas, has a live deejay. SET will have a live deejay playing in a booth in the small lounge area during dinner. And the idea for the unique serving platters such as a Louisville Slugger baseball bat slider plate (shown in the photos above) came from Los Angeles restaurant Barton G, which is known for its over-the-top and fun presentation. Barton G’s macaroni and cheese, for instance, is served on a giant mouse trap.

“We wanted to create things that people were literally taking pictures of,” Wagner said.

But they didn’t want the new restaurant replacing the family-owned diner to price-out Cunningham’s customers, which is why the lunch menu does not have any item priced higher than $16.95. Most lunch entrees are $9 or $10.

“We need to offer good variety at the right price point,” Stallings said. “We need to cater to that minimum wage employee to the CEO.”

Dishes include a reuben sandwich; shrimp and chicken lettuce wraps; beet salad; a quinoa bowl with mushrooms, spinach, asparagus and balsamic glaze; pot roast grilled cheese; and of course, the classic Cunningham’s fish sandwich.

In addition to passersby regularly asking if SET is open, people want to know if the fish sandwich made the cut, said Wagner, who told Insider Louisville that one day several months back, a man from South Carolina stopped by looking for Cunningham’s after hearing about its fish sandwich.

After lunch, the feel at SET changes.

“At night, turn the lights down and turn the music up, and it’s a whole different atmosphere,” Wagner said.

The menu also changes slightly. Customers are offered the same appetizers, soups and salads, but the entrees change from mostly sandwiches to dishes such as New York strip steak; chicken and waffles with bourbon maple syrup; ricotta and spinach stuffed shells; and a bone-in prime pork. Entree prices range from $12 to $38.

The dinner menu is a chance for Heyde to showcase his talents, Stallings said.

Although SET paid homage to Cunningham’s on its menu, that’s about the only thing that has stayed the same. People who visited the diner before it closed wouldn’t recognize the place now after Ron Wolz, vice president at interior design firm Bittners, worked his magic.

The restaurant was gutted to create a small lounge, bar, dining room and a whole new kitchen as well as two private dining spaces that people or businesses can rent out for events. Stallings and Wagner declined to say how much was invested in renovations.

SET’s tables are made of old barn wood, as are sections of the wall and the stall doors in the restrooms. The main color scheme includes white, black and red.

The color scheme and décor was crafted around a large fine art photograph featuring thin black and white trees with the ground foliage changed to a bright red, Wagner said. The photograph hangs in SET’s lounge and was made by the controversial artist Peter Lik.

Wagner described SET’s décor as “upscale, fun, Kentucky,” noting the stallion’s head statue, wooden wall with words that relate to Louisville, and a photo of horses in Lexington.

Hour of operation are 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday and 10:30 a.m. to midnight Thursday through Saturday, with a daily happy hour from 3 to 6 p.m. SET will extend its hours until as late as 2 a.m. on days when The Louisville Palace and the Mercury Ballroom have shows.

“We want to be the hot spot before and after,” Wagner said.

And for those who can’t wait until next Monday to try SET, the restaurant is offering a sneak peek to people who like or follow them on various social media platforms. People can make a reservation at SET for lunch or dinner on Thursday, Friday or Saturday using Open Table.