Museum Row’s breakfast and lunch eatery Atlantic No. 5 was named after a vintage model coal miner’s lunchbox. “Coal mining has a long history in Kentucky, so the lunch box is a nod to that,” says chef and Atlantic No. 5 co-owner Mary Wheatley. “The lunchbox itself carried all that a coal miner would need for the long day at the mine, just as our restaurant has everything one would need to get them through their workday!”
Mary and her fellow chef and co-owner Rebecca Johnson are no strangers to hard work. Rebecca was in advertising, and Mary was in healthcare for over 25 years before they entered culinary school at Sullivan University, where they met and immediately struck up a friendship. “Mary and I decided we wanted to love what we did,” says Rebecca of their simultaneous leaps from the corporate world to the culinary.
Both women have always had a passion for cooking. “I was the fourth of five kids, and a lot of times we would get home before my mom,” recalls Mary of her first kitchen memories. “She was very organized and had dinner plans ready, so we were asked to put the roast on or start the potatoes. I just kind of fell into working in the kitchen, and all five of us cooked then and we still do now. We are all very accomplished in the kitchen.”
Even as Mary and Rebecca entered the workforce, both turned to cooking as a hobby and stress reliever, and shared their baked goods with coworkers at the office. “When they would say, ‘Oh, this is so good,’ it made you want to do it more,” says Rebecca. “It gave you self-esteem and encouragement, and so that is where it started for me.” Rebecca cultivated her culinary passion through the parties she’d host at her home, and Mary continued honing her craft through her ongoing side business, Cook with Mary, through which she still teaches cooking classes and hosts culinary travel groups.
Three years ago, when the space along Museum Row formerly owned by Michael Trager-Kussman became available, Rebecca and Mary jumped at the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “With an amazing location and space, Mary and I wanted to make Atlantic No. 5 a place where the downtown lunch crowd wanted to come often for fresh, homemade and healthy breakfasts and lunches with great coffee,” says Rebecca.
And the bright space is a breath of fresh air, awash in natural light with pops of greenery, vintage accents and thoughtfully curated displays of products they love in their “general store.” Casual business meetings, friends on lunch dates and folks reading and working on computers are thoroughly at ease at the hip eatery. The aromas of freshly ground espresso beans intermingle with savory lunch dishes and freshly baked cookies, drawing you towards the espresso bar to peruse the pastry counter, and before you know it, you find yourself salivating over the menu.
Mary and Rebecca developed the menu with a fresh, homemade approach, curating a collection of classic dishes that are simple, accessible and delicious. And each one is made memorable through creative and crowd-pleasing culinary twists that keep diners of all diets in mind. “Our salads were designed to satisfy all sorts of dietary needs, with all of the ingredients being gluten-free, dairy-free and vegetarian,” says Rebecca. “Those needing protein can add turkey, salmon, avocado or a hard-boiled egg. We usually run three or four specials every day, keeping our offerings interesting for those eating here often, and, honestly, helping Mary and me from getting too bored.”
The specials, announced daily on Facebook, always sell well, but the regulars — mostly downtown business people who often stop in more than once a day — definitely have their Atlantic No. 5 favorites. Mary says you can’t beat their made-from-scratch buttermilk biscuits and biscuit sandwiches for breakfast. For lunch, their powerhouse salad, A5 grilled cheese with tomato soup and chicken salad sandwich top the list.
“While we offer bottled drinks and teas, our baristas are the backbone of our beverage program,” says Rebecca. “We make several homemade syrups, and our main barista, Annie, comes up with some delicious seasonal drinks, such as our Sweet Orange Mocha and Cozy Cardamom Latte you can find on the menu now.” Pair your libation of choice with a treat from the pastry counter, all made fresh daily.
Rebecca lights up when describing the pastries, which are her specialty in the kitchen. “Our cookies are some of the best in town! We hand-chop our chocolate for our chocolate chip cookies and top them with Maldon sea salt, making them absolutely unforgettable,” she says. “Our French buttercream-filled bourbon-molasses cookies are also amazing. And we have a rotating dessert selection in our case, ranging from chocolate pot de crème to caramel cake to key lime bars to black-bottomed cheesecake.”
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All of this deliciousness brings their regulars, as well as Museum Row tourists from across the country and abroad, to the counter, and this is when Mary is in her element. “For me, the best part of the day is the lunch rush — when you don’t have time to think about the clock ticking or the adrenaline of trying to get 100 people through the restaurant in an hour and half, and you pretty much make everything from scratch and plate it — and it’s heart-pumping and exciting, and we love it,” she says.
The duo also stays energized and inspired by their shared love of traveling, constantly sharing images of dishes from far away worlds and brainstorming ways to subtly infuse those flavors into the classic fare their customers love. Mary says that they are also moving toward an even more health-forward menu, while not forgoing an ounce of flavor. “We are not the only people who want to eat more healthy, but the last thing we want to do is to taste boring food,” she explains. This 360-degree consideration of food — from subtle and exotic flavor profiles to how the nutrients affect their customers’ health — hits at the heart of their culinary genius, and it’s the reason their ever-changing menu is also ever-improving and their loyal following is ever-growing.
Their shared culinary roots have also pushed them to grow in new ways while launching and growing Atlantic No. 5. “We had to be brave enough to make changes and try new things as we went along,” says Mary. Rebecca adds, “I never thought I was capable of such hard work. And I’m more open with people whom I don’t know now. I’m very introverted, so I’ve had to face that, and it makes me feel pretty good.” When asked what they love most about each day spent doing what they love, they both answer without hesitation, “the job well done.”
Atlantic No. 5 is located at 605 W. Main St., Louisville, KY 40202. Hours are Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Learn more or place your breakfast or lunch order online at atlanticno5.com, or call (502) 883-3398.
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