Soda fountains. Vinyl swivel stools. Laminate lunch counters. All help paint the picture of a classic luncheonette, a fixture in history and a dying breed. While there is no formal luncheonette designation, the term brings to mind visions of long countertops with rows of stools, and small booths tucked in the unexpected corners of businesses with alternative means, like pharmacies and the Woolworth’s of yesteryear.
Nearly everyone has a luncheonette memory. Whether it’s dipping a long spoon into a tall root beer float or of a fresh-from-the-fry-top grilled cheese, the simplicity of these American institutions is what keeps bringing us back through the doors. As soon as you cross their thresholds, the trials and urgency of our present day fall away. In the name of nostalgia, we took an inventory of Louisville-area luncheonettes that have maintained a lasting presence over the year. Here are five that are worth a visit:
Heitzman Traditional Bakery and Deli
9426 Shelbyville Road, Louisville, (502) 426-7736
Heitzman Traditional Bakery and Deli began as a bakery, their butter kuchen and endless variety of cakes still as in demand today as they were more than 120 years ago. The addition of a deli encouraged guests to stick around to enjoy the company of neighbors and friends over bowls of homemade soup and classic sandwiches. On a recent visit, I sampled their Italian sub, composed of pepperoni, salami, ham and Swiss. Served with a side of Italian dressing, what really made the sandwich pop was the housemade bread, a slightly sweet hoagie with just the right amount of weight and pull to it. The quality of the bread and the kindness of the team behind Heitzman’s should come as no surprise. A bakery at its core, it has been a Louisville landmark since 1891.
3940 Shelbyville Road, St Matthews, (502) 896-4438
A history of sweets is at the backbone of Plehn’s Bakery, which has been serving legendary donuts, cakes and cookies at its St. Matthews location since 1924. Those who have never ventured through their doors are likely unaware of their classic lunch counter, where sweets and homespun ice cream can be enjoyed on-site, along with handmade soups and perfectly simple deli sandwiches. It’s beautiful to watch the history of Plehn’s being preserved, by throngs of schoolchildren snacking on donuts, a special pit stop on the way to school, and indulging in midafternoon snacks as soon as the final bell rings. There is no question that Plehn’s will be a staple in the lives of Louisvillians for years to come.
347 Spring St., Jeffersonville, IN, (812) 283-8367
A short drive across the bridge brings you to Jeffersonville, IN, home to Schimpff’s, one of—if not THE—oldest family-run confectioneries in the country. Located in the same storefront since 1891, Schimpff’s offers a reprieve from the current day, with countless vintage candy jars filled with sugar-laden goodies lining the wall as you enter their historic doors. After the sugar contact high wears off, you take in the soda fountain counter to the right, the same fountain installed in the 1950s. Make note of the small dining area directly to the back, where old wooden booths line the wall. As with any true luncheonette, prices take one back in time as well, and my lunch of half a housemade benedictine sandwich and cup of their best-selling chili cost a mere $4.25.
D. Nalley’s Restaurant
970 S. Third St., Louisville, (502) 588-2003
Not all luncheonettes are born as a secondary arm of a primary business. However, D. Nalley’s, located in Old Louisville on the corner of Third and West Kentucky streets, offers a classic example of the timeless diner, serving breakfast favorites along with burgers, ham and cheese sandwiches, and a variety of housebaked pies. As one would expect, select pies are displayed in small cake domes on the long, laminate lunch counter. I was made to feel more than welcome while I perched on one of their red stools, original since their opening in 1960. My server was full of warmth, extending plenty of “honey” and “darlin’” salutations my way. At her suggestion, I enjoyed their signature Mighty Dee hamburger during my visit, a double-decker creation layered with melted American cheese, crisp and crunchy shredded lettuce, and slathered with their creamy, tangy special sauce. Served with french fries and coleslaw, this prodigious lunch came in at a mere $6.04 before tip. A continuous stream of locals and regulars made their way through the doors at D. Nalley’s, many greeting the servers by name and offering waves of welcome to the cooks, who were visible through the kitchen window.
3113 S. Fourth St., Louisville • (502) 375-3800
The final stop on my luncheonette tour was Wagner’s Pharmacy, perhaps the most storied of such establishments in Louisville. A virtual extension of Churchill Downs, Wagner’s has played host to a wide array of horse racing professionals and fanatics over the years, serving breakfast and lunch to hungry track-goers since 1922 while selling turf goods and sundry items. I stopped in on a Tuesday and was instructed by the server at the counter to try to the special: grilled cheese and vegetable beef soup. I enjoyed my soup and sandwich while taking in the multitude of photos papering the walls, a catalog of memories made at Wagner’s.
If only these booths and banquettes could talk, we can imagine the stories they would share, tales absorbed over the years. There is comfort in knowing that these pockets of history are preserved, having persevered generation after generation, maintaining a sense of place, purpose and self in our ever-changing world. If you need a brief reprieve from the current day, look no farther than your neighborhood luncheonette.
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