What is Louisville without its excellent and exuberant dining industry? With a city founded on so many foodie staples — The Hot Brown, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Derby Pie, Bourbon Balls, Benedictine — it’s no wonder we Southern folk like to eat. But Louisville would be nowhere without our equally amazing chefs who prepare such prized dishes.
When thinking of truly excellent chefs, Louisvillians always have to consider Kathy Cary from Lilly’s and Edward Lee from 610 Magnolia and now Milkwood, among many others. Another who always comes to mind is Chef Jim Gerhardt, who brought to Louisville a sense of fine dining and Southern flair that is a constant reminder of the foods this city was founded on. Formerly chef at The Oakroom and owner of Limestone, which sadly closed in February 2014, you may be wondering where in the world his superior skills have gone. And today, we’ll tell you: The Pendennis Club.
Gerhardt joined the Pendennis Club as general manager and prized chef last September. And it was with open arms that the club welcomed him.
With a such a successful career thus far and a reputation that truly precedes him, Gerhardt was an obvious and perfect addition to The Pendennis Club, but what exactly brought him there? I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Gerhardt and hear all about his successful Louisville career.
Gerhardt started working at The Oakroom restaurant at The Seelbach Hilton in 1995, just around the time the hotel opened the Medallion and Mezzanine ballrooms, nearly doubling the restaurant’s food and beverage volume. Having had experience in both fine dining and operating a high-volume service, he saw The Oakroom as “a real opportunity.”
Gerhardt turned The Oakroom into a fine-dining experience that represented local foods in an upscale way. Rather than serving up good ol’ Southern food in the traditional sense, he elevated the menu, earning The Oakroom a five diamond restaurant rating for seven of the eight years he was there.
So why did he leave?
“I recognized that there were changes happening in our restaurant scene, and people didn’t want to spend the kind of money that they were spending.”
Gerhardt wanted to start out on his own, and in 2003, he opened Limestone, which featured great food at affordable prices. Additionally, Limestone was a more casual restaurant where one didn’t need a suit or tie to dine, as its location was far more suburban than downtown Louisville and was also close to a golf course.
Limestone was well received by his Oakroom following and was very prosperous for 11 years, until the shopping center that housed the restaurant went into foreclosure.
For Gerhardt, it was time to move onto something different, which brings us to The Pendennis Club.
THE HISTORIC BUILDING
From the hand-laid wood floors to the decadently decorated library, The Pendennis Club is nothing short of a building built to impress. Touted as the first fireproof building with steel beams and limestone brick, stepping into this club is truly like stepping back in time to 1927, when the building was originally built.
Established by then-club president Owsley Brown, The Pendennis Club remains remarkably the same as it was when it was built. “There has been a conscious effort to keep it the way it was,” explains Gerhardt.
From the multiple staircases — one for the ladies, another for the gentlemen — to the brass door lock covers and original keys, The Pendennis Club has had little remodeling done since first opening its doors, barring one exception. Built during Prohibition, the basement bar was not suitable for the club’s more than 500 members, so another bar was added to the main dining room, along with an updated kitchen.
The most impressive aspects of the club’s original decor are the beautifully detailed paintings, which cover the meeting room walls. Brown’s interest in photography inspired him to decorate some of the walls with authentic paintings, such as the lovely motifs of the War of 1812 and the Revolutionary War in one room, and a rendition of colonial India in another.
However, the true treasure housed within is the book of photography that documents the progress of the club being built. Photographed from the same spot each month by Owsley Brown, the pictures show readers how the entire building went up from start to finish.
For Gerhardt, maintaining this rich history and continuing to build on it is the perfect career opportunity, and luckily for The Pendennis Club, Gerhardt is one who can certainly be trusted with the rich club legacy.
“In an operation like this, you have to respect the history and celebrate that,” he explains. “There are things here that are food icons and legends.” One example? The Pendennis Club holds the title of serving the first Old Fashioned, and it’s a delicious one at that.
Gerhardt has many upcoming plans for The Pendennis Club, particularly when it comes to the menu. However, entering his new role just before the holiday season only allowed him time to make a few minor menu changes.
“I haven’t had the time to make the changes that truly reflect my style, but that is coming.”
Until then, my family and I had the pleasure of trying several of the additions Gerhardt has made. Here’s a look at the wide variety of delicious options we had the fantastic experience of trying:
Along with our Old Fashioned cocktails, glasses of Cabernet and a delicious meal, the evening was complete with good company, great food and an intimate dining experience. And true to form, Gerhardt was a most accommodating host. We’re just glad we know where to find him!
The Pendennis Club is a private, members-only club, but is actively recruiting new members. If you are interested in joining, you must be sponsored by a current member, participate in a meet-and-greet, then be voted in. To enjoy the dining room service before joining the club, you must be accompanied by a member. To learn more about joining, give The Pendennis Club a call at (502) 584-4311.