Louie’s Wine Dive, a regional family of restaurants with the philosophy that wine should be fun and approachable, opened their doors in Lexington this past November. Owned by Kansas City native Whitney VinZant (who is married to former Miss Kentucky Emily Cox, niece of WLEX-TV news anchor Nancy Cox), the restaurant group has locations in Des Moines, Iowa; Indianapolis, Kansas City and Clayton, Mo.; Omaha, Neb.; and Overland Park, Kansas. While “chain” is a convenient word to use, VinZant explained that each location has its own unique layout, design, and menu.
The restaurant, located at 854 East High Street at the corner of Euclid Avenue and High Street (most recently Macho Nacho) is far from an actual dive. In fact, anyone who has been there in recent years probably won’t recognize it. The space has undergone a complete transformation, and the entrance now faces Euclid Avenue. Wine barrels, glowing wine bottle chandeliers, shelves stacked with shiny bottles of Pellegrino, aged barn wood, iron, and Carrera marble accents come together to create a rustic-chic environment that is relaxing and sophisticated but not stuffy. During the renovation, two new private dining rooms have been added, with space for 10 or 40 guests (“The most beautiful in the city”, said VinZant.)
The menu features a wide variety of dishes that are made with care using fresh and locally sourced ingredients. But Louie’s doesn’t stop at fresh and local. Many of the ingredients, such as the pasta, are made from scratch in-house, a rarity in the restaurant industry. All of their desserts (including White Chocolate Bread Pudding, Carrot Cake, Apple Crumble, and Chocolate Torte) are baked in-house as well. “We cut absolutely no corners,” said VinZant.
“We have an award winning wine program and we needed to create an outstanding menu to accompany that program.”
Lunch and dinner is served daily, and brunch is served from 10am to 2pm on Saturday and Sunday. Valet parking is available, and guests are also welcome to park in the parking garage across the street at no charge.
As one might imagine, Louie’s has an extensive list of wine and spirits, including many that are off the beaten path. In fact, according to VinZant, when the Lexington location opened, he worked with their certified sommelier Eric Atkinson to bring in more than fifty wine labels that hadn’t previously been sold in Kentucky. When it comes to selling wine, Louie’s has an interesting approach. “We will open any bottle on the list if you purchase two glasses, and then we’ll sell the remainder of the bottle at auction to the rest of the crowd.” For example, if a customer agrees to buy two glasses (half a bottle) of any wine, the remaining two glasses are noted on the 16-by-10-foot chalkboard, simply known as the Wine Board. If the wine does not sell in a certain amount of time, the price is reduced and then reduced again, Dutch-auction style. VinZant commented that it’s fun when a very expensive bottle hits the board. Guests can watch to see how long it stays up there, or gamble to see how low the price can go. Not only is the process fun, but it also provides an excellent opportunity to try high end wines without having to break the bank. “The wine that you drink here should taste better because of the expertise we bring in what we purchase,” said VinZant. “Sure (the auction process) costs us a bit more, but we’ve created a unique experience that people tend to talk about when they leave.”
The food at Louie’s is little more in-line with what might be served at a dive —think chicken wings, deviled eggs, a club sandwich, burgers, fried fish—but each menu item features a gourmet twist and is elegantly prepared and presented. The menu is contemporary casual and rooted in American and Mediterranean classics, so it will appeal to a wide variety of tastes. It features a decent range of price points as well. Entrees range from $12-22, with a three-course prix fixe menu available Thursday through Saturday.
Appetizers are generally large enough to share, or can easily be enough for a light lunch or mini-meal. Fried to crispy perfection and served with dual sides of marinara and creamy dill sauce, the Squeaky Cheese (fried cheese curds) is an appropriately indulgent appetizer or compliment to a glass of wine. The deviled eggs are stuffed with a mustardy egg yolk mixture, topped with morsels of smoky bacon and sweet marinated tomatoes and finished with a hint of refreshing arugula. In addition, their charcuterie boards are completely a la carte—three items for $15, and additional items $4—giving guests the opportunity to customize their selection of meats, cheeses, and accompaniments.
The mouth-watering brunch menu includes Riesling Apple French Toast—with brown sugar, Riesling apples, whipped cream, spiced pecans, and bourbon maple syrup, and the Honey Butter Chicken Sandwich—cayenne buttermilk chicken, lettuce, bacon, white cheddar, tomato, cinnamon and honey butter stacked on a brioche bun. A variety of benedicts, breakfast tacos, and omelets are also available.
One of the most memorable dishes on Louie’s menu is the 4 Pork Gnocch, which is made from scratch, a process that takes over twelve hours from start to finish. The soft potato dumplings are pan-fried to give the exterior a slight crunch, and the dish is dressed with an intensely flavorful sauce made with savory prosciutto, pork shoulder, ground pork, and Italian sausage. The two wedges of garlic toast that accompany the already starchy dish seem a bit superfluous, but its incredible depth of flavor more than makes up for it. Plus, the dish pairs beautifully with almost any wine on the menu.
Happy hour specials include discounted pricing on appetizers –deviled eggs or beignets for $4, squeaky cheese or pork tacos for $5, margherita flatbread or shrimp tacos for $6, and chicken wings or calamari for $7. During happy hour, all wine bottles are 25% off, local beer on tap is $4, glasses of champagne can be had for $4.50, and there is always a house red or house white available for $5. Happy hour takes places daily from 4pm to 6pm and from 4pm to close on Mondays. There is also a late night happy hour from 9 to 10 pm Tuesday through Thursday, and from 10 to 11 pm on Friday and Saturday.
They may call it a “dive”, but don’t be fooled by that name. The chalkboard specials, simple banquette seating, and racks of bottles may draw a more casual crowd, there’s nothing dive-y about the attentive service, sophisticated comfort food and well-crafted wine selections found at Louie’s Wine Dive. Above all, says VinZant, the experience should be comfortable and fun. His intention was to make unique wine accessible and to create a concept that was unlike anything he’d seen in the marketplace. “The first thing we focus on is creating a quality experience,” he said. “Everyone we work with has to be passionate about what they do.”