I was faced with an interesting predicament recently. I took in an 8PM Friday performance of “Hamilton” in downtown Louisville. It ended at 11PM. By the time I was out of the garage and on the road it was nearly 11:30. Where could I drive that was still serving, that wasn’t greasy drunk pizza or mediocre bar cuisine? The answer was The Silver Dollar on Frankfort Avenue.
No doubt I was pushing the envelope. The kitchen at The Silver Dollar closed at midnight. But hopping on I-64, I was walking up to this red brick edifice in the Clifton neighborhood of Louisville by 11:45. Don’t get me wrong, I hate jetting in that close to shut down, but the hostess and waitstaff were nothing but polite and welcoming.
It was clear The Silver Dollar inhabited a former fire station. Built in 1890, this used to house Hook and Ladder Company No. 3 until 2009. Inside the fire poles, fireman’s map of the city and old call boxes remained as vestiges of the building’s former life.
The restaurant was longer than it was wide. Weathered brick walls stood untouched and offered the perfect backdrop to the strings of colorful lights running throughout. The muted reds, greens, and blues created a cantina feel and threw shadows into the alcoves and corners where diners and drinkers sat conversating.
With the fire engine door rolled up an immense entryway further lengthened the space and gave the brick enclosure a certain airy quality. Diners seated near the entrance were treated to urban views of street passersby and the festive goings-on at the Hilltop Tavern across the way.
The primary takeaway about The Silver Dollar is bourbon. It’s lit up in neon on the sign out front, “Whiskey by the Drink.” Behind a 42-foot bar fashioned from reclaimed tobacco barns and old distillery rick houses, on plank shelves running the length of the bar sat the collection. They stock a lot of Kentucky’s native spirit. I lost count after some 200 different selections on the whiskey menu.
I’m a big Eagle Rare fan, and they carry several house select single barrels over 10 years of age at $14 a glass. There are a serious number of bourbons priced $30 a glass and up, topping out at $200 for John E. Fitzgerald 20 YR. That makes Pappy Van Winkel’s Family Reserve 23yr a virtual steal at $135 a glass.
To be fair there also are a head-spinning number of thoroughly interesting and satisfying pours at $10 and under. Not to mention the rotating choice of labels daily at $3 a glass. Then there is the rye, beer, wine and the tequila collection is impressive as well.
Strike up a conversation with any bartender. They are knowledgeable about everything bourbon, from the cheap, to the trendy, to the purple unicorns of pours. They love a good chat, mix a mean cocktail and are efficient at what they do.
This alone could draw plenty of folks inside. Yet The Silver Dollar’s story gets deeper. The owners envisioned a melting pot of sorts, inspired by the unintended results of the 1930s Dust Bowl. When residents of the Midwest and South were driven from their homes to the fertile West of California, locals ostracized them, referring to the newcomers as Okies. This banded together these displaced inhabitants, and they entertained themselves with their own unique brand of rough, hardscrabble country music that was as tough as the folks who played it. It became known as the “Bakersfield Sound.”
The Silver Dollar pays homage to this Bakersfield melting pot with its sprawling juke joint fashion and soundtrack to match. It’s subtle but heavy atmospheric when matched with the lighting, firehouse, food and bourbon. I doubt it’s quiet in here at rush hour, but around midnight it was perfectly chill on this Friday.
You can say the kitchen features its own version of the “Bakersfield Sound” in that it’s a mixture of talents turning out Texas fare, Southern staples and south of the border specialties. There are house fried pork rinds in rosemary & salt, baskets of buttermilk fried chicken livers, short ribs, baby back ribs, chicken & waffles, fried catfish, monstrous burgers and even a beer can hen (sitting atop an Old Milwaukee can).
Considering the late hour, I went with something comforting and simple – chili. Texas style to be exact, with white cheddar, pickled jalapeños, onions, cilantro and cornbread. A heaping bowl arrived filled with dense chunks of tender simmered beef, seasoned less than Texas hot. Mix in all the trimmings and splash the bowl with the house-made arbol hot sauce and the chili was spot on for a decadent midnight treat.
Drop in to see why GQ magazine named The Silver Dollar one of the Top 10 whiskey bars in America.
The Silver Dollar | 1761 Frankfort Avenue | Louisville, KY | 502.259.9540