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    Phyllis Ward and her college friends were regulars at the old Pine Room, a well-known watering hole situated on a quaint stretch of River Road in historic Harrods Creek. The neighborhood bar and restaurant served cheap libations, country cooking and seafood, but Ward says the main attraction was Mabel — a charismatic pianist who played jazz and familiar ballads on a baby grand bathed in candlelight.

    “Mabel was quite a colorful character,” says Ward, who met her husband John at the Pine Room on a Saturday night in 1971. “I was actually on a date with a friend of my husband’s the night we met. The friend introduced us, and John called and asked me out a few weeks later.” Over the next several years, the couple spent countless evenings at the Pine Room.

    But the good times ended at the beloved saloon on March 9, 1977, when a fire broke out in the kitchen, causing smoke and water damage in the dining room and gutting the bar. Any hopes of restoration were dashed two weeks later, when a second two-alarm fire destroyed what was left of the building where the Pine Room had operated for 35 years. “Only a chimney and a pine tree remained standing to remind passersby of the once-popular restaurant,” the Courier-Journal reported at the time.

    Now, four decades later, a new Pine Room has opened, just a few doors down from where the original once stood. The restaurant is the vision of Augusta Brown Holland, who grew up spending time with her grandparents — Sally and W.L Lyons Brown, of the Brown-Forman Corp. — at their Harrods Creek estate. Four years ago, Holland, her husband Gill and the couple’s three young children moved into the sprawling estate that’s been in her family since the 1920s. It was a vast change from the Holland family’s previous home in the Highlands, a densely populated neighborhood saturated with locally owned eateries. “When we moved to Harrods Creek, I felt like there was a niche to be filled,” Holland says.

    Though Cunningham’s and Captain’s Quarters are popular Harrods Creek restaurants, the area has lost quite a few local businesses over the years, including a general store and restaurants like the Chick Inn and the Melrose Inn. “Part of what was exciting for me about doing the restaurant was helping bring back a little bit of the identity of Harrods Creek,” says Holland, who describes that part of town as “a pocket of country amidst suburban growth.” She chose to resurrect the Pine Room name because of its rich history and reputation as a gathering spot for friends.


    The Pine Room's buttermilk fried chicken.

    Much of the Pine Room’s history has been relayed by word of mouth, though vintage newspaper advertisements also paint a vivid picture. One 1970 ad reads, “The Pine Room welcomes the boating and river crowd…and says OK to casual dress! Only 10 minutes from downtown! Wonderful dinner menu, wine, booze, candlelight, and all that jazz!” Another ad touts cheap drinks and live music “for your listening and dancing pleasure,” plus a “famous” seafood platter of shrimp cocktail, scallops, fried clams, deviled crab, oysters and fish for only $2.75.

    The 2018 Pine Room is, by all accounts, brighter and more focused on quality food than the original, yet Holland has worked to create a welcoming ambiance that has the same neighborhood appeal as its namesake. “I tried very hard to create a warm and inviting atmosphere that wasn’t so casual that you wouldn’t want to go on a date, but also not so fancy that you wouldn’t come in regularly and bring your kids,” she says.

    Holland has partnered with seasoned restaurateur Steven Ton, whose resume includes Doc Crow’s Southern Smokehouse & Raw Bar, along with the now-shuttered Basa Modern Vietnamese and 732 Social. (The latter was located in the Green Building, which the Hollands developed in NuLu.) Holland worked closely with Ton and chef Coby Ming (formerly of Harvest) to craft the Pine Room menu. Ming served as executive chef until December, when James Moran took the helm following stints as executive chef of 8UP and chef de cuisine at Seviche. Each week, Holland meets with Ton and Moran to explore possible specials to accompany the regular menu, which includes entrées such as buttermilk fried chicken, pappardelle pesto pasta and grass-fed steak with French fries. Holland, a pescatarian, mentions fried artichoke hearts, the sweet potato falafel served with cucumber salad, and a nacho platter. “There’s an element of comfort food, but also healthy options,” she says. “We wanted to appeal to everyone.”

     

    As you drive out River Road to Harrods Creek, it feels as though you’ve been transported to a different town in a different time. The Pine Room’s simple fluorescent sign casts a green glow at night. A spacious porch spans the restaurant, providing additional seating during warmer months.


    Holland has worked to create a welcoming ambiance that has the same neighborhood appeal as the original Pine Room.

    It’s just before 6 p.m. on a recent frigid Friday, and the crisp white and mint-green dining room already is bustling. My party of four is seated in a comfortable booth, and our server immediately furnishes our two kids with paper and an array of colored pencils. They get right to coloring as we peruse an impressive list of wine, beer and cocktails, including a Manhattan called the Mabel.

    We scarf down a complimentary plate of sharp Cheddar “Lonzetta” crackers, named after a woman who worked for Holland’s grandmother for many years. Based on Lonzetta’s own recipe, the crackers are a flavorful starter, perfectly crisp and buttery. Next, we try the “sharing” nachos, a heap of tortilla chips topped with a rich, Mornay-like sauce, Cotija cheese, pickled cabbage, guacamole and jalapeños. My children attack the mound, clearing the plate before our entrées arrive.

    For a main course, I choose the fish of the day: mahi mahi served with couscous, olives, fennel, peppers and saffron sauce. The fish is delicate and flaky, but it’s the flavorful accompaniments — especially the silky saffron sauce — that make the dish. My husband opts for the burger, as usual, and my son’s interest is piqued. Soon, he’s also enjoying the burger, which is made with local beef and topped with onion jam and sweet pickles. The boy gives it an emphatic thumbs-up as he devours what has become his half, leaving his five-year-old sister to tackle an adult-size portion of fettuccine Bolognese on her own. She loves the noodles but declares the dish a bit “too meaty.” My adult palate disagrees, and I assist in clearing her plate.

    Phyllis Ward, you may like to know, still lives in the area after all these years. When she heard the Pine Room was being revived, she made reservations to dine with her husband on opening night. While there, the couple regaled staff and fellow diners with the story of their meeting at the old Pine Room back in 1971. Despite vast changes in both the menu and decor, Ward says there’s a sense of cheerful camaraderie that harkens back to the original. Plus, the restaurant has live piano music two nights a week.

    “I’m so excited the Pine Room has been reborn, even though it’s totally different,” Ward says. “The original was darker and more casual. More like a piano bar. But what always struck me about it was the feeling of fellowship. I found that good sense of fellowship in the new Pine Room, too. People tend to talk back and forth between tables, even though you don’t know them. They have really managed to re-create that feeling.”

    This originally appeared in the January 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline "Return of the Room." To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Photos by Jessica Ebelhar, jessicaebelhar.com

    Cover photo, from left: Spinach and citrus salad, buttermilk fried chicken, sharing nachos and pappardelle pesto pasta.

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