We live in a microwave world where most people expect to get what they want immediately. But Chef John Varanese is proof that a little delayed gratification can be just as sweet. Varanese fell in love 15 years ago, not with a person but with a location. It took 15 years for him to get what he wanted, but in March the River House Restaurant and Raw Bar opened on the very spot that Varanese had coveted. That story, from love at first sight to grand opening, had enough twists and turns to fill a romance novel.
It all began in 2001. Varanese had just left his job as executive chef at Azalea with the goal of opening his own restaurant. Frustrated after yet another potential partnership fell through, he headed to Carrie Gaulbert Cox Park as he often does in times of stress. As soon as he turned onto River Road, Varanese saw the thing that would fill his dreams for the next decade and a half – the former Falls City Boat Works building beside KingFish. There was a “For Lease” sign in the window and he decided to give it a look. The more he saw, the more he liked it.
“I always had a notion that this location would be a gem,” Varanese explained. “There is no other property I’d rather have. It has all the intangibles a restaurant needs to be successful. It is accessible by all the major freeways. It has 210 feet of riverfront view and 12 boat slips. And it is in the backyard of one of the wealthiest communities in Kentucky.”
Varanese had long thought that Louisville underutilized its riverfront dining. He immediately had visions of an upscale seafood restaurant.
Everyone he talked to thought it was a swell concept, but Varanese soon learned that no one was willing to finance a leased property for a young, unproven chef. The bankers advised him to find a space he could afford to buy, and the 27,000 square foot boat storage facility was definitely out of his price range.
Dejected, but not defeated, Varanese accepted a job as executive chef at the Cardinal Club while he searched for the perfect situation for his restaurant. It took about five years. In 2007, he opened his eponymous restaurant Varanese on Frankfort Avenue at the site of the old Red Lounge at 2106 Frankfort Ave. But he still hadn’t gotten that empty storage facility on River Road out of his system. In 2011, after four and a half years of success at Varanese, the young chef decided to make a play for his first love. But even with the reputation he had established by then, it was still a struggle to finance the $4 million project. The whole ordeal would take four and a half more years before he found the right partners and financing.
“It was worth the wait,” Varanese confessed. “There are not many restaurants on this side of the river like they have in Southern Indiana. Captain’s Quarters is good but a bit more casual than what I have in mind. I’m looking to step it up a notch. I’ve always thought this place would be something special.”
Although he’s always been enamored of the location, Varanese’s concept for the River House has morphed over the years. Many of his original ideas went into his Frankfort Avenue location and he didn’t want to duplicate what he already had. The River Road building had 16,000 square feet on the first floor and an additional 11,000 square feet upstairs. Initially, Varanese had considered opening his seafood restaurant and leasing out the other parts of the building to help cover his mortgage payments. However, he found that he couldn’t bring himself to share his beloved riverfront property. Then he thought about having three restaurants in one building, but after much consideration he settled on having two — the River House and the Levee, a more casual companion.
Varanese turned to local architect Doug Karnes, who designed Anoosh Bistro, and Ann L. Swope of Swope Design Group to help him realize his vision. They made the River House look and feel like a true river house. Guests will find a charming “home-like” atmosphere as they enter the space from the front porch garden area. The designers used reclaimed wood from the Germantown Lofts to build the frame of a house, roof included, in the center of the dining area. There is a 20-foot tall by 40-foot wide water wall, and a floor-to-ceiling glass wall overlooking the back courtyard and river. The restaurant also has retractable windows to open the dining space to the river.
River House is open seven days a week for lunch and dinner, seating 330 in its main dining room, raw bar and patio. Varanese is handling most of the
cooking until his staff gets up to speed. The building actually has three kitchens: there is the main kitchen for River House, a prep kitchen and a kitchen for the Levee, next to the River House in the same building, serving lighter fare with regularly scheduled live entertainment. Between River House and the Levee, Varanese is employing a staff of 150.
Future plans include an upstairs banquet area, accessible perhaps with an elevator, that will seat up to 350 guests. Varanese also wants to add more boat slips so he can serve more water traffic. Varanese admits that he sometimes feels as if he is juggling too many balls in the air at once. For the moment, he is merely overseeing the management at his namesake restaurant. Most of his staff there have been with him for years, and he’s depending on them to get him through this rough period.
“I’ve got a prep girl that has been with me since Varanese opened,” Varanese said. “The chef and bar manager have been with me for years too. They understand that I’m working all day, seven days a week, to get the River House and the Levee off the ground. It’s hard work, but I’m realizing a dream that I’ve had for a long time.”
Varanese has always believed in himself. He got his start in the culinary business at a little mom-and-pop restaurant in his native Cleveland. By the time he was 16 he felt he could run the kitchen better than the adults around him. His next stop was Johnson & Wales University, when it was in Charleston, South Carolina, where he obtained a BA in food service management and AS in culinary arts. During his tenure in culinary school, Varanese worked as kitchen manager for Magnolias, an upscale Southern restaurant in Charleston.
Varanese’s Kentucky and South Carolina roots are apparent in the menu at the River House. The chef sought to keep the menu balanced, but it is really the seafood that is the star of this establishment. The Raw Bar offers the River Tower with king crab legs (pictured on the cover). The dish includes a pound of chilled lobster, jumbo shrimp, oysters on a half shell, and colossal lumps of crab and mussels. It is definitely something meant to be shared. Another highlight is the oysters on the half shell served with a choice of cucumber mignonette, chipotle cocktail or champagne ice.
The regular menu also features herb-roasted grilled Chesapeake Bay oysters with garlic butter and a blackened rare Hawaiian ahi tuna topped with tomato and ginger chutney and served over a crispy Parmesan grit cake that looks like cornbread. Also tempting are the sautéed mussels tossed in chipotle-lime broth with diced tomatoes and cilantro and served on a grilled baguette; the Colossal Lump Crab Tower, which features over a pound of 100 percent pure lump crab meat served with dijonnaise and warm balsamic butter dipping sauce; and char-grilled octopus served with twice-fried potatoes with bacon-artichoke vinaigrette and roasted garlic aioli.
Salads include a crispy fried avocado filled with a chilled shrimp, lump crab and bay scallop salad. There is also a chilled half-pound lobster stuffed with shrimp, bay scallops, and lump crab served with lemons, capers, and dill on a bed of baby greens and cherry tomatoes. But meat lovers would enjoy the house-cured local charcuterie with smoked Bourbon mustard, seasonal pickled vegetables and lavash crackers, or the bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin served with butternut squash and goat cheese gratin and a dried cherry, Bourbon-sorghum glaze.
The desserts include a peach and sweet potato biscuit cobbler with blackberry Bourbon sauce. There is also a chocolate-peanut butter lava cake that comes with vanilla bean ice cream and a tasty pecan praline pie with chocolate and caramel sauce. For guests who like their desserts a little simpler there is ice cream and sorbet, though with some unusual flavors like sweet corn, caramel sea salt, brown sugar and banana.
The things diners won’t find on the River House menu are seafood staples like clams, calamari and crab cakes. “I focused on things I could do well and sort of elevate,” Varanese said. “I’m taking full advantage of Louisville being a UPS hub to get fresh fish from Hawaii and Florida. I made some seafood connections through the years that I will be leaning on for specials But I didn’t want to put a dish on the menu just because it was something that people would expect to see at a seafood restaurant.”
Thus far, the River House has exceeded Varanese’s expectations in terms of revenue and guest attendance. But running two restaurants and supervising the opening of another one leaves him little time to do much else. When Varanese married his wife, Jeanne, a local nurse, in 2013, she knew what she was getting into.
“My wife understands that I’ve been trying to make this work for 15 years,” Varanese said. “I never gave up on this location, and I definitely appreciate it more now that it finally is mine. But I am looking forward to the time I can get a little rest and relaxation with my family.” F&D