When Louisville, Ky., business partners David Gilbert and Tommy Humphries decided to open up their own upscale cocktail lounge in the gentrifying neighborhood of Louisville’s Germantown, they turned to a cultural aesthetic they appreciated the most — the simple, sparse, modern feel of a classic Tokyo bar.
Mr. Lee’s opened in November of 2016 in a refurbished office building from the ’30s, and it has attracted a steady clientele of hipsters, hippies, businessmen and everything in between. It was a gamble to go against the grain of working-class neighborhood pubs that populate the area, but with new and younger blood flocking to the neighborhood — and bourbon’s continued rise in popularity — it was time someone stepped up and tried something new.
Gilbert says business is better than he and Humphries expected, and he credits a lot of that to head bartender Casey Kraft, who has fashioned a fine cocktail menu of classics and twists. The House Smoked Old Fashioned is a highlight, with just enough hint of smoke that plays off the sweet undertones of Buffalo Trace Bourbon. Other menu items include the Moscow Mule, Mai Tai, Sloe Gin Fizz, Corpse Reviver and a Brandy Crusta, among others.
The sparse room is dark — very dark — and there is seating at the bar and throughout the medium-sized room at hidden-away tables meant for private conversation. Servers peruse the space sporadically, but if you need something, you can pull on a handle near your table and it will alert your server that you’re ready for another round.
Gilbert and Humphries took their time perfecting every detail of the room, spending about a year renovating and rebuilding the space to their exact specifications.
“I think for me, the most influential element of the Tokyo scene is the fact that everything is approached from an old school sensibility, combined with an aesthete’s eye for detail and design, and super fresh cocktail ingredients,” says Gilbert. “Aligned with that sensibility, we didn’t want to create a ‘speakeasy’ as such, but instead, a place that seemed like it was always there and timeless — without trying to buy into the secret passwords, totally hidden entries or any sort of ‘dive’ element.”
Mr. Lee’s has found its place among Louisville’s diverse cocktail scene, perhaps by focusing more on crafting delicious and affordable cocktails than gimmicks or opulent décor. For Gilbert and Humphries, it’s been quite a learning experience they admit, but they are proud of what their bar stands for and who chooses to come through the nondescript door.
“The most gratifying result for me is the varied demographic of our patrons,” Gilbert says. “Oftentimes Louisville can feel quite segregated by age. But Mr. Lee’s will customarily have a couple in their late 70s from Indian Hills sitting at the bar next to a couple of fashionable kids in their 20s who might live in the lofts across the street, while a table of 40-something lawyers are relaxed on the banquette across from a couple in their 30s who walked over from the house they just purchased In the neighborhood.”
Mr. Lee’s is open from 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Wednesday through Sunday. It’s located at 935 Goss Ave.
Sara Havens is a Louisville, Ky-based freelance writer and editor who pens the popular nightlife column “The Bar Belle.” She runs the barbelleblog.com in which she posts humorous daily reasons to drink. She's won numerous awards for her column and critiques, but her favorite kind of praise comes in the form of occasional free drinks from readers at her favorite local bar, The Back Door. Keep up with the Bar Belle on Twitter @TheBarBelle.