Since 2008, The Empire Lounge & Restaurant at 816 Main Street in Historic Old Town Louisville has been a community staple. But now it's preparing to serve its last meal; the restaurant will shutter after service on Saturday, February 25.
When chef Jim Cohen opened the eatery fifteen years ago, he was already considered one of the top chefs in the state, with a résumé that included Wildflower in Vail and Tante Louise in Denver, which is where he met Julia Child, who invited him to be her first guest on Dining With Julia in 1983.
In 2015, Cohen suffered a stroke, and his daughter, Lexi Scott, stepped in to take over operations as he recovered. Four years later, another well-known name in the culinary scene came on board. Jeff Osaka has owned several eateries, including Sushi Rama and Osaka Ramen. "He's a great restaurateur and a talented chef, so we feel good about putting the restaurant in his hands," Scott told Westword in 2019.
"I love that little town," Osaka says of Louisville. "You just feel safe walking down the street. ... It's like a warm sweater or a cozy blanket." But when he stepped in as a "caretaker" for the Empire, as he describes his role, he encountered a series of challenges.
After Osaka became a partner in the spring of 2019, the restaurant closed for a couple of months for renovations, which included updating kitchen equipment, a fresh coat of paint and fixing the neon sign out front. It reopened that July and was on track for a successful year when the pandemic hit in March 2020.
"Sales came to a halt," Osaka recalls. The Empire remained shuttered until restaurants were able to reopen for indoor dining, but capacity and table-spacing restrictions at the time cut the number of seats from 185 to just 75. Then, on December 30, 2021, the Marshall Fire forced another closure when the restaurant's water had to be shut off while it was tested for contamination.
As the community suffered through that disaster, the Empire stepped in to help, operating as a soup kitchen for victims and donating provisions to local food banks, but the incident was another hit to the bottom line.
Last year, as Osaka focused on the construction of his fifth Sushi Rama location in Broomfield, he slowly began transitioning out of the Empire, handing it over to a chef. That new partner "walked into a challenging situation," Osaka admits, particularly when it came to staffing.
"A lot of people in the community are wondering, it's lasted this long, why shut it down now?" Osaka notes. "It's not just one thing, it's a number of things. COVID, the fire, staffing issues — just one thing after another. And it takes a lot of people to operate; it's one of the largest restaurants in Louisville."
Now, someone else will have the opportunity to create another Louisville staple in the space. The 5,000-square-foot building, which was deemed historic in 2022, is currently available for lease, or possibly for purchase, if the right offer comes in. For more information about the property, contact [email protected].
In the meantime, the Empire staff is looking forward to saying farewell to old friends during its last days of operation. The restaurant will be open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Thursday, February 23, and Friday, February 24, and 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Saturday, February 25, before closing its doors for good.