Over the last few decades, Louisville’s Germantown neighborhood has evolved from a quiet blue collar district to what it is today: a rapidly growing hub for hip new restaurants and interesting shops. While I’m certainly no economist, it seems that this trend has made Germantown one of our city’s most desired neighborhoods. James Gunnoe is a proven Germantown veteran who serves as the guiding force behind two of the area’s most popular joints: Nachbar, a decade-old iconic watering hole with fantastic rotating taps and a killer juke box, and Eiderdown, a sit down restaurant with a reputation for making fantastic German food. Both establishments have proven themselves as legitimate neighborhood staples as they continue to prosper year after year despite the area’s growing competition. While Nachbar has more or less remained the same as one of the city’s finest drinkerys, Eiderdown recently reopened after briefly closing their doors to make a few changes, including a complete menu renovation.
What made James decide to reinvent Eiderdown? Why specialize in German food? What’s on the horizon for his pair of establishments? To find out, we reached out to James for an interview to which he kindly participated in…
Never Nervous: Where does your inspiration for German/American fare come from?
James Gunnoe: When we opened, we had quite a few German items on the menu. Our goal was to re-interpret some German elements into dishes that were our own. We did a pretty good job of that for a while, but gradually wound up with a Frenchier menu. The food was really good, but the processes and ingredients were expensive and labor-intensive.
When the Goss Avenue Craft House closed in December, Facebook was inundated with what people thought they should re-open as. One thing that kept resonating with us was the lack of German food in Germantown. This reinforced that, if we wanted to be a relevant restaurant to people in the neighborhood, we needed to get back to the original vision we had for Eiderdown.
NN: Where did the decision to overhaul Eiderdown’s menu originate? Has your target demographic changed?
JG: In 2014 and 2015, we went through the process of getting the property rezoned to offer liquor drinks and outdoor seating. Part of getting C2 was getting rid of the giant warehouse behind the building and turning that into a parking lot. We also went to great lengths to landscape and make the aesthetic of the place as nice as a shoestring budget would allow. In the first half of 2016, we were reviewed (favorably) by both the LEO and Courier-Journal. Despite all this, we weren’t really seeing an increase in business. Pretty much, we were treading water.
We considered selling the building and hanging it up. Then Craft House said they were closing. We felt it would be a huge hit to Germatown and it’s potential if two places closed within days of each other. So we thought real quick, and listened to what folks were saying on Facebook, and decided to revert more toward our original idea for the place instead of walking away from it.
“I wouldn’t say our target demographic has changed, but we changed to the point of not really appealing to what our demographic should have always been.”
I wouldn’t say our target demographic has changed, but we changed to the point of not really appealing to what our demographic should have always been. It’s was like “it’s not you, it’s me.” Looking at our first few menus and the more recent ones, the shift was a very gradual, so it never really felt like too much was changing. But a lot changed. Our prices got out of hand and alienated people who just wanted to hang out and have an affordable, comfortable meal.
With the Eiderdown redux, we’re trying to reach more neighborhood folks. We know there are some who still will never step through the door, because of price or perception or whatever else, but we’re trying to offer people homemade food that we feel has a strong connection to the neighborhood and its history.
NN: How did you decide on which menu items to keep, and which ones to omit?
JG: Over the course of 24 (+/-) menus since 2010, the Sunday Sitdown, Gnadinger Pork, Nachburger, Althaus Salad, Beer Cheese and Duck Fat Popcorn have always made the cut. Most everything else was way more seasonal, so it didn’t make too much sense to keep something with asparagus on the menu when asparagus wasn’t going to be plentiful, or very good.
NN: What new menu item should we be most excited about?
JG: The Chicken Schnitzel. It’s chicken breast that we beat the crap out of, then bread it with some salt and fresh thyme. It’s pan-seared, flipped and thrown into the oven. Real simple and delicious! We’re also doing Cheesy Spätzle, it has bacon, peas and a fried egg, pretty much it’s carbonara, but the crispiness of the noodles gives you a good texture and a solid base for the cheese to cling to. We’ve done a simplified version of this for kids forever and I’ve always thought it was one of the most satisfying things that came out of the kitchen. That it was only available for kids is the kind of thing that if I had a Twitter account, I would get up at 5 in the morning to tweet about. Sad!
NN: Will there be any notable changes to Eiderdown’s beer list?
JG: Way more German options. Spaten Märzen, Franziskaner Hefeweizen, etc. Everything is available in at least two sizes, and most are available in three sizes, including liters. If you like beer, there’s not much more comforting than drinking a bunch of beer out of liter mugs! We’ll still have some local options, an IPA or two and Miller Lite on tap.
NN: What else is new? Will the decor remain the same?
JG: We repaired the floor in the front of the building and put new tile down. We also freshened up some paint in the dining room, brightened up the side room and refinished the bar and tabletops. The old cooler at the end of the bar that never really worked is gone and has been replaced with seating. There’s a new sign on the side of the building, which will hopefully let people know that we’ve changed gears.
NN: Out of curiousity, where does the name “Eiderdown” come from?
JG: An eider is a duck that flies from North America to Iceland. Once they land and get situated, people come snatch the feathers from their nests and make comforters from them. They’re supposedly the warmest, most resilient comforters somebody with enough money to buy one could buy.
Before we had a name, we had a tagline: “European-Inspired Southern Comfort Food.” I was driving to Deam Lake one afternoon with my iPod on shuffle and Pink Floyd’s “A Pillow Of Winds” came on. It’s a pretty little song with a gentle, wispy feel, but also with an underlying turbulence — a dichotomy of sound that has always grabbed my attention. Anyhow, my mind started wandering and I got hung up on the word Eiderdown and how it could work perfectly to convey all that we were trying to: Comfort food. The connection between North America and Europe. The word “Down” which suggests the South AND the direction you would head to get there from the Nachbar’s front door.
I called Heather and asked her to write the word down and think about it for the next few hours. After a little rumination, she wound up liking it enough to call it settled.
NN: Since opening Nachbar and Eiderdown, how has Germantown changed, for better or worse?
JG: That depends on who you are. I think people just moving to the neighborhood are probably thrilled that there are so many new places to spend their time and money without having to get into their cars. It’s also reasonable to believe that because there are people working and hanging out at all these bars and restaurants that residents could feel a little safer — and criminals more apprehensive — than they might have in the past. Houses in Germantown sell as quickly as they go up for sale. Property values are definitely rising. The Yesternook building, which was bought in 2010, just sold for more than $500,000 over what they paid for it. That seems like a turn for the better to me.
“The Yesternook building, which was bought in 2010, just sold for more than $500,000 over what they paid for it. That seems like a turn for the better to me.”
But then again, I know the human mind is a really hard thing to change. I can imagine that there’s a certain territoriality that might drive somebody crazy knowing that somebody from somewhere else came in and is capitalizing on what they know as their own. We dealt with that when we turned Charlie’s Tavern into the Nachbar. To some, we were a “Highlands bar” in Germantown. In reality, we were a couple of people who were unable to afford to have anything in the Highlands, even though that would have probably been a more comfortable setting for Heather (who worked at Baxter Station for six years) and me (at Ramsi’s for nine years). G-town was also closer to our home — between Schnitzelburg and Audubon Park — than anything else we could have tried to find in the Highlands. Once we got open though and people saw that we were just trying to make an honest living, they kinda left us alone. Also, when something new opens, that place gets the Scarlet Letter, or whatever, for a while, which also probably gives both Eiderdown and the Nachbar neighborhood cred. Who knows if that’s true or not…
NN: What’s new with Nachbar? Do you have anything up your sleeve for the future?
JG: The newest thing is that we’re getting older. On March 12, the Nachbar will celebrate it’s 10th birthday! Planning for it got pushed back a little with the Eiderdown stuff, but we’re real fortunate that we’ve been able to keep our notion of the perfect bar going for as long as we have.
On March 10, we’re having an anniversary party for ourselves at Art Sanctuary. Lucky Pineapple is reuniting for it!! There’s also a new punk band, Tuar, some good friends of ours’ have started that will debut that night. And Spleen, a Ween cover band, will make everyone feel weird. Most of our shows are free, but we’re going to charge for this one and the proceeds will go to Art Sanctuary. It’s a real cool space and the vision they have for the building will soon be a point of pride for the neighborhood.
Then on Sunday March 12, Squeeze*Bot will play. They’ve been with us pretty much from the start; real talented and super-nice people. It wouldn’t feel right celebrating something with a zero in it without Squeeze*Bot!!
Also, last year we hired our first female bartender, so we may not pull anything else out of our sleeve for another nine years.
NN: Do you ever get tired of Nachbar’s juke box?
JG: No, but we can all tell you within one note when Sabotage, Psycho Killer and Gin & Juice is about to come on.
“We can all tell you within one note when Sabotage, Psycho Killer and Gin & Juice is about to come on.”
I’ve had distinct intentions to change the jukebox a few different times, but I kinda like the fact that it’s a time capsule from the first few years we were open. There are definitely albums that have been made since then that deserve to be on there (D’Angelo’s Black Messiah album comes immediately to mind), but then something else would have to go. I don’t want to get rid of Ill Communication just because we have to listen to Sabotage three or four times on a busy night. But really, we’re there to do a job; everyone else is there to forget about their jobs. If somebody needs to play Gin & Juice to help get them into a specific state of mind, which ultimately makes our job easier, then I think hearing it several times a night is a pretty small price for us to pay. I would also like to add: if you don’t like Maggot Brain, you might be a dick.
NN: What would you say constitutes a “good patron”?
NN: Before you go, tell us What would you consider to be your favorite “thing” about Louisville?
JG: The basketball court at the downtown Y.
NN: On the flip side, what would you consider to be your LEAST favorite “thing” about Louisville?
JG: That the downtown Y never resurfaces the floor of their basketball court.
EDITOR’S NOTE: For more information on the Nachbar 10th Anniversary Party, be sure to check out the Facebook event page here. Oh, and if you weren’t aware, this party/show is FREE. Hell yeah.