Wednesday, April 16, 2014

louisville love: hilltop tavern

Today we're very excited to kick off our new feature, Louisville Love, with a profile on one our favorite restaurants, Hilltop Tavern. Housed in a building whose previous tenants took the idea of a themed restaurant a little too far, Hilltop likes to keep things simple. No-frills decor, fun touches like board games and ping pong, and good old-fashioned pub grub. Really, really good pub grub. Owned by brothers John and Mike Skelton, Hilltop has been doing brisk business since New Year's Eve of 2011. The two brothers are seasoned in Louisville's restaurant scene, boasting nearly 30 years of combined experience. They wanted Hilltop to be a comfortable, relaxed environment for people to hang out and enjoy themselves without breaking the bank. As John puts it, "If Hilltop had a motto, it would be 'come as you are.'"

Pub classics like burgers and barbecue get a gourmet twist thanks to John's time in some of Louisville's most prestigious kitchens. Wings smoked in house, amazing original sauces and unique dishes like mac and cheese fritters make Hilltop stand out. We sat down with John to enjoy some drinks and talk about starting and running a successful restaurant in Louisville.

What inspired you to start your own restaurant?

It was always something that my brother and I had wanted to do. We had talked about it for a long time but it was always on the back burner. Then the opportunity arose and this building opened up and we decided to just go for it.

What restaurants did you work at before Hilltop?

I've been at Seviche, Porcini, North End Café, Z's Oyster Bar... a lot of places. I always worked in the front of house until Seviche came along. There I started working in the kitchen to keep the challenge going because front of house was getting a little stale.

Hilltop is so different from other restaurants where you've worked. Tell us about developing the concept for Hilltop.

When we first started off we'd do family dinners with barbecue every week so it was kind of inspired by that. A lot more barbecue places have opened up since we started talking about it. But back when the restaurant was just an idea there weren't really a whole lot so it was a really good concept. Our goal was to have the nicest dive bar in town. We wanted to be bright and clean and fun but also be a place where you didn't have to break the bank to go. We really wanted more of a neighborhood sort of vibe, a place where people could go and just be themselves and relax.

Beer Cheese Pretzel Burger

Did you all run into any roadblocks or challenges along the way?

Oh yeah, the place that was here before... it was a hot mess. We pretty much had to start from scratch. Clean every square inch and redo everything. We built a lot of the elements of the restaurant. It was pretty much an empty shell and the space hadn't really been used correctly. As we worked we just found more and more problems along the way. But it helped, starting from scratch. Gave us a feel for the building. It was a little overwhelming at first but you just have to put your head down and keep working and eventually you get there.

So what's it like working with your brother? You're business partners and you're also siblings. Does that ever get in the way?

It helps to be honest with each other, especially since we split the responsibilities. He does front of house, I do back of house. We are definitely co-owners. We give each other suggestions and feed off of each other and it's a good way to run the place. We really don't fight a lot, we got that out of the way early on in life. It's good, you know, because it's family. We'll always have each other's backs. We switch between being brothers and being business owners but it's a nice balance. It's about the only way I'd want to do it. There are bigger things at stake so we don't let the small stuff get in the way of our work.

What does the future hold for Hilltop?

We want to keep adapting. Now we do more craft beers- we've changed a little bit. We used to be more music oriented but that got shut down against our will. We've definitely become more of a neighborhood sports bar. But I really like that different people can come here and do different things and get their own kick out of it. We want to be available to everybody and let people be who they want to be when they come here. We just want everybody to be comfortable. For the future, we're not done creating new dishes and stuff, we're always working on something. We keep it low key but we're always trying new things, keeping it interesting.

West Sixth Mac 'n' Cheese Fritters

What are your favorite things on the menu?

The pulled pork will always be dear to me, since that's what we used to do before we opened and that's what got us wanting to open a place. I love the burgers that are made from scratch with my own seasoning. I also really love the tacos. They're simple but really good with the mango habañero sauce. And of course, the sauces. Those are all made in-house so they have my own flair.

Is anything you do at Hilltop inspired by what you learned in the kitchen at Seviche?

Definitely, that's really where I learned everything. One of the great things about working in such a flawless and professional kitchen is that you're bound to pick up some things along the way. They taught me so much- everything from making sure my knife technique was good to just really caring about the quality of the food. There's definitely a little bit of what I picked up in Seviche in everything I do here. Our concept is definitely simpler though, more pub grub, and we definitely put our stamp on it. It's very us. Another thing we wanted for Hilltop was for it to be for the people who work in restaurants. That's really who we wanted our customer base to be. We wanted them to get off work and have a place to grab a bite and leave all that behind, which is why we keep the kitchen open as late as we do. I'm glad that we have such an involved dining scene here in town, but I'll let everybody else do the fancy stuff, I'm ok with that.

Were you and Mike surprised by Hilltop's success?

Well, we're glad everybody likes it, that's for sure. And that's what we wanted to strive for. We want people to be as comfortable as they can here. And it was actually like a snowball, turning into an avalanche--the response has been great. We love it that people love coming here, and we try to do our best to keep up; you know, we are limited in space--I have a very small kitchen, but I think we do a pretty good job with it and we're just always striving for that. We're very happy that people like us! You never know at first, but it works out. And we really want to give back as much as we can, with the local artists that we feature and everything that we do here, so we're incredibly thankful that people like it so much. When we were growing up, we always had people at the house--we were the house that everyone went to, so we kind of had that same idea to make Hilltop the place where everyone went to have a good time.

Which you all have pulled off really well.

(Laughs) Yeah, it's not bad.

Jumbo Smoked Whole Wings

What are some of your other favorite local businesses?

Definitely Seviche. It will always be near and dear to my heart, and I think it's the best restaurant in town. I also really enjoy going out to eat on Sundays, and typically it's Vietnam Kitchen, Dakshin, Kashmir, oh, and can't forget a shout out to the Hammerheads crew, because we all worked together at Seviche, and it just shows you that there's excellence coming out of there. Stevens & Stevens and Karem's, those are my two delis. I definitely choose to shop at ValuMarket; I like to keep it local, I'm not a chain guy. Some other favorites are Nachbar, Monkey Wrench, and Ramsi's.

What are your favorite things about living and working in Louisville?

The 4 a.m. liquor license is nice. (Laughs)
I like the people a lot. I imagine it could be tough coming into Louisville, trying to immigrate, because everybody really knows everybody... But I like that aspect of it. I think Louisvillians are great people. You know, we'll tell you how it is sometimes; we're clever and hilarious, we have our own style. I love this city. I wish there wasn't so much winter, but you gotta take what you can get.

Visit Hilltop Tavern at 1800 Frankfort Avenue. Their hours are 5 pm to 4 am Tuesday through Sunday, and the kitchen is open until 12 am during the week and 3 am on Friday and Saturday nights. Check out Hilltop's website or see the daily specials on Facebook.

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