40 Years in Beer, Part Eleven: The Fat Cats Deli & Pub was short-lived but inspirational

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Previously: 40 Years in Beer, Part Ten: When friends actually did let friends drive drunk.

My consciousness was forever altered by Europe. The obsessions engendered during the summer of 1985 have defined me ever since, and while at first beer was only one piece of a complicated jigsaw puzzle, it slowly rose to prominence amid my ruminations.

I began asking myself all sorts of questions: Which beers did I like the most, and why? Where might I find them in America? What sort of venue was best for enjoying these beers?

I’d been hanging out in bars since my late teens (don’t ask), but hadn’t ever considered to any great extent what I liked and didn’t like about area watering holes, beyond their willingness to serve beer and food to me, and to tolerate antics that I now find uniformly regrettable.

College-era favorite Mario’s Pizza, where I’d never consumed a single legal beer, had long since ceased operations by 1986. I loved the K&H Café in Lanesville and Sam’s Tavern in New Albany, where we also often found refuge in the bar at Tumbleweed Tex-Mex restaurant, which had yet to go zombie corporate.

Gradually my pre-conceived paradigms about beers and bars changed. Personal preferences had to be balanced against prevailing tastes, and a contrarian stance emerged, colored by an evolving sense of European style.

Consequently certain blueprints for the optimum “third space” began drawing themselves in my noggin. The ideal pub, tavern, café or Gaststätte needed to have beers I wanted to drink. It would be independently owned, real and cozily imperfect, not plasticized and cookie-cutter.

There would be solid food on offer, perhaps a step above dive bars, and yet not necessarily “gastropub” fare. Opportunities for conversation and introspection were crucial, although I hadn’t arrived at the point of eliminating television sets, sports ball and similar distractions from the premises.

And, at last conceivable after my European sojourn, I began thinking about accessibility to bars without the need for a car. I couldn’t have foreseen that subsequent career choices (and housing options) would be prefigured with walking and biking in mind, but those seeds had been planted.

In preparation for our housesitting gig at Frank’s house in Louisville during the summer of 1986, Bob and I purchased seven cases of European, Mexican and Canadian imports from Scoreboard Liquors. I believe they were procured at wholesale cost, which helped the bottom line, since all 168 beers were emptied by the second weekend.

(I blame visiting friends for running us dry. It simply couldn’t have been the two of us.)

Ensuing drought conditions at the house only hastened the epiphany awaiting us within easy walking distance (!) at The Fat Cats Deli & Pub (1801 Bardstown Road), now home to The Bard’s Town.

In its mid-1980s heyday, The Fat Cats was renowned as the place to go in Louisville for better beer. The draft list at Fat Cats was compact, featuring Guinness Draft Stout, Watney’s Red Barrel and Dortmunder Union (DUB) Dark. The bottle list was far larger, probably somewhere around 75-100 choices, including a sizeable number of mass market lagers.

There was a printed card listing the beers, and if you bought one of each, as checked and initialed by bar staff—no one said anything about actually drinking it, although you could buy a higher priced beer and get credit for avoiding atrocities like Busch Light—your name was painted on the wall, literally the “Wall of Foam.”

I’d never seen anything like Fat Cats, which embodied so many of the aforementioned theoretical constructs. Unfortunately it was a short-lived phenomenon, lasting from early 1985 until late 1989.

Here’s a capsule assessment from the Louisville Courier-Journal (25 April 1987).

Fat Cats Deli & Pub, 1801 Bardstown Road. Known for good live jazz and 100 brands of beer. Young, very casual blue-jeans crowd at this neighborhood club. Game room, good deli food. Cover from $1 to $2. Well drinks $2.75.

Most CJ records of the period focused on the music, as in a column by Michael Quinlan (8 November 1985; the bluesman Hardy died in 2000 at the age of 56).

The Fat Cats Deli and Pub is Winston Hardy’s kind of bar.

“I’d just as soon play in a place like this as the swankiest place in town,” the leader of the Winston Hardy Original Blues Band said as he looked around the tavern.

The pub, at 1801 Bardstown Road, is certainly not pretentious. The only thing exotic about the place is that it offers more than 70 brands of imported beer.  If you sample every one of those brands (not to be attempted in one sitting), your name will be painted on the tavern wall.

“It’s really just a big neighborhood bar, and I like neighborhood bars,” Hardy said. “Everybody can just be themselves and have a good time.”

That’s what everybody seemed to be doing last Friday night. One young woman sat at a table eating White Castle hamburgers, while her companion pounded the tabletop to the insistent rhythm of Elmore James’ “Dust My Broom.”

Apart from the beer list, The Fat Cats was ahead of the curve in promoting a form of bar entertainment that has become ubiquitous. On June 5, 1985 the CJ’s Kitty Dumas reported.

Seated around a big corner table at The Fat Cats Deli & Pub, they rolled the dice. Late arrivals awaited the next game, while the players took their best shots in the not-so-trivial game of Trivial Pursuit. While some bars use bands, disc jockeys and happy hours to attract customers, The Fat Cats at 1801 Bardstown Road lures them with trivia.

Writing in February 1985, the CJ’s restaurant critic Jack Roby liked the vegetable soup, bagel with lox and hot pastrami sandwich, and was particularly impressed with the chicken salad. He wasn’t as keen on the bean soup, roast beef and “bought desserts,” but overall the review was positive.

Inside, it’s off with the ties, roll up your sleeves, and on with the good times. The main room has several long tables where you’ll quickly meet other people, and some smaller tables for more private conversation.

For those who recall “The Best” columns in the CJ’s Saturday Scene supplement, here’s an excerpt from “Cool your jets with the best drink for summer, a Black ‘n’ Tan,” by journalist Grace Schneider on May 2, 1987. Years later I got to know Grace and her husband when they became regulars at Rich O’s Public House.

At the Fat Cats, ask for a Black ‘n’ Tan, and you’ll get Watney’s and Guinness. Some prefer to lighten the mixture, combining Guinness or another dark ale with a basic American Stroh’s or Old Style, or a Canadian LaBatts or Molson.

Sadly the CJ also documented two bankruptcy declarations for Elfin Enterprises (dba The Fat Cats), as well as a benefit for the bar organized by musicians and customers.

Saturday 7 May 1988
The benefit at the Water Tower for Fat Cats Deli and Pub at the end of April raised $3,000. The club at 1801 Bardstown Road reopened last week and will continue to have live entertainment.

Saturday 28 May 1988
(A benefit in April) hasn’t put an end to (the bar’s) problems. Last week Fat Cats filed for reorganization under Chapter 11 of the Federal Bankruptcy Act in an attempt to straighten out its finances.

The tale doesn’t end well, but while The Fat Cats lasted, it was really something.

Later in 1986, Bob got his name on the Wall of Foam. I never did. A few friends and acquaintances answered my call for memories. Photos have proven elusive, so here are a few written reminisces.

Lew: Oh man…I LOVED that place. I’d beg my friends to make the run up from Radcliffe on Friday nights. Got my name on the wall before I left, too. I think the beer I remember most fondly was Hacker-Pschorr Maibock. What a joint.

Kristin: They were extremely understanding and flexible when it came to altered drivers licenses. Um. So I have heard. Back in the day when a little whiteout and a number two pencil could give a girl a lot of freedom in the big city.

Kira: We were there back in the day. People would buy you a 50 cent bottle of Rolling Rock to help get on the Wall of Foam. And #111 on the jukebox was the Dead Kennedys’ “Too Drunk to F***.

Ed: Soon after Kira and I got our own place in April of 1984 a friend told us about The Fat Cats Deli and Pub. For the next 18 months or so we were there 2 or 3 times a week. We would take over a table in the back room (with the jukebox) drink beer and talk with friends. (There) was a picture of The Weavers complete with autographs of 3 or 4 of the members. I managed to drink my way through the beer list and get my name (on) the Wall of Foam. We quit going after Louisville started the TAP* program and would mark the tires of out of state license plates. The first time mine was marked I started drinking in Indiana (and) this led us to start drinking at Sam’s Tavern.

Jay: A buddy and I followed Reid Jahn around town a bit and ended up there. My life changed. That dark Dortmunder … and EKU 28.

Leslie: I seem to remember a special Saturday or two there with a few rounds of pool and bottles of Killian’s back when it was an ale.

Paul I: I believe one of the founders/managers was a fellow with whom I went to high school, one Eric Feldman. After they left Louisville they reopened in Lexington.

Edward: Most memorable was watching the televised broadcast of the Wizard of Oz on a big screen TV.

Bob: They would save Grolsch bottles for us. We used the bottles for homebrew.

Michael: I bartended there. On busy nights we had three bartenders and barely enough time to look a customer in the face for several hours it was so fast and furious. One of the bartenders was an ex-Marine and he would order us to shoot Kamikazees at the end of the rush… OK… Yes, sir! Dortmunder, for some odd reason the distributor stopped picking up the kegs at the end and I took one and cut the top out of it to use it as a “double batch” mash tun. Lots of beer soaked fun. Our buddy lived upstairs. I heard the only Dead song I can stomach there. Also got to see Jimmy Rainey (RIP) play several times. I had just completed my beer card when the joint got shut down. Sad. And yes! Hacker-Pschorr Maibock!

Stu: I went there a couple of times in 1983 during Derby week and bought two long sleeve T shirts. I can’t remember which beers I had but they had a great beer list for its time. A few years later, I went back and it was called Judge Roy Bean’s, which wasn’t nearly as good as Fat Cat’s.

Dawn: I had to drink a lot of yucky beers and some really good ones, but I had my name on the wall too!

Larry: That was our law school pre-game spot!

Paul II: That was the first place to introduce me to good beers. My best bud got on the “Wall of Foam” twice. I kept forgetting to bring my card!

Next: The travel year 1987.

* TAP was the city of Louisville’s Traffic Alcohol Program, a mid-1980s effort to reduce drunk driving. For a brief overview, go here; a far deeper dive is here.

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