Lost chapter: Kienle’s

“Even though we’re a small place in a shopping center, I like to have a nice atmosphere,” Marlen Kienle told the Louisville Times’ Ira Simmons in 1978. The proprietor of the small Shelbyville Road Plaza restaurant was responding to the reporter’s questioning of Kienle’s Restaurant’s strict rules.

Photo: Flickr (fdecomite)
Photo: Flickr (fdecomite)

As the 1980s approached, the reporter saw the trend was towards informality, a world where “your waiter wants to be on a first-name basis (‘Hi, my name’s Don…’).” Yet, starting in 1970, Marlen Kienle and her husband, Adi, had earned a national reputation while enforcing a series of very strict rules. These included no written menus, no blue jeans, no children under 12 and no salt and pepper shakers at the table. Kienle insisted she wasn’t “trying to dominate anyone.” The rules were for the customers’ “own good.” Children under 12? “They might make too much noise and disturb other guests.” Salt and pepper? “They would ruin their dishes when they were already perfectly seasoned!” Blue jeans? “I have certain convictions, and I stick to them,” Kienle said. “Blue jeans have their place, but not here.” Even in 1992, as her restaurant was about to close, Mrs. Kienle remained adamant that denim would never darken her door. “It doesn’t matter to me if …[the jeans are] Calvin Klein or Sears Roebuck special,” she told the Courier-Journal’s Martha Elson: “I’ve spent a lot of time cooking a nice dinner, and I think I deserve more than jeans and a t-shirt. I’ve always been brought up that when you go to the dinner table you dress decently.”

Blue jeans

Fortunately for diners (at least those appropriately dressed and unaccompanied by children under 12), Mrs. Kienle was quite good at “cooking a nice dinner.”  Her “perfectionist tendencies” extended into the kitchen, where she forbade “the chemicals, preservatives and dyes found in so much American food,” insisting on “getting the purest ingredients possible.” The Times reported that Kienle was so “picky about the hired help,” (“tall” and “slim, neat and courteous …  [with] a good personality”) that an employment agency asked: “Are you looking for a waiter or a husband?”

A 1983 restaurant guide touted Kienle’s “many national and international awards” for its sauerbraten, wiener schnitzel, beef rouladen, Cordon Bleu and breast of veal, which were “described orally so that patrons [could] enjoy a full understanding of the delicious specialties.”  A four-star review from the Scene in 1986 called Kienle’s “one of the best places to dine in Louisville,” raving about the restaurant’s “perfect vegetables and tender homemade spaetzle noodles,” its six-day wine-marinated sauerbraten and “toothsome” rouladen. Desserts, including Black Forest cherry torte and plum kuchen, were described as “large and wonderful.”

The Scene’s Gideon Gil in 1989 described the restaurant as “eccentric and resolutely old-fashioned,” noting that and the menu didn’t “cater to the low-cholesterol desires of … [the] health-conscious consumer” and that “a single rose” was given to each woman at the end of the meal”

Photo: Flickr (Sharon Mollerus)
Photo: Flickr (Sharon Mollerus)

Kienle’s continued to be recognized both in Louisville and elsewhere into the 1990s, with Birnbaum’s Travel Guide calling the food in 1992 “wonderful — and heavy” and a restaurant industry award dubbing it “in the top 50 German restaurants in the United States.” But that year the Courier-Journal’s Martha Elson reported that the landlords of Shelbyville Road Plaza had been making their own rules, and Mrs. Kienle was not pleased. She said the terms of her new lease “required her to stay open seven days a week and take down the curtains from her windows,” which caused her “German chocolates … [to melt] from the heat.” As the property owners enforced more regulations, including removal of the restaurant’s awning, Mrs. Kienle decided to retire. She told Elson that leaving would be “an emotional thing,” but she was looking forward to being free to travel “and have a cultural life again.” 

The flowered wallpaper, rose-decked tables and fine-dining rules were set aside. And while Mrs. Kienle held out hopes that someone would buy her restaurant and continue its traditions, no one did. Perhaps it was for the best, as Mrs. Kienle thought the worst thing would be for her establishment to “become a beer garden with oom-pah-pah music,” adding: “That’s not my style. It never has been.”

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