It’s hard to imagine in a city that now boasts both Blue Dog and Wiltshire Pantry, but in the early 1980s the closest thing Louisville had to a French bakery product was the croissan’wich. In 1984, the Whitaker family set out to change that—and Louisville got its first taste of true French baking.
Howard Miller reported in the Louisville Times in January 1984 that “a bit of France will come to Bardstown Road in March when The Parisian Pantry opens in the Carmichael Bookstore building at 1582 Bardstown Road.” The idea was born after Julia Whitaker quit her job as a corporate lawyer and suggested to her sons they open a restaurant or bakery. Son Michael, who was on a college exchange program in Montpellier, France, was quite enthusiastic about the idea. He told the Courier-Journal that, after a few months of searching, he found a French couple interested a partnership. Julia Whitaker traveled to France to meet them, returning with the funds the family needed to open both a bakery and restaurant.
The Whitakers signed a lease on the historic building on the corner of Bardstown and Bonnycastle. According to Dining in Historic Kentucky, the building was constructed in the 1880s as a three-story brick structure with two commercial floors and family living space on a third. The 1974 tornado took off the third floor, leaving the two-story structure still standing on Bardstown Road today. Once Carmichael’s had moved out, the Whitakers began tearing walls down, buying equipment and hiring a baker. Then, the French couple pulled out, asking for their initial $25,000 investment back. However, the money had already been spent. So the Whitakers, while fending off angry French folk, quickly found new investors and managed to open the Parisian Pantry in June 1984. Whitaker told the Courier-Journal they were ”thinly capitalized, with $70,000 in debt,” adding: “Really, it’s just miraculous we’re still here.”
But to Louisville, the miraculous things were Parisian Pantry’s baked goods. People raved about the French bread (“feather-light inside a properly chewy crust” according to Robin Garr) and “delectable” desserts such as chocolate-filled croissants and fruit tarts. Parisian Pantry made enough money to pay the bills and the debts. By 1987, the Whitakers were negotiating with the downtown Galleria for a permanent retail outlet in the enclosed mall, having had success selling baked goods and coffee at a kiosk during the holiday season.
While the breads and desserts were popular, critics were less kind about the Pantry’s other offerings. The Scene’s Marilyn McCraven in 1986 said the entrees didn’t “quite measure up to the bakery items,” finding her chicken breast in a Dijon mustard sauce “palatable but bland.” Garr concurred in the Scene a few years later, reporting at the end of 1989 that “dinner too often seems to have been prepared by someone who is cooking because he has to, not because he wants to.” Or perhaps the dinner chef was distracted—because supposedly, the Parisian Pantry building had a ghost.
According to Robin Garr, the building “was widely believed to be cursed by an angry ghost who remained inconsolable over the removal of an upstairs wall.” An Internet poster on StrangeUSA.com claimed that, as a Parisian Pantry bus person in 1985, he learned that other employees had “seen and heard very weird things upstairs” such as “stuff out of place and being moved,” including “salt and pepper shakers that were organized one second and strewn about the next.”
While the Whitakers never reported that an upset ghost affected their business, they did hand the Parisian Pantry over to Debbie Taylor in 1990. Robin Garr reported as late as 2014 that restaurant workers still claimed “aggressive haunting” helped the Pantry shut down, and afterwards “a half-dozen successors filled the place with the stench of failure,” lending credence to the curse. Finally, the hookah bar Cafe 360 moved in, and is still successfully offering (tobacco-free) smoke and drinks to Bardstown Road travelers. (Garr offered the tongue-in-cheek theory that perhaps “the hookah smoke calmed the specter.”)
Ghost or no, the spirit of Parisian Pantry still remains in Louisville, much of it in the memory of its entranced patrons. As Louisville Magazine’s Mary Welp put it in 2012: “Some say the building is haunted. What haunts me is the loss of Parisian Pantry’s lovely glass-fronted cases, offering up small confections.”