Chef Darren Pusateri fell in love with restaurants when he was a kid visiting New York City with his family, dining in iconic establishments like Tavern on the Green and Le Cirque.
“Dinner was a show, and it intrigued me,” says Pusateri. “Trying to figure out how the chef prepared everything made me want to study and learn all of their techniques.”
Now, Pusateri—an esteemed chef in his own right—has taken the reins of The Empire Restaurant and Lounge, the iconic restaurant in downtown Louisville that has a vintage neon sign casting a glow on Main Street.
The restaurant’s loose theme is that of a 1980’s New York City dining institution, complete with leather booths and iconic dishes like French Onion soup topped with a gooey blanket of gruyere cheese. Wedge salads, steak and frites with a peppercorn sauce and bananas foster bread pudding baked with a rum-laced brioche and topped with a caramel sauce also feel at home on the menu.
“We are trying to bring back a classic dining scene from the ’80s in an elevated form,” Pusateri says. “This period of time is particularly nostalgic for me, because it is the time I fell in love with the restaurant industry.”
The vibe matches, too: The neon light beckons and you’ll pull back a velvety curtain upon entering the 5,000-square-foot space.
The Empire was previously led by chef Jeff Osaka, who stepped away from the concept to focus on his fifth Sushi-Rama location, which opened in December in Broomfield’s Arista Place town center. Pusateri is a 25-year hospitality veteran who has held positions in some of the Front Range’s best restaurants, including Frasca Food and Wine, Elway’s in the Ritz-Carlton, Izakaya Den, Guard and Grace and more.
Pusateri’s goal at The Empire, 816 Main St. in Louisville, is to offer solid food at a reasonable price and to do so in a warm environment. More menu highlights include deviled eggs topped with caviar and candied bacon, a warming chicken and dumpling soup with braised greens and potato gnocchi, a whole branzino and salmon served alongside Brussels sprouts, bacon and white beans.
The restaurant also has oysters Rockefeller on the menu, with East Coast bivalves topped with spinach, parmesan and bacon. During the next menu change, Pusateri says he’s planning to bring in both East and West Coast oysters with the option to order them raw.
While The Empire’s menus are very seasonal, one dish will remain a staple: The calamari salad with a miso balsamic. It’s an homage to chef Jim Cohen, the founder of The Empire.
To complement the menu, The Empire’s bar will offer creative cocktails like the Perfect Autumn, a gin libation with St-Germain elderflower liqueur, lemon juice, egg white and a salted pear ice cube.
The Empire is also serving weekend brunch, borrowing some culinary inspiration from down South. The menu includes comfort favorites like a Louisville omelet made with ham, peppers and cheddar, as well as a gravlax benedict with cured salmon, poached egg and hollandaise and New Orleans-style eggs sardou with fried oysters.
“We want to bring back tradition, great food and the best service that The Empire has always been known for,” says Pusateri. “We are so excited to put our hearts and soul into ensuring that The Empire is a Louisville dining destination for years to come.”
Empire is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday. Happy hour is served from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and includes $5 cocktails and discounted bites, like tangerine marinated olives ($4), French fries ($3), cheese boards ($7) and oysters Rockefeller ($2 a piece).