As the old saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” but restaurateur J.D. Rothberg never really was all that conventional. That’s why after nine years of running a successful upscale casual restaurant on Dutchmans Lane in Louisville with partner Simon Fields and general manager Shane Hall, Rothberg decided to pack up shop and move across town to the new Westport Village shopping development along Herr Lane.
“When we moved, we realized one of two things was going to happen,” Rothberg said. “We were either going to fail miserably or be overwhelmingly successful. Napa has had a proven track record of success, but moving to a new location was a gamble. We just felt like the restaurant needed new life and a bit of a change and it has proven to be a winner.” So what is the magic formula for turning an already popular local restaurant into a booming success? For Napa River Grill, it was taking a gamble, Rothberg’s vast experience in the business, a great location, an enchanting atmosphere and a killer food and wine menu.
Experienced restaurateur’s intuition
J.D. Rothberg began working in the hospitality industry in Denver in 1981, holding numerous managerial positions with several national restaurants and ultimately ascending to operations manager of several casinos. After a quick taste of the gaming industry, Rothberg quit his job and moved to the Bluegrass State, where he took a job and a pay cut when he went to work as a manager trainee for Grisanti’s, Inc. in Louisville.
Rothberg worked his way up the ranks, going on to serve as the director of operations for Grisanti’s. He credits that position with helping change his life, as the job required him to travel nationwide to oversee operations and research concepts for future restaurant ventures. The traveling and contacts he made over those several years played an integral role in creating and developing the concept that has become Napa River Grill.
In 1994, Rothberg passed the Food Management Professional exam (FMP), which is the hospitality industry equivalent to the CPA. He has also served on the board of directors and as president of the Louisville chapter of the Kentucky Restaurant Association. In 2007, Rothberg received the prestigious “Restaurateur of the Year” award from the KRA.
Location, location, location
Open in its new location since June 2008, the new and improved Napa River Grill has been even more successful than what Rothberg and his partners had anticipated. “We are up 168 percent profitability from this time last year,” Rothberg said. He credits the increase partly to the fact that their previous location was surrounded by medical facilities, “making it truly a destination restaurant.” Their new location is in the heart of suburbia and “in addition to the clientele that followed us to our new place, we have picked up new customers who live in the area, business people who work nearby and the people who stop by on their way home from work,” Rothberg added.
The “Napa-esque” atmosphere
Swope Design Group combined architecture and landscaping indigenous to the Napa River region to orchestrate a truly unparalleled dining experience at Napa River Grill.
The color palette was inspired by the landscape of Napa Valley, featuring warm eggplant, plum, sage and mustard hues. To accentuate the intimate atmosphere, banquet seating lines the walls of the 6,250 s.f. dining area, which features bright artwork created by local artists. The restaurant also has two private dining rooms for small parties or to seat additional guests when the restaurant is packed. In one of the private dining rooms, appropriately named The Vineyard Room, guests can dine beneath a cut glass wine bottle ceiling and walk upon a cork floor.
In addition, the patio is more than 2,000 s.f. and includes a covered bar, custom-blended terrazzo fire tables and a vineyard that features pinot noir, zinfandel and chardonnay grapes. Near the small vineyard sits the restaurant’s mascot frog and a fountain, which trickles out of antique fireplace mantles onto the stones below.
The eatery brings the allure and enchantment of the wine country to the heart of the Bluegrass. Over the past decade, Napa River Grill has attracted some of the world’s most talented wine makers and creative chefs. The main dining room showcases a 1,000 bottle wine rack and Napa’s signature glass-top bar, which features famous wine quotations inscribed atop it.
The tantalizing and innovative menu
Created by executive chef David Malthaner, Napa River Grill’s innovative menu features fresh local ingredients and is inspired by the Northern California region with Pacific-Rim fusion. The versatile dishes include Thai Curry Scallops, Baked Squash Ratatouille, Bodega Bay Crab, Napa River Grill Beef Tenderloin, daily selections of market-fresh seafood and Rothberg’s favorite, the Pad Thai Chicken.
Rothberg also notes that Napa River Grill is one of the few Louisville restaurants where all the pastries and desserts are made in house daily by their full-time pastry chef Michelle Childers.
When it all comes together
That’s why Napa River Grill is getting national recognition for its offerings. The restaurant has received numerous awards, including the prestigious Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator magazine and numerous other honors statewide. As the anchor restaurant of the new Westport Village shopping development, Rothberg considers Napa River Grill “affordable luxury.” “We are big on customer service and providing the highest quality at half the price than our competitors,” Rothberg said. “That is why we are the highest volume independent restaurant in town,” he added. And with countless dining choices throughout the greater Louisville area, maybe being unconventional really is the way to go.