Savor Nostalgia: America’s Best Restaurants In Historical Buildings

Do you like your lasagna with a side of living history? Your coffee sweetened with the spirit of yesteryear? Your spirits garnished with golden days?

Bars and restaurants around America are re-purposing old spaces so your dinner and drinks can be accompanied by the charm and character of a revitalized building. In addition to minimizing their eco-footprint by reusing existing structures, the country’s top bars and restaurants have a story to serve.

Idle Hour exterior. Photo courtesy of William Bradford.

Photo courtesy of William Bradford.

1. Americana Cocktails In A Barrel (Los Angeles, California)

Back when people walked or rode horses, businesses had more time to catch the attention of potential customers. With the rise of the automobile, this all changed so some business owners in the 20’s and 30’s designed their buildings to catch the attention of quick passing motorists.

The barrel-shaped structure that now host’s Los Angeles cocktail bar was derived as part of the “Programmatic architecture” movement where businesses aimed to attract potential customers with strange-shaped buildings. Idle Hour Cafe in North Hollywood is the last standing structure of this type in Los Angeles, and now serves Americana cocktails and classic fare serving as a definitive time stamp of its original era. Make sure to check out the pipe-smoking bulldog who now resides on Idle Hour’s patio.

Soby's New South Cuisine, Greenville, South Carolina. Photo courtesy of Soby's.

Photo courtesy of Soby’s.

2. Southern Cuisine In A Shoe Store (Greenville, South Carolina)

Up until 1997, visitors to downtown Greenville, South Carolina would find a run-down strip that was abandoned when the workday ended at 5pm. When Carl Sobocinski purchased an old shoe store on the end of Main Street, people laughed at him. Now, however, everyone’s talking about Greenville and Soby’s Restaurant, which despite being in a 200-year-old building dishes out food inspired by the “new South”.

The building was constructed in the 1800s and has evolved from a cotton exchange to a grocery store and more recently, a shoe store. Carl converted the 14,000 square foot space to become downtown’s first real fine dining restaurant, maintaining the exposed rafters, brick walls and creaky wood floors. Try dishes like bacon wrapped pork tenderloin, fried green tomatoes, and shrimp & grits, all cooked with an upscale twist.

Bar At Down One Bourbon Bar & Restaurant with Brennan Building Stain Glass on Historic Whiskey Row in KY. Photo courtesy of Down One.

Bar At Down One Bourbon Bar & Restaurant with Brennan Building Stain Glass on Historic Whiskey Row in KY

3. Bourbon Bar In An Underground Parking Garage (Louisville, Kentucky)

Ever wonder what is below Kentucky’s historic Whiskey Row? Guests walking down Main Street can enter Down One Bourbon Bar & Restaurant by a staircase leading them down to the entrance.  This former underground parking garage is now a speakeasy-style restaurant. It features all re-purposed wood, stained glass windows and chandeliers from various historic buildings in Louisville that have been demolished or redesigned. The food centers around bourbon — Kentucky’s pride and joy! — from whiskey brisket chili to bourbon-glazed pork belly. After dinner, chose from over 150 bourbons then go exploring (we challenge you to try to find the secret room beyond the phone booth).

LINGER restaurant of Denver, CO. Photo courtesy of Linger.

Photo courtesy of Linger Restaurant.

4. Global Comfort Foods In A Former Mortuary (Denver, Colorado)

Visit one of Denver’s hottest “eatuaries” (as the sign reads) atop a hill in Denver’s Lower Highlands neighborhood. Linger Restaurant is housed in an 80 year-old former mortuary set straddling the old garage and insurance area— and its adjacent space, which are joined by a large ellipsis sawed through the brick walls. The eclectic interior was inspired by the iconic movie Harold and Maude and features a retro, dive bar aesthetic with over-sized vinyl booths and vintage air conditioning diffusers re-purposed as lights. The upstairs bar purposefully contradicts the downstairs area with a low ceiling, vintage Italian wallpaper and Vegas-style vinyl stools.

Large windows and a rooftop deck encourages diners to linger over their meal and enjoy panoramic views of downtown Denver and surrounding peaks. To promote this goal, the restaurant features vegetable-focused small plates inspired by urban comfort foods from all over the world, like African roasted tomato and peanut soup, Moroccan lamb kebabs, and pork belly buns with grilled pineapple jam.

Gourmet dining car in Napa Valley wine train. Photo courtesy of Napa Valley wine train.

Photo courtesy of Napa Valley Wine Train.

5. Wine Paired With Vineyard Views On An Antique Train (Napa Valley, California)

Re-live the glory days of train travel on one of California’s most distinctive restaurants, the Napa Valley Wine Train. Enjoy a gourmet meal, California wine and breathtaking view of Napa Valley as you relax on an exquisitely restored vintage train. Pullman rail cars are re-purposed to evoke the spirit of luxury 20th century train travel, featuring Honduran mahogany paneling, brass accents, etched glass partitions and plush armchairs.

Three custom-built on-board kitchens prepare meals to the specifications of each guest, just like any restaurant. Many of the rail cars will celebrate 100 years this year, having been built in 1915 by Pullman Standard.

Chef Wes and Staff at Motor Supply in Columbia, SC.  Photo courtesy of Forrest Clonts.

Chef Wes and Staff at Motor Supply in Columbia, SC. Photo courtesy of Forrest Clonts.

6. Art Meets Farm-To-Table In An Old Engine Supply Building (Columbia, South Carolina)

Located in a renovated engine supply building from the late 1800s and situated in the back of an art gallery, Motor Supply Co. Bistro supports locally based food and culture. The handwritten menu constantly changes based on what can be found at local farmer’s markets, while Executive Chef Wesley Fulmer treats the farmers to a three-course “thank you” meal each fall in gratitude for their close partnership. In addition to good eats, Motor Supply bartenders create exceptional cocktails incorporating innovative ingredients like pumpkin, lavender, rosemary, lemongrass and even bacon. Be sure to check out the new outdoor patio with tables provided by a local custom furniture maker Bricker & Beam who works just down the street. Coming soon: handmade charcuterie boards.

Big Spirits Tasting Room. Photo courtesy of Big Spirits.

Photo courtesy of Big Spirits.

7. Boutique Spirits In An Old Match Factory (Bellefonte, Pennsylvania)

Big Spring Spirits turned “Building 10” in a match factory complex constructed in 1931 into an operation that is on pace to be the first LEED certified distillery in the country. They partner with local farmers to make small batch craft spirits, with the best ingredients from field to bottle. Try the herbaceous 7 Governors Gin to the lush Talleyrand Bourbon, all blended with Pennsylvania’s famed Bellafonte water.

The Grey in Savannah, GA.  Photo courtesy of the Grey.

Photo courtesy of The Grey.

8. Traditional Feel Good Favorites In An Old Greyhound Station (Savannah, Georgia)

Did you think bus stations and edible food were mutually exclusive? Then you have not been to The Grey, a former Greyhound bus station turned into a beautifully restored restaurant in Savannah, Georgia’s famed Historic District. The new interior features ’60s-style decor and a Southern menu with European touches, with Head Chef Mashama Bailey serving up dishes like monkfish and weekend whole hog roasts paired with Bloody Mary’s.

Fry's Spring Station in Charlottesville, VA. Photo courtesy of Fry's.

Fry’s Spring Station in Charlottesville, VA. Photo courtesy of Fry’s.

9. Gourmet Italian In An Old Service Station (Charlottesville, Virginia)

With a history as an automobile repair garage, Fry’s Spring Service Station stays true to its help-centric routes. The 1931 building that serviced cars for 70 years is decorated with a beautiful fusion of Spanish, Jeffersonian and Art Deco architecture. Choose from brick oven pizza, fresh salads, paninis and pastas paired with Italian wines and local brews.

Phoenix Brewing Company. Photo courtesy of Timothy Brian McKee

Phoenix Brewing Company. Photo courtesy of Timothy Brian McKee

10. Craft Beer In An Old Funeral Home (Mansfield, Ohio)

About 80 miles southwest of Cleveland in Mansfield, Ohio, Phoenix Brewing Company is now housed in what used to be a funeral home and mortuary back in the early 1900s. This five-barrel brewery boasts a 12-tap system and eight of its own beers, with some funeral inspired names. Choose from Pale Ale 419, Ferrymans’s Stout, Redemption IPA, 5 Guinea ESB and John Doe American Wheat. If you can’t decide, the brewery offers a beer flight served in a coffin-shaped frame in honor of its grim history.

Ice plant bar in St. Augustine, Florida.  Photo courtesy of Ice Plant Bar.

Ice plant bar in St. Augustine, Florida. Photo courtesy of Ice Plant Bar.

11. Artsy Cocktails & Conscious Cuisine In An Ice Plant (St. Augustine, Florida)

The Ice Plant Bar and Restaurant is located in St. Augustine, Florida’s original “Ice Plant” building, dating back to 1927, with décor remaining largely the same. For example, notice the original bridge crane on rails overhead the bar. The crane used to pick up huge blocks of ice to be broken and sold to local customers and shrimp boats. In addition to a building that transports people back to a 20th century factory, the owners wanted to create a menu that reintroduced guests to a time where the experience of having a cocktail and a bite to eat was healthful and enjoyable. The farm-to-table restaurant serves grass-fed beef, local seafood with vegetarian options and daily specials. Drinks include stunning cocktails made from house-pressed juices, bitters and specially developed syrups. Cocktails feature three different kinds of ice, paying homage to the building’s original use.

Republique in Los Angeles.  Photo courtesy of Republique.

Photo courtesy of Republique.

12.Contemporary French Food In Charlie Chaplin’s Studio (Los Angeles, California)

Dine in the shadow of stars at Republique, a restaurant located in Charlie Chaplin’s original studios. Walter, the owner, designed most of the space himself to honor the history of the building while incorporating elements from his other passion projects. He sourced vintage wood from the Philippines from the same decade as Charlie Chaplin’s studios to incorporate original elements back in the space. Named after the lively Parisian neighborhood of République, the menu features contemporary French cuisine. Recommendations include Kimchi fried rice; a pig’s head with lentils, bacon, frisée, farm egg; and Walter’s Favorite Breakfast, a platter of soft farm eggs, Poblano chili and baguette with accompaniments. You can also grab artisan breads, pastry, sandwiches, salads, and coffee to-go or for quick service seating.

By Katie Foote

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Katie Foote may be a physicist by trade but she travels the world any chance she can get. After four years of semi-nomadic life as she finished her PhD, she's recently moved to Auckland, New Zealand. Despite beginning a more traditional life, she has insight on how to travel the world on a graduate student budget (cheap!), explore off-the-beaten-path destinations and authentically experiencing new places by connecting to locals. When she's not doing physics or globe-trotting, she likes to swim, do yoga and hike (or "tramp" as they say in New Zealand). Check out Katie's blog to follow her adventures around the world.

13 Comments

  1. That tubular restaurant looks so fun. It is almost as if you are having dinner in a bullet train. I can just see myself zipping along either the French or Japanese countryside. That would be a great set up, to have fine dining and transportation, all at once.

  2. That would be so cool to have dinner in a re-purposed historical venue so we can enjoy history at the same time as food. With the way this fast pace world is we need to be able to do many things at the same time. So why not just add another great way to add another great way to multi task.

  3. These restaurants all seem really cool, but I think the first one has to be my favorite. Who wouldn’t want to try food from a building in the shape of a giant barrel? Though number four looks like it would be gorgeous to sit at and look out the window! The only way for it to be better is if it was a moving train sort of thing, like Bryan mentioned in a comment before me.

  4. These look like some really cool restaurants! I love repurposed buildings being used. Thanks for sharing these! I hope to check them out someday.

  5. Wow, all of these dishes look yummy and all of these places sound absolutely wonderful! It’s really interesting to see what different people like and have to say about different places throughout an area. Nice job! Thanks for sharing!

    Well done..Keep sharing more.

    Regards
    Julie M. Stowers

  6. Number twelve sounds like a real adventure. Eating contemporary French food in a place once owned by Charlie Chaplin is definitely an experience to remember.

  7. Though regularly overlooked (likely due to location), Thai 1st Bistro in Blakeney Shopping Center should make every top restaurant list. If the writers of this article have not yet tried it, put it at the top of your list! You won’t be disappointed.

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