Melba’s Culinary Canvas Restaurant in Downtown Louisville

My sweet tooth has taken me to many interesting places around town. Every time someone texts or emails me about a new bakery or ice cream parlor, I add it to my ever-growing list of restaurants to check out. I recently heard of Melba’s Culinary Canvas, a downtown spot with a patisserie full of Swedish chocolates, French and German pastries, fresh pies and chocolate truffles. Naturally, I contacted owner and executive chef Charles Reed for more information and discovered that it was also a full service restaurant with a full bar.

Dressed in a white chef’s coat and a Hang Loose baseball cap, Reed greets me at the door of his restaurant on the corner of South Fifth and Jefferson streets in downtown Louisville. We sit down at one of the booths, and he tells me everything there is to know about Melba’s, from the color of the seats – they’re boysenberry, with lettuce-colored backs – to everything has happened since the birth of the concept of the restaurant.

In 2019, Reed was set to become the chef of a resort in American Samoa, but he didn’t want to go. A friend suggested he stay in Louisville and open another restaurant, even offering him a microloan to help him get started. As the former owner of Henry’s Place in Brownsboro, Reed knew all about running a restaurant, but was hesitant to go that route again.

“I thought about it over Labor Day weekend,” he recalls. “(Then) I called (my friend) and we discussed dollar amounts. It wasn’t a lot of money. It was enough money to write a business plan (and) make a presentation to venture capitalists.

Apple Cobbler at Melba's Culinary Canvas in Louisville.

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With the help of another friend and his sister for the loan cosign, Reed was ready to go. He had even chosen a name.

“My little brother… (who was) my best friend killed himself, and we used to joke a lot when we were kids,” he explained. “(Looks like) Nellie Melba was the mistress of the great chef (Georges) Auguste Escoffier, (and) that’s why he named all those dishes after her.”

After doing some research, Reed discovered that Melba – born Helen Porter Mitchell – was an Australian opera star from Melbourne and one of the most famous singers of the late Victorian era. Melba’s culinary canvas pays homage to Reed’s late brother and the stories of their childhood. With the name, concept, funding and space secured, the restaurant idea quickly becomes a reality.

“At the time,” Reed said, “I thought it would be a good location, between the courthouse and the [Kentucky International Convention Center]. And I really thought there would be traffic; pedestrian traffic (and) office traffic. And I did my due diligence here. I (researched) traffic patterns within 1 mile, 3 miles, 5 miles, 10 miles; (and) the amount people spend eating in downtown Louisville for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

He couldn’t have predicted the hurdles he would have to overcome — not just the pandemic, but also with the Breonna Taylor protests, which gripped downtown Louisville for more than 100 days in 2020.

Lobster canapes at Melba's Culinary Canvas in Louisville.

“It was crazy here,” he said. “(The) night of the big riots, they broke all my windows and all my equipment was found in the street. They burned my sign; they broke down my walls; they knocked down my ceiling. … They just destroyed me.

Despite this incident, in which Reed was shot by police with rubber bullets, he was able to get Melba back up and running in November 2020.

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Fast forward to 2021 when pandemic-related dining restrictions have been lifted and downtown protests have come to a halt.

“We started to gain momentum and we started to (generate) revenue, and then a variant (COVID) hit – and everyone was warned not to come to the office,” Reed said. “There is only a 50% occupancy rate in downtown Louisville. … This is the space that is rented out to businesses. And of those 50% that are leased to companies, 80% of their employees aren’t there. »

Chocolate truffles at Melba's Culinary Canvas in Louisville.

As a downtown restaurant with most customers coming from surrounding businesses, Melba’s is currently open for breakfast and lunch, serving everything from burritos and street food tacos to sandwiches and homemade pasta and Reed plans to add dinner service in the next month or so.

However, he says, the pastry counter is what made his restaurant work.

“We lived off that pastry counter,” he said. “This little counter makes about $700 a day.”

It even has an ongoing gelato program; the space itself is already set up with a take-out window so customers can walk up and order some sweet treats on the sidewalk. He adds that lunch revenue is starting to catch up with bake sales, and breakfast is also getting busier. He hopes the trend continues and appreciates the support he has received, including a grant from Louisville Forward and a proclamation from Mayor Greg Fischer acknowledging Reed for opening a restaurant in the heart of downtown Louisville in the midst of the pandemic.

“The city of Louisville has supported me as best they can in every way they can,” he said.

A blood orange buttercream cake with French sugar art at Melba's Culinary Canvas in Louisville.

Given the evolving nature of the coronavirus pandemic, the focus of our weekly restaurant column will shift for the foreseeable future. Each week, Lennie Omalza will interview restaurants struggling to adapt and survive while serving our community. Please send your cover suggestions to Managing Editor Kathryn Gregory at [email protected]

Melba’s Culinary Web

WHAT: This is a locally owned American brigade restaurant in downtown Louisville that serves breakfast and lunch and has a patisserie full of Swedish chocolates, French and German pastries, fresh pies and chocolate truffles.

OR: 430 W. Jefferson St.

SERVICES: Indoor seating and takeaway meals; 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday to Friday; closed Saturday and Sunday.

CONTACT: melbaslouisville.com, 502-653-7000

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