CONFESSION: I try not to judge anything or anyone. Sometimes I have to try really hard not to judge an incoming restaurant before it even opens. It’s not because I’m super special or that my fourteen years in the restaurant industry somehow trumps everyone else’s experience. I’m human, and it seems to be our human nature to judge people or things before we really even know anything about them. I’m working on that. However, I have to admit that there was a bit of skepticism on my part when I read about the massive space at Grinstead Dr and Baxter Ave being renovated in preparation for newcomer, HopCat. I wasn’t 100% judgmental, and I wasn’t being negative, but I had a few pre-conceived notions. Look, I watched Drake’s roll into town a while ago and a lot of people flock to that place for whatever reason. There might have been a touch of D-Baggery and plenty of hype that surrounded the coming soon of a restaurant that appears mostly in college towns scattered across the United States, but I needed to visit a couple of times before I made my final decision. When you bring a restaurant to our city, a city full of delectable, creative eateries, you need to come strong, and you need to come humble. I was catching a Drake’s vibe all over again. What I tell you today is that, even though my pre-conceived notions were short-lived, I was wrong about HopCat.
On my first visit to HopCat I tried to walk in the wrong door. There are a couple of places that seem to make sense to enter through, however the only way to enter is from the Bardstown Rd sidewalk. I’m only telling you so that you don’t try two other doors to the bar while everyone else watches you fumble around. It was around 1:45 pm on a Wednesday when I walked in, and I was greeted by a friendly girl at the door. From the entry way you walk into the bar, so I pulled up a seat. The first thing I noticed was the massive tap system in the center of the bar, which is home to 132 different draft handles. It’s impressive to say the least, and I figured that if everything else sucked about this place, I could still always try a beer that I have never tasted before. The bartender came and greeted me and told me how to read the beer list. It’s actually pretty simple but I appreciated the intro. They have the beer list broken down into styles, and there is a sidebar with the “local 20” on it. HopCat will have 20 local / regional beers on tap at all times, hence “local 20”. I also like that the beer list has a section called “on deck”, a list of known drafts that will be taking the place of any beer that runs out. It’s a nice process for keeping an accurate count of brews. As I looked over the HopCat beer list, my eyes wandered around the room over the corrugated tin walls. I was instantly drawn to the ceiling above the bar which is clad in old vinyl records. The walls are adorned with intensely vivid art depicting musicians and bands. I saw one painting that appeared to move as I stared at it. On the Highlands Tap Room side of the building there are huge garage door type windows that were open when I was there. I also noticed that each room in this Highlands restaurant has its own name. The front room that looks out onto Bardstown Rd is very bright with light flooding through the windows. It’s called “the gallery”. In the back of the restaurant is an event space called “the barrelhouse”. Upstairs you will find another event space called “the showroom”, and it has easy access to the outdoor area known as “the beer garden”. The beer garden is really nice. Wooden deck tiles are laid across the entire floor and there are stools along the edge of the patio providing an elevated look over the Highlands. There are couches and chairs, a shade structure, and table seating as well. This outdoor area stands out to me as one of the best patios in the Highlands neighborhood and most likely in the city. One of the friendly managers informed me that the event rooms have only the local 20 on draft, which makes sense. I can’t imagine fitting all 132 draft handles in each room, although this building almost seems large enough to do just that. The whole place is well lit and pretty cool.
It took the bartender a few minutes to get back to me, and while the place wasn’t completely packed, there was a good number of people sitting at and around the bar. His service was a little weak, but I was in no hurry and, to be fair, it was only the second week they had been open. I ordered the Huma Lupa Licious from Short’s Brewing Co in Michigan. I never heard of this particular brand so I figured I would give it a whirl. It was a nice APA. Good citrus notes, but well balanced and didn’t taste like grapefruit juice. By the way, I’m totally cool with grapefruity IPAs and APAs, in fact I really enjoy them, but it was nice to mix things up. Next, I ordered the “crack fries” and I tried the Upland Komodo Dragon. It was great, and while I like the Dragonfly, I never knew about the Komodo Dragon from Upland so I was pretty stoked to check it out. The crack fries came out piping hot and the order was served with some beer cheese. Beer cheese and fries is a fantastic combo, by the way. The HopCat crack fries were nice and crispy, and seasoned well. The beer cheese was good. It’s not like a “WOW” spectacular beer cheese, but it works really well with the fries.
On my second visit, I went through the correct door and took the same seat at the bar. This time I was greeted by a female bartender who really knew what was happening. This visit was even later in the day than the first, and it was on a Friday. Lucky for me it was Christmas or happy hour or something. Burgers were half price and any beer from the local 20 was $3.50! So I ordered a Prodigal APA from Eight Ball, and of course a burger. I ordered the Bar-Zee, which is HopCat’s signature burger. It comes with bacon, jalapeños, and a hit of the beer cheese, plus lettuce, tomato, and onion. I ordered it medium, and it was cooked properly, maybe a little under (which is what I was hoping for). The flavors were nice and the jalapeños added a good amount of spice to the burger. Creamy beer cheese and crunchy bacon gave some great texture, and the brioche bun was pretty light, which really allows you to catch on all the flavors. My burger was delicious. I can’t call it my favorite, or the best, but it’s something I will certainly return for.
When you stack the atmosphere, the sweet patio, and the amount of interesting beers on top of the food, it makes a nice addition to the neighborhood. The parking problems that I have heard a lot about in the Highlands lately kind of makes me laugh. I’ve lived in the Highlands since the late 80s, and I can’t remember a time when parking wasn’t tight. You could always ride a bike, or walk. I can’t imagine HopCat at night. The Highlands brings a big night life, and if this place gets packed, they will need an extremely large staff to take care of everyone. I will stick to my 2:00pm visits. You should check it out too.
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