Louisville’s Empire Lounge closing after 15 years

The Empire Lounge & Restaurant’s 15-year reign in Louisville is coming to an end this weekend.

After a couple of changes in ownership over the past few years, on top of the Marshall fire’s impact on restaurant traffic in downtown Louisville, The Empire has decided to hold its last day of service on Saturday, Feb. 25

The American comfort food restaurant, located at 816 Main St., in downtown Louisville was originally founded in 2008 by chef Jim Cohen, who ran it until he had a stroke and eventually passed away in 2020. His daughter Lexi Scott took over and ran The Empire until 2019 when she had her second child, and decided to sell her family’s share of the restaurant to building owner and business partner Ken Wolf.

Wolf approached another business partner, chef Jeff Osaka, who owns Sushi-Rama and Osaka Ramen, to temporarily take over operations for The Empire in 2019. And Osaka did all he could to keep the Cohen legacy alive.

“We had big shoes to fill, but we didn’t try to fill them,” Osaka said. “We just tried to do something different, and the town was welcoming, but I think two and a half years is a little different than 16-plus.”

He renovated the kitchen and updated the restaurant’s menu before reopening in the summer of 2019. Then, he ran the restaurant throughout the pandemic and during the Marshall fire.

“When the fire happened, most of the Louisville businesses downtown were shut down for water usage, and it took a good week and a half to get usable drinking water,” Osaka said. “When The Empire shut down, we froze our existing inventory and turned it into a big soup. Then we gave out free bowls of soup and bread for almost two weeks to people mostly displaced by the fire.”

Chef Darren Pusateri, who took over operations for the restaurant in the fall of 2022, also revamped the menu with a classic “80s-in-New York” focus. (Provided by Hard Knoch PR for The Empire)

But in the fall of 2022, Osaka handed operations over to chef Darren Pusateri, who now owns a percentage of The Empire, to focus on opening his fifth Sushi-Rama location in Broomfield. But Osaka said business has been down as a result of the Marshall fire, and the scale of the restaurant operations is hard to keep up with.

“The last thing people wanted to do or were able to do was go out to eat, and we had a lot of local clientele with people walking over to dinner from home,” Osaka said. “A lot of the other businesses did okay, but we’re one of the largest restaurant spaces in town.”

“It takes a lot to run that size of a restaurant, and it wasn’t generating the revenue,” he added. “Staffing was difficult as well, and it takes a lot of people to run that restaurant, but it’s hard to attract people when you’re not in a flashy city like  Denver or Boulder. If I had the time to focus on it, I felt I could have made it a very successful restaurant with simple food and no frills, but it’s time for someone else to try.”

The Empire’s iconic, 5,000-square-foot building, a downtown Louisville landmark deemed historic in 2022, is now available for lease or purchase by Wolf, according to Osaka.

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