Alan Salmon, owner of Selena’s at Willow Lake Tavern, has a motto: “Get them once and they’ll be back.” He’s earned that confidence, having built a business on outstanding customer service, a delicious blend of Creole and Italian recipes, and a passion for serving others. Famous for their warm beignets and even warmer atmosphere, Selena’s, located in Louisville’s East End, has been in operation since 2008. Alan believes the key to his 40 years of success is building relationships–” you gotta have a heart”–and if our interview is any indication of how he builds relationships, no wonder Selena’s is such a hit.
- Catering is available for in-office lunch or special occasions.
- This family-friendly restaurant has a menu designed to please your entire party.
- The patio is dog-friendly, which Truly truly enjoyed.
- They are not a gluten-free kitchen.
- They do offer vegetarian items.
- They buy their food locally and have their seafood flown in daily.
- They do one steak, a 14 oz Ribeye, and although they’re not a steakhouse, they pride themselves on serving a delicious steak.
- Their salmon is wild, and as Alan describes it, “the best you’ll ever have, and of course the blackened seasoning makes it even better.”
- Their famous gumbo is sold by the quart because people just can’t get enough of it.
- One of their most famous pasta dishes is their spinach lasagna.
- They do a crawfish boil every other week and clam chowder on Fridays.
- Their famous beignets (made with Selena’s own recipe) are only available for weekend brunch.
- Most of the employees at Selena’s, like Zack, have been there for eight years plus, which speaks volumes in the restaurant industry. “We take care of our people,” Alan says.
We visited Selena’s for the first time on a beautiful evening in April. We were joined by our best friends, Jeanette and Dean Embry. (We credit Jeanette for our blog, as it was her idea. Thanks, Bestie!) Alan started by meeting us at our table with a warm smile and a friendly greeting. He motioned for his server, Zack Ryan, to start us off with some drinks.
We placed an order for appetizers: Gumbo, Fried Green Tomatoes, and Chicken Diablo. Now, we can talk about how the Fried Green Tomatoes are the best we’ve ever had at a restaurant, with their crispy breading and just the right amount of spices, or we could talk about the Gumbo (a hearty soup with the perfect amount of spice and a touch of garlic to enhance the fresh shrimp and blackened chicken with spicy andouille sausage, rice, bell pepper, and celery) that they sell by the quart because it’s so delicious, but the Chicken Diablo is what will have us coming back for more. It was chicken tenders moist, delectable, and filled with bits of jalapeno wrapped in crisp cherrywood bacon, with just the right amount of moistness and heat on the inside and crispy crunchy on the outside. It was all so good!
When it came to the entrees, Ted ordered the Blackened Salmon with Red Beans and Rice and coleslaw as his side. The salmon had a buttery blackened crust on the outside with a moist and tender inside. The red beans and rice were flavorful with andouille sausage and a hint of spice. The coleslaw was creamy with a bit of tang. Becky went with the Classic Caesar Salad with Blackened Chicken. Fresh romaine, shredded parmesan, and croutons were tossed with a tangy Caesar dressing and served with moist and tender chicken blackened to perfection. Jeanette enjoyed her favorite dish, the Tavern Salad, and Dean had the special, Penne Pasta with Blackened Shrimp.
For dessert, we tried the Bananas Foster and Chocolate Lava Cake. The Bananas Foster included bananas served warm with sweet caramel brandy sauce and a scoop of vanilla ice cream sprinkled with powdered sugar. It was lick-the-plate divine. The Chocolate Lava Cake was rich and decadent, served warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, sweet whipped cream, and drizzled with chocolate. It’s Dean’s favorite item on the menu!
As we ate, we enjoyed Alan’s storytelling. He was filled with interesting tidbits from a life that graced him with the ingredients it would take to create a successful restaurant. Growing up in Tampa, Florida, he lived next door to a family that made cooking and eating the center of their world, and Alan often shared meals at their dinner table. Selena Giacona was the matriarch and cook of the family. Raised in the Beauregard House, a historic residence located in the French Quarter in New Orleans, it was there that Selena was introduced to the culinary flavors she would later master and teach: creole and Sicilian cooking.
Inspired by growing up around Selena’s passion for cooking and hospitality, Alan graduated from college and made a 20-hour drive to Mt. Washington Resort in New Hampshire, where he learned the art of serving guests in one of the best luxury resorts in the country. Picture Dirty Dancing: the employees, segregated by gender dorms, worked and socialized together, and just like in the movie, they enjoyed a joint cantina. I can almost see Baby’s entrance into the cantina now, carrying a watermelon, mesmerized by the employees as they danced to “Do You Love Me”. The resort is also where Alan met Lou Ann, the other half of his waiter/waitress team who would eventually become his wife.
Alan took the customer service and serving skills that he learned at the resort back to Tampa, where he sat down with Selena and announced that he wanted to open his own restaurant and name it after her. “Okay,” she said, “but you are going to cook with me first.” For the next nine months, he learned not only her recipes but her cooking techniques as well. Selena always cooked with a cigarette, and Alan was awestruck at how she could cook a pot of gumbo or whatever else and he’d never once see any ash hit the food. He still jokes today, though, that some of his cooking isn’t nearly as good as Selena’s because it’s missing the ash.
After learning from its namesake, Alan opened the first Selena’s in 1979 in South Tampa, where the restaurant quickly made a name for itself. As an avid sports fan who once played USA baseball, one of Alan’s favorite things was having baseball players in the restaurant. Sometimes he would take his son to watch spring training games, and he’d hear New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner stop his players and say, “Look,” pointing to Alan, “you’ve got to try this guy’s restaurant, it’s fantastic.” If that’s not an endorsement, I don’t know what is.
After seven days and seven nights for 30 years, however, Alan and Lou Ann decided they’d had enough of restaurant life. As chance would have it, their sons both ended up in Louisville. Josh, their oldest, signed to play baseball for Louisville, and it’s where he met and married his wife. Jeremy, their youngest, soon followed in his brother’s footsteps, meeting and marrying a Louisville girl as well.
With their sons in the Bluegrass state, Lou Ann and Alan made the call that they were moving there too. After settling in, Alan often found himself driving past the Willow Lake Tavern on his way to ballgames. The Willow Lake Tavern had been several different establishments throughout its colorful life, including a biker bar. After its last business finally shut down, Alan happened by one day and saw a grey-haired fella coming out of the place. He offered to show Alan the property, and that was it: Alan was hooked. It had holes in the ceiling and the brick was all black, but Alan had a vision. After a lot of clean-up and preparation over the next six months, Alan brought the concept of Selena’s back to life at the Willow Lake Tavern.
Since opening Selena’s in Louisville, Alan has made a lot of great memories, but there’s one that’s “the greatest.” For about a year, a woman would regularly have a driver pick up 6-8 dozen of Selena’s famous beignets. Alan had no idea who they were for until one day, the woman called and he answered the phone. He thanked her for all of her business, and she said the beignets were all for her husband. “I have to hide them from Muhammad so he won’t eat them all at once,” she joked. “Muhammad?” Alan asked. As it turned out, the woman was Lonnie Ali, buying beignets for her husband, Muhammad Ali. Alan was floored — meeting Ali was on his ultimate bucket list — so he asked if they’d like to pay a visit…
The next day, Muhammad Ali walked through the doors of Selena’s. He looked like a million dollars, with what looked like a 32-inch waist, wearing brand new blue jeans and a cowboy belt. Although he was battling Parkinson’s, he still seemed like he could punch you right in the lips. Alan put him at a special table in the corner by the fireplace, where he was admired by the packed house. When it was time for Ali to leave, he had to use a wheelchair, and “grown men were crying,” Alan said. “It made your hair stand up.” Alan later spent time at Ali’s home, where he and Muhammad became friends.
We could have sat there all day listening to Alan’s stories and eating delicious food. This was a “dinner and a movie” I’ll never forget.
If you are looking for great food with a great story, stop in at Selena’s Willow Lake Tavern. It is sure not to disappoint. Ask for Alan and tell him the Bluegrass Travelers sent you. Who knows what fascinating stories he might treat you to. I’ve already decided that I’m going back for weekend brunch to get me some of those famous beignets that had “the greatest” hooked!