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Gabe’s Restaurant Was a Benchmark in Owensboro Fine Dining

Photo by Dave Spencer

It’s called a dinner club card–that gold thing in the picture to the left. It was discovered while unearthing family relics. I had never seen it before. I assume it belonged to my dad. And I assume that tearing each “month tab” off the card after a certain amount of meals is how the card was used. I’m only guessing. But I do know this: back in the day, Gabe’s Restaurant was a standard bearer for dining out in Owensboro.

In 1963, Gabe’s Restaurant moved from downtown to its final location at 18th and Tripletts Streets and, as before, was at the top of anyone’s to-do list when choosing a place to dine. Standing in the shadow of both Gabe’s Tower and the legendary Gabe statue, Gabe’s Restaurant was the go-to spot in Owensboro. It closed in 1985 when Gabe Fiorella Jr.–who passed away just two years ago–retired. But I have plenty of memories.

A HOT BROWN SECOND TO…ONE

Now, I have been to the Brown Hotel in Louisville. It’s where the famous Kentucky Hot Brown was invented. And I had one. And it was incredible. The only other establishment that could ever rival it was Gabe’s. In fact, I’m not entirely sure I ever ate anything else when I went to Gabe’s Restaurant other than a hot brown. I remember telling Gabe himself one day that it was just about the best thing I had ever eaten. His reply? “What do you mean ‘just about?’ Terrific guy. And funny. And a great, knowledgeable restaurateur. The great restaurants of today simply do not have the “look” of Gabe’s in its heyday. And that’s okay. Everything evolves. But there’s something about how Gabe’s always looked like the era in which it was built that enhanced its appeal.

WHAT’S IN THE BASEMENT?

Owensboro Public Library

When I was a kid there were a couple of restaurants in town that had intriguing basements. Now, I know that sounds weird, but I will finish. One was Jerry’s, which used to be on Frederica Street just a couple of blocks down from the WBKR studios. I remember when we’d leave Jerry’s, I could see a window under a grate toward the back of the place. And I could see people moving around through that window and I could hear them talking. I had no idea what was going on; I always assumed there were people down there playing cards. I don’t know why; that’s just what it seemed like they were doing. And I never asked my dad if he knew. Well, Gabe’s also had a basement and you could see it down those long stairs whenever you’d leave. There was always a light on down there and I always wondered if I’d ever get to go into the mysterious Gabe’s Restaurant basement. I never did. But this time I asked and I got answers. It’s where clubs like Rotary and Kiwanis used to meet. The  P.U. Band used to play there. It was Gabe’s conference room. But as a kid, everything’s a mystery until someone can give you a definite answer. SIDEBAR: I’d love to find a link to something–anything–about the old P.U. Band that used to play here in Owensboro. We used to go see them all the time at different venues in the area. My best description for this eclectic troupe is that it was a combination of Hee Haw and vaudeville–skits, music, comedy, general silliness. And they were a blast! Anyway, back to Gabe’s and my favorite memory.

DINNER WITH A SENATOR

Senator Wendell Ford (bioguide.congress.gov)

When I was about 12 or 13, I was having lunch at Gabe’s Restaurant with my mother. What I didn’t know until we got there was that we were going to be joined for lunch by an old friend of my family’s–and my mom’s in particular. As we were sitting there looking at the menus, none other than United States Senator Wendell Ford came an sat down. I had never met him, but he’d known my mother since she was a little girl. Well, I was in awe at sitting there eating with a U.S. Senator. It didn’t occur to me that it was nothing for my mother; they were old friends. But, for me, it was like sitting there with the President of the United States. Very cool. It’s not only my favorite Gabe’s Restaurant memory, it’s one of my favorite memories period. I’ll never forget it. And I’ll never forget Gabe’s. And those hot browns. And that basement.

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