Of all the lunch joints in all the towns in all the world, I was lucky enough to have walked into Gavi’s. A lunchtime oasis in a litigation dessert where hall of justice refugees could eat, drink, or hide out. A place where all citizens of the courthouse world were welcomed by and into the Gavi family. It may have felt like we would always have meatloaf Monday, pepper steak Tuesday, and fried chicken Wednesday, but Gavi’s can no longer round up enough of the usual suspects to keep the business going. Who was it Gavi’s customers left them for? Was it Subway, or were there others in between? Or aren’t they the kind that tell? It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of one little restaurant don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, but, as you may suspect, underneath my cynical shell I am a sentimentalist, and Gavi’s is a place that has touched my heart - my least vulnerable spot.
You must remember this: there is no justice without lunch. One of the fundamental things that apply to legal communities everywhere is that somewhere within arguing distance of every courthouse there must be a place where people can go to escape from mornings spent dealing with the havoc wreaked by other people with hearts full of passion, jealousy, and hate. A neutral safe haven with good food where you won’t be asked who are you really, and what were you before? What did you do and what did you think? There was a time here in Louisville when we had four (4) such places on which we could rely. As time has gone by, the lunch crowd has passed Hollies, the Colonnade, and the Delta by. They all tried to hold out against the rising tide of fast-food fascism, but Gavi’s succeeded the longest.
I never had the pleasure of meeting Joseph Gavi, who along with his wife Ida, and daughter Zina opened the restaurant back in 1982. Those who knew him would tell you that he was just like any other man, only more so. The day I walked into Gavi’s was the beginning of a beautiful friendship with Ida, Zina, and her sons David and Gaba (who, when it comes to women, are true democrats). While the greater downtown Louisville restaurant world will always welcome Gavi’s customers, when Gavi’s closes, there will be a great many of us who will regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But soon and for the rest of our lives. That no one can deny.
So if you’re walking down Seventh Street anytime soon don’t be surprised if you see a guy standing in the rain with a comical look on his face because his insides have been kicked out, who sounds like a man who’s trying to convince himself of something he doesn’t believe in his heart and, who through lack of money, or influence, or luck was unable find another sanctuary like Gavi’s. It would take a miracle to find chicken livers on a Friday anywhere else in Louisville but Gavi’s, and Jimmy Johns has outlawed miracles.
Every legal community is peopled with colorful characters who gather in and around the courthouse to share stories about their legal triumphs and misadventures, tell jokes at each other’s expense, and wax nostalgic about how much better things used to be. For about a third of the lawyers in Louisville, that place was the Colonnade Cafeteria. My father ate lunch there at the same table with the same people for over thirty-five years. The criminal bar hung out at Hollies restaurant, directly across the street from the courthouse. It had a full bar and was so full of cigarette smoke that you could barely see who you were exaggerating to. Gavi’s was the last of its kind for my kind. What is known in the South as “a meat and three” but with a Russian-Jewish twist (e.g., Borscht and Matzah Ball soup). I wrote this tribute in appreciation to the Gavi family for many years of fine food and even finer friendship. Given the similarity between the eclectic and eccentric clientele seeking refuge, entertainment, sustenance or just hiding or hanging out at Gavi’s and Rick’s Café Americain, I was inspired to include twenty-five mashed-up references to the film Casablanca in this appreciation. Please feel free to contact me here to request the Answer Key.