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Kaelin's Restaurant, Birthplace of the Cheeseburger

May 28, 2000 (Updated Jan 24, 2002)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Historic, fun, great food, and friendly staff

Cons:none at all

The Bottom Line: This tiny Louisville, KY restaurant is the birthplace of the Cheeseburger. An American fast food icon


Jimmy Buffett and Parrotheads everywhere owe Carl Kaelin a huge debt, without him Buffett's famous song "Cheeseburger in Paradise" would have been something like "Ham and Cheese on Rye in Paradise". I doubt it would have been a hit or become a Parrothead anthem.

One day in 1934, Kaelin and his wife were plucking a chicken in their chickencoop. The floor was strewn with newspapers to catch the feathers, Kaelin looked down and the words "Restaurant for Sale" caught his eye, and his interest, the rest is history. Shortly after opening their new restaurant Kaelin was cooking a hamburger when he had a sudden inspiration, why not add a slice of American cheese? He liked the extra "tang" from the cheese and dubbed his new creation the "cheeseburger". A proclamation from the mayor of the city of Louisville designates every October 12th (the date the cheeseburger was invented) as Kaelin's "Cheeseburger" day in the Derby City.

Kaelin was never one to rest on his laurels, he liked trying new and different menu ideas. One day an imposing gentleman in a white suit came around with a new way to cook chicken. Kaelin tried the chicken, thought it was delicious and became the first franchisee to sign up with the new Colonel Sander's Kentucky Fried Chicken Company. The exhibits in the Harland Sanders Cafe and Museum in Corbin, Kentucky, re-create the original Colonel Sanders Restaurant; many of these items actually came from Kaelin's.

Carl, always looking for better ways to serve his customers, was one of the first in Louisville to offer drive in "curb service". One of the original curb service employees still works for the restaurant. For many years the dining rooms upstairs were a popular local jazz bar, called appropriately enough, the "Top Cheese" Lounge. St. Agnes School (across the street from the restaurant) sent their students to Kaelin's for lunch every day, until the school was able to raise the funds and build their own cafeteria.

Today Kaelin's is much like it was in 1934, the restaurant is still in the original old Highlands house on Newburg Road, the original sign still sits out front, and asks "if you can't stop, wave". The cheeseburgers are still cooked in cast iron skillets (never on a grill), old fashioned milkshakes and sundaes are still served, the pies on the menu are baked fresh, and the buns are still baked by Ehrmann's Bakery (one of Louisville's oldest bakeries) just as they were in the thirties. The Top Cheese Lounge and curb service are gone, but the great original cheeseburgers are here to stay.

The menu at Kaelin's features a lot more than cheeseburgers. The soups are all homemade, the hash browns are still made from fresh potatoes (and cooked in the same cast iron skillets as the burgers), the BBQ baby back ribs are "fall off the bone" tender and feature Chef Mike's famous sauce, the biscuit pudding (a taste of "old south" Louisville) with Bourbon sauce and whipped cream is not to be missed.

There's a party room available for up to forty people, and all items on the menu are available for carryout. The restaurant is located at 1801 Newburg Road (take the Newburg Road North exit from the Watterson Expressway) the phone number is (502) 451-1801. Prices are reasonable and portions are large. Reservations are not required. The restaurant's small downstairs dining rooms are dark, relaxed, and comfortable. Cocktails, beer, and wine are available. Everything on the menu is still made from scratch just as it was in 1934.

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