Bill Melton loved horses. He loved horses so much that he enshrined his restaurant, Walt’s Hitching Post, with his passion.
Melton took over the Fort Wright, Ky., eatery from founder Walt Ballanger in 1958 — 16 years after Ballanger opened the rib and steak joint — and ran the place until he passed away in 2008. With Melton no longer at the reins, Walt’s unexpectedly shuttered its stable doors in 2010, which devastated the clientele who’d experienced everything from weddings to family outings there. But when all seemed lost, two men rode in on white horses and saved Walt’s: Bronson Trebbi and Donny Arnsperger. In September of 2012, the two partners acquired Walt’s through the Melton trust and resuscitated the restaurant last month.
During one of their pre-opening open houses in April, family and friends gathered to share memories and appeared relieved that Walt’s was back. “I think that it’s a resurgence of pride as well because everyone was quite disappointed to see it go and to go so suddenly when it did in 2010, and you go through the anxiety period of wondering if it’s gone forever,” says owner and proprietor Trebbi. “And more, it’s not to just be restored but be restored with new energy.”
Since reopening a few weeks ago, Walt’s has served more than 5,000 guests — a testament to its loyal fan base. Both Trebbi and Arnsperger, managing partner and general manager, respectively, have warm childhood memories of Walt’s, and now their own kids get to enjoy the restaurant. “Every person through here so far has a story of some kind,” says Trebbi.
“They relate to it in some way, shape or form. I think there’s so much community pride that radiates out from this place, and Fort Wright people and Northern Kentucky people, specifically, feel like they’re back, in an emotional sort of way.”
Before joining forces, Arnsperger worked for Jeff Ruby; Trebbi wanted to be in the restaurant business (he also opened Mt. Lookout’s Wurst Bar in the Square this year). The two vied for Walt’s at different intervals, and when a mutual friend finally introduced Trebbi and Arnsperger, everything fell into place. “Our skill sets are complementary,” explains Trebbi. “I’m more of an idea man, and kind of a holistic approach person and I don’t understand operations at all. I surely don’t understand construction at all, and Donny is very astute at both of those. We don’t really get in each other’s way too much because we’re kind of working on different things.”
The rehabbed interior is a stunning paean to Melton and Kentucky horseracing: A neon visage of Melton haunts the main bar, with Melton’s sobriquet “The Rib Caesar” glowing underneath; colossal oil paintings and murals of racing thoroughbreds are scattered throughout the various themed rooms; private dining room, The Owners Box, was built using reclaimed wood from a Kentucky tobacco farm; there’s a cocktail named after the legendary horse Man o’ War; and rooms like the Latonia Jockey Club (named after the defunct Latonia, Ky., racetrack) have vintage track photos mounted on the walls. “We worked really hard on preserving the original Walt’s but adding to it and fixing the things that needed to be fixed,” says Arnsperger.
Some other things they lightly tweaked were the menu items. “We’ve taken a lot of classics and remodeled them,” says Arnsperger. With Chef Ryan Terry at the helm (Terry is also the chef at Wurst Bar), they added fried green tomatoes to the chicken livers and increased the steak quality.
“[We’re] not reinventing the wheel by any means, just making the wheel a little faster,” says Trebbi on the updated menu.
Walt’s is a kick-back, casual place where everybody knows your name but, like a horse charging down the final furlong, it’s also striving to be No. 1. “Our stated goal is to be the best dining experience in the region, and we’re not bashful about saying that, because whether we achieve it or not, that’s our goal and so we can’t deviate from that goal,” says Trebbi. Arnsperger interjects: “And we’re going to take care of people as if they were guests in your home.”
As for following their mentor’s lead and getting into the horse business themselves, Arnsperger and Trebbi aren’t quite ready to be equine owners — although that’s the dream. “We might buy a horse one of these days and call it The Rib Caesar,” says Arnsperger. Melton would be very proud.
Walt’s Hitching Post
Go: 3300 Madison Pike, Fort Wright
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday