Remembering the Back Door of Louisville, Kentucky

Remembering the Back Door of Louisville, Kentucky

A great bar will usually only last as long as its founder. Sometimes, you get lucky, and the kid will take over, but the kid has to be as passionate about the place as mom or dad was. That’s pretty rare. It’s not a knock on the kid (or kids), mind you; it’s just that the place was always more than a bar to mom or dad. It was a hobby, an addiction, a curse, a lover. It was everything. And that’s why they spent all their waking hours (and sometimes their sleeping ones too) at this watering hole. To the kids, it’s usually just “mom or dad’s bar,” but to mom or dad, it was much more.

And so, when the original owner passes away, taking his passion and drive with them, it’s usually not too long before there’s a closed sign in the window.

That’s exactly what just happened in Louisville, Kentucky.

The Back Door, a great little neighborhood bar on Bardstown Road, just closed permanently. In October, the longtime owner, John Dant, passed away after a brief illness. His son, Taylor, took over and gave it a game stab, but, alas, the financial situation was not what you might call “ideal,” and so the place was shuttered this May.

John bought the bar in the back of a shopping mall in 1987 and manned it for the next 36 years. He transformed it from a small, obscure saloon to one of the premiere destinations in town. He expanded it, brought in a kitchen and patio, and made it one of the most welcoming places in the area.

The bar was everything you’d want—a pool table, a long, dark-stained wooden bar, beer signs, and flickering televisions. Seasonal decorations adorned the walls and ceiling at the appropriate time, and the din of conversation and laughter filled the air.

Then there were the portraits. Back in 2007, a regular at the Back Door named Bill Page began painting caricature portraits on one of the walls, filling it with the faces of friends and Back Door loyalists (including himself). That started a trend that kept Bill busy for the next decade and a half. Before he was even done with the first set of portraits, regulars were asking to get their face up there too, so Bill obliged, and by 2019, every wall in the bar was covered by the smiling likenesses of the people who called the Back Door home.

A native of Louisville, John was also a major supporter of all things local. Though he never attended college, he was a huge fan of the University of Kentucky, making sure the game was on whenever they played. He also generously gave to local causes for the arts and animal rescue, and whenever he could, he worked to improve his neighborhood (the local pickleball courts have his name on them).

But more than any of this, he was what we used to call a publican, that is, a tavern keeper. He spent his mornings at the Back Door, afternoons, and most nights. He knew his customers by their first names and knew their spouses and their kids, too. Many of the married couples he served actually met at his bar for the first time. In 36 years, he served parents and their children, and he laughed and cried with all of them.

He was, in other words, very hands-on.

In an age when local bars, the mom-and-pop places, are giving way to the chain joints, people like John Dant are in short supply. Not taking anything away from the managers of the franchise places, but you just can’t replace the passion of an owner like John. He built the Back Door with his bare hands, with his sleepless nights and early mornings. And he did it for almost four decades.

It came as a shock to the Louisville community when the bar posted the fateful letter on Facebook, telling them that it was closing down for good. Some people reacted with sadness, as if an old pal had just died. Others expressed regret at not going more recently and thereby losing their chance at ever having a drink at the Back Door again. Still others posted their memories of the fun times and late nights with family and friends.

I’m sure John appreciates the sentiments of the many fans of the Back Door, and I’m sure it would make him proud to see how much his place touched the lives of the many locals who found a welcome spot at his bar. Now, they must move on, just as he did, and find another welcoming place to bend an elbow in. But they better hurry because places like this are getting harder and harder to find.

So, here’s to John, to his passion and love for his bar, the Back Door. May he enjoy a well-earned rest after giving us a place filled with joy and happiness for 36 years. And here’s to all the other bar owners out there, filled with similar passion and drive to make their bar a home for the rest of us.