Where History Horses & Hospitality Meet
Photo provided by Walt’s Hitching Post
Walt’s Hitching Post is one of the most iconic restaurants in the tri-state area with a rich history that is shared by the flavor of the fare, the ambiance of the rooms, the hospitality of the staff, and even the unique aroma of the walls. It all started back in 1942 when Walt Ballanger and his wife Mary founded the establishment, which they named from cast-iron posts where guests could tie up their horses.
In 1958, Ballanger sold the restaurant to Bill Melton, an orphan who started out in life without much money but died a wealthy businessman after building a successful career. The story goes that Melton won the restaurant in a poker game. An enthusiastic card shark, he had a room built on the back of Walt’s so he could host late-night games.
“This was in the 60’s when the mafia was big in Newport, and Billy had a lot of friends who gambled through the night until the sun came up,” says Donny Arnsperger, who, along with Bronson Trebbi, co-purchased Walt’s from the Melton Trust in 2012, four years after Melton’s passing.
“Billy Melton was a Han Solo type of guy – quite a character,” says Arnsperger. “He worked hard, played cards, and loved horses.”
It seems appropriate that Trebbi, an Ohio native, and Arnsperger, a Kentucky native, would come to co-own a restaurant that attracts guests from both states.
“About half of our business comes from Ohio. People drive from Indian Hill, Blue Ash, Mariemont, and all over,” says Arnsperger. “The people in northern Kentucky love our location because all they have to do is drive down the hill.”
Guests appreciate not having to fight city traffic or deal with parking hassles (the lot is large, plus valet service is an option).
Growing up, both Arnsperger and Trebbi had regularly dined at Walt’s, so there was a personal history there, too. Arnsperger had 20-plus years of experience working in the restaurant industry, as did David Wilson (aka Sanchez), whom he hired as Walt’s General Manager.
Before Arnsperger and Trebbi re-opened Walt’s for business, they renovated the 8,000-square-foot establishment.
“Bronson and I share the same business motto,” says Arnsperger. “Go big or go home.”
To that end, they laid down custom hardwood flooring throughout both bars that came from refinished barnwood. About four feet up on the walls they also installed reclaimed hardwood floors from a tobacco warehouse. As a result, when you step inside, you’re greeted with a unique blend of inviting smells – tobacco, ribs, and bourbon.
The co-owners installed a custom copper ceiling in the Derby Room, a private party area that holds up to 100 people. They also hung custom-made valances and window treatments.
Former owner Melton raced horses and therefore owned several pieces of equine memorabilia. To preserve the rich racing history of Kentucky, Arnsperger and Trebbi reframed many of those items. When outfitting the Derby Room, they spent a lot of time at the Historical Preservation Society of Kentucky, where they found a number of photos of the Latonia Race Track, a Thoroughbred racing facility that opened in 1883 and annually attracted more than 100,000 visitors. The track went out of business during the Great Depression, but was considered the Churchill Downs of the day.
“Our graphic designer sharpened and blew up a lot of photos to frame,” says Arnsperger, who also had a lithograph of the racetrack turned into wallpaper and hung in the back of the Derby Room. In addition, one of the private dining areas is dedicated to Steve Cauthen, a Kentucky native who, in 1978, became the youngest Triple Crown winning jockey ever.
“Steve donated many of his personal effects for that room,” says Arnsperger.
It’s rustic luxury at an affordable price as Walt’s delivers a “white table cloth experience” at 50 percent less than other steak houses. Plus, they serve not only savory cuts of steak, but also smokehouse slabs of ribs, smoked chicken, and juicy steak burgers. Walt’s also has an extensive wine list and one of the largest bourbon selections in the Bluegrass state.
Long-time patron Burr Travis has been frequenting Walt’s since the mid-1960s and, despite the extensive menu, he can’t seem to break free of the mouth-watering ribs.
“In the thousands of times I’ve dined at Walt’s, I’ve only ordered something else once or twice,” says Travis. He admits, however, that it’s more than just the cuisine that keeps him coming back.
“From the time you drop your keys with the valet to the time you pick them up, everyone on staff takes tremendous care of you,” says Travis, noting that in the five-plus decades he’s been going to Walt’s Hitching Post, he’s been blown away by the stellar service, the sweet staff, and the sensational commitment to community.
“On top of it all, they’re very charitable,” says Travis. “I feel fortunate to have a restaurant like this in our community.”
The folks at Walt’s feel just as fortunate to have the continued support of their steadfast guests.
“People have come out in droves,” says Arnsperger. “It’s far exceeded our expectations.”
Even celebrities and local personalities have graced Walt’s, including Emilio Estevez, Josh Hutcherson, Bill Hemmer, Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Cris Collinsworth, Rand Paul, Bob Huggins and Joe Morgan (aka the Big Red Machine).
Part of the appeal is that diners are welcome to come as they are, whether dressed in golf apparel or a three-piece suit.
“Walt’s has always been a restaurant for every income level, and that’s the way we want to keep it,” says Arnsperger. “People want value for their money. That’s where we meet and exceed expectations.”
For starters, they don’t charge items á la carte. For example, a 16-oz. New York Strip comes with house salad and choice of signature home fries, baked potato, or mashed potato – all for $34. Families and couples appreciate that, as do businessmen and women who can treat their clients to jumbo shrimp, Alaskan king crab legs, succulent steaks and fine wine for half the cost of another steakhouse.
“Their entertainment dollar goes a lot further here,” says Arnsperger.
Not only does the restaurant have loyal guests, but they also have devoted staff. Judy Norton has been a server at Walt’s since 1965 and still works three days a week, greeting and serving patrons.
“She’s a firecracker,” says Arnsperger. Then there’s Zeke Jeffcoat, a semi-retired chef who worked for Melton. He, too, comes in thrice a week to help prepare the ribs and make the signature tomato garlic dressing.
“I’ve known both Judy and Zeke since I was little,” says Arnsperger. “They were the personality people and still are.”
Back in the day, Judy and her colleagues knew guests’ first names, what they liked to drink and where they liked to sit. The same holds true today.
“Our staff treats patrons like family,” says Arnsperger. “The difference between us and a chain restaurant is that they are concerned about getting every dollar out of you whereas we care about getting you to come back.”
The staff is paid well above market value and enjoy working at Walt’s, both for the paycheck and for the positive atmosphere.
“We have fun,” says Arnsperger, who is typically at the restaurant six evenings a week, mingling with the regulars.
“On any given night, Sanchez and I will know 70 percent of the people in the dining room,” says Arnsperger.
“We want to know what they enjoy most and not be closed-minded about adding things to the menu or tweaking items based on guest feedback,” says Trebbi. “A lot of restaurant owners allow their egos to get in the way of making changes. If you set the ego aside and keep an ‘open ears’ philosophy, you can evolve right along with your guests.”
The four private dining areas hold everything from corporate parties to birthday bashes, rehearsal dinners to anniversary celebrations, graduation shindigs to baby showers.
“We have an ‘above and beyond’ philosophy where we’ll stop at nothing to make a guest happy,” says Trebbi. “Just call ahead and we’ll make it happen.”
This might include making a special dish, creating a table theme, or including a sentimental item to help commemorate the event.
“We want people to keep that in mind when making their decision about where to go,” says Trebbi. “Here at Walt’s, it’s about the food, the place, the experience.”
Walt’s Hitching Post is open for dinner. If you’d like to hold an event at Walt’s, contact Private Dining Sales Manager Jennifer Kohl at 859.360.2222