In recent years, Louisville has gone from having the reputation as a “hidden gem” on the dining and entertainment scene to being duly recognized as one of the best cities in the U.S. for unique restaurants and bars. And of course, the spotlight shines brightest on Kentucky’s biggest (some would say only) city during Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve week.
Like a lot of cities across the country, especially in the South it seems, Louisville is undergoing a lot of urban development, and new places are opening (sometimes replacing former “buzz” establishments) at a fast pace. Here are some restaurant and bar options to consider during the remainder of Churchill Downs' summer meet through the end of June:
Fernando Martinez has become a Louisville mainstay over the past 10 years with several restaurants bringing a variety of cuisines to Derby City diners, and his Olé Restaurant Group has cornered the local market on the tapas experience with Artesano Vino, which reopened with a makeover in April. Located in the east end of town not far off the Watterson Expressway (I-264), this restaurant is best experienced, as are all tapas establishments, in a large group. Call ahead ASAP after arriving in the ‘Ville to check reservations.
Here’s another Olé venture, this one tapping into the taqueria craze. These casual order-at-the-counter joints (one in the Highlands neighborhood and a new location in St. Matthews) offer a variety of tacos, tortas, and other staples that are fresh and seriously flavorful. The Mexican wrestling vibe is another plus.
3. Namnam Café
This family-owned spot is within walking distance of the St. Matthews Taco Luchador and offers the same high-quality, affordably-priced experience from a cuisine compass point half a world away. The menu features authentic Vietnamese fare including pho, bánh mì, and several tasty entrees including Vietnamese crepes (bánh xèo), which come highly recommended.
This restaurant and tavern has become a Louisville mainstay since opening in 2011. Housed in a former firehouse at the end of Frankfort Avenue in a good walking area, the Dollar offers great Southern eats and more than 100 Kentucky bourbons and ryes – and if the weather’s nice the front hangar door opens up to summon a perfect early-evening, late-spring ambience. A place that worships the Bakersfield sound of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens needs no further recommendation from me.
5. Nulu Options
Over the past several years, a few blocks east of downtown Louisville has seen startup businesses opening in droves, each with a unique flair. Dubbed NuLu, the neighborhood has quickly become one of Louisville’s main attractions for visitors, with shops, restaurants, and bars populating the area around East Market Street. These include two restaurants mentioned in earlier blogs, the delectable barbecue spot Feast (recently visited by “Top Chef’s” Padma Lakshmi prior to the filming of that show’s upcoming season in Kentucky) and the fine burger joint Grind. But there are many others, too, including Harvest, which qualifies as a veteran restaurant in this area as it’s been open since 2011. Harvest specializes in dishes made from locally-sourced ingredients, with a consistently creative menu, friendly staff, and some of the best food in the Derby City.
6. Omni Hotel
This mega-hotel opened in March. Early reviews are just coming online, with a few mentions of shaky service as staff work out the kinks, but if you are staying downtown I would recommend at least visiting the Omni and getting a drink at one of its bars to get a sense of how Louisville is welcoming visitors by showcasing its new centerpiece. Restaurants include Bob’s Steak & Chop House, Neighborhood Services (pictured), and Falls City Market, while the Pin + Proof Speakeasy and Library Bar also offer light bites in addition to expansive drink menus.