It’s that time of year again in Louisville—when the big hats and big bucks come out to play at Churchill Downs for the annual Kentucky Derby horse-racing event. There will be drama, there will be betting, and you can rest assured there will be bourbon, but whether you’re there to witness “the Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports” or just to soak up the hoopla around the ongoing Derby Festival, there’s one thing you don’t have to gamble with: delicious local food.
From the city’s signature hot brown and a hip country-ham “bar” to Top Chef contestant Edward Lee’s excellent restaurant—not to mention the requisite drive out in the country to taste bourbon at its source—you’ll certainly have more culinary options here than you’ll have time. Here’s what to eat and drink in Louisville now.
This bourbon, mint, and simple-syrup cocktail is the traditional drink of the race, and nearly 120,000 will be served at Churchill Downs over the two-day period of the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby. But the racetrack isn’t your best bet for a real-deal julep, as the bars there mostly pour the Early Times Ready-to-Serve Mint Julep—in other words, a bottled mix. That’s not to say it’s not tasty or, ahem, effective, but do yourself a favor and belly up to a traditional bourbon bar for a handmade julep over crushed ice.
You can’t go wrong at the historic, genteel Old Seelbach Bar, inside the Seelbach Hilton (500 S. 4th St.)—it’s a fantastic place to sample bourbon, period. As for Churchill Downs? Try the track’s “other” house cocktail, the Oaks Lily, a sweet medley of vodka, cranberry juice, triple sec, sour mix, and a splash of 7-Up—no premade mixes in sight.
You’ll want to be hungry (or hungover) for this one: This Louisville icon is an open-faced sandwich of tender turkey, crispy bacon, and tomato, covered in cheesy Mornay sauce and broiled until the bread is toasty and the cheese bubbly. It’s easy to find all over town, but the famed Brown Hotel (335 W. Broadway), invented this dish back in 1926 and still serves a terrific version of it, dusted in paprika and topped with shredded Parmesan. If you haven’t tried it, you must: It’s the No. 1 food Louisville is known for.
Much in the vein of England’s Welsh rarebit, this savory state specialty combines cheese with beer and spices in a dip of sorts and serves it, traditionally, with crackers. It’s not terribly hard to find in Louisville; brewpubs serve it with pretzels and even the farmers market has a stand selling the stuff. But one of the best versions is at Eiderdown, a gastropub in Germantown that combines Euro and Southern traditions to delicious effect, where the unbelievably creamy, rich beer cheese comes to the table warm and fondue-like, alongside a thin-sliced baguette from a local cafe. Pair it with a local beer from Eiderdown’s excellent list, and you can’t go wrong. (As of early 2022, Eiderdown is temporarily closed)
This spicy stew combines chunks of various meats and veggies together into comfort-food heaven. Whereas traditionally the dish was made with whatever Kentucky’s hunters could get their hands on—venison, squirrel, raccoon, etc.—nowadays beef, chicken, and pork are more commonly used. Burgoo is another Churchill Downs tradition, but you can certainly find it elsewhere around town, particularly in Louisville’s barbecue restaurants, like the casual, family-friendly Mark’s Feed Store (takeout is pictured; multiple locations including 11422 Shelbyville Rd).
If you’ve traveled anywhere in the South, you’ve probably encountered country ham, likely on a breakfast menu. Lots of it comes from Kentucky, so Louisville is no exception (see, for example, the Proof Benedict at the excellent, seasonally inspired Proof on Main). But it’s also where you may encounter country ham like you never have before: in a tasting platter from the local “ham bar” at Garage Bar (700 E. Market St.), a hip restaurant housed in a former garage that hangs legs of ham, Euro style, in one of its corners.
The delicate, shaved-off pieces of ham you’re presented with may resemble prosciutto or jamón serrano, but it’s all sourced from Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee—and, dare we say, it’s just as good. (While you’re there, also try the rolled oysters in cornmeal batter—another Kentucky thing—and a few of its excellent wood-fired pizzas.)
Not only is it delicious, but it’s also named Derby pie—of course you’ll need one of these. Imagine a chocolate-chip cookie crossed with a pecan or walnut pie, with bourbon added for good measure—that’s a Derby pie. The name itself is trademarked by its creator, Kern’s Kitchen, who still ship out the pies to places like the Brown Hotel (where it’s still quite good). But on other menus, just look for a variation of “chocolate bourbon pecan”—like the pecan chocolate-chip pie at Homemade Ice Cream and Pie Kitchen (multiple locations including 2525 Bardstown Rd.)—and you’ll get something similar, prepared in-house.
And definitely swing by the excellent Comfy Cow ice cream shop (multiple locations including 13301 Shelbyville Rd #106) to try the flavor called Simply Southern, a mashup of pecan pie, roasted pecans, chocolate chips, and bourbon in what’s essentially Derby pie ice cream.
Ever hear of Kentucky Fried Chicken? KFC is headquartered in Louisville, but we’re not suggesting you hit up the nearest franchise. You could drive out to Shelbyville (40 minutes) and try the touted fried chicken, complete with 11 herbs and spices, at Claudia Sanders Dinner House—that’s the restaurant established by the Colonel and his wife back in 1968—or you could do this: Swing by the drive-through at Indi’s Fast Food Restaurant, a local chain; spend a few bucks on some spicy hot chicken; and prepare to be blown away by the crisp, perfectly fried, perfectly spiced tender chicken (served with wedges, pictured). Trust us.
The place to try this delicious local sweet is nearly century-old Muth’s Candy (630 E. Market St.), a step-back-in-time kind of place in the midst of the revitalized NuLu district on East Market Street, home to the previously mentioned Garage Bar, fabulous coffee shop Please & Thank You, popular Yucatecan restaurant Mayan Café, and more. Bourbon balls are little chocolate-dipped balls with soft, sugary centers of bourbon-soaked pecans; they’re made with real bourbon (Very Old Barton, in this case) that is not cooked off. Which is to say you’d better like the taste of bourbon in your chocolate. Have you noticed a theme here yet?
Pimiento cheese sandwich
This dish isn’t specific to Kentucky, but it is a Southern thing—and you can’t really beat the atmosphere or price. Just across the street from Churchill Downs is a 1922-established drugstore-cum-diner called Wagner’s Pharmacy (3113 S. 4th St.), historically the place to rub elbows with jockeys, trainers, and the various celebrities who come out for the Derby (you should expect a table wait this time of year). It’s just a little greasy spoon serving a basic breakfast and lunch menu till 1pm or 2pm daily, but our money’s on the generously sized pimiento cheese sandwich, which will fill your belly for an afternoon of revelry for a $5.99.