Sitting pretty on the banks of the Ohio River, Louisville rolls out a warm welcome steeped in bourbon and Southern hospitality. Although traditional Kentucky cuisine still maintains a firm grip on the culinary lexicon, this 'Bourbon City' is full of surprising edible discoveries. Here are a few of the most delicious pockets of town to explore, and a few dishes you’ll want to dig into when you get there. Pack an appetite, y’all.
Short for ‘New Louisville’, the funky East Market District just east of downtown fell on hard times during the recession, but is rebounding nicely thanks to affordable rents and a devoted following of folks intent on seeing this neighborhood succeed. Now, NuLu isn’t just surviving, it’s thriving with a laid-back lineup of residents that includes antique shops, art galleries, boutiques, eclectic eateries, an urban distillery and a new AC Hotel. (Rumor has it, Padma Lakshmi loved NuLu while Bravo’s Top Chef was in town filming its Kentucky-based season.)
Even as NuLu holds tight to its rough-around-the-edges charm, it’s home to a handful of magnet restaurants that fall somewhere between casual-chic and high-end. Sleek Decca and farm-to-table Harvest both maintain approachable atmospheres with a degree of panache. The pioneering Mayan Café has been a go-to for Southern Mexican cuisine since it opened years ago, well ahead of the NuLu boom. You may think you don’t like lima beans, but you’ve never had them like this — laced with green onions, parsley, lime juice and ground pepitas. Order some to accompany the salbutes, housemade corn tortillas with all sorts of yummy toppings.
Lifeblood to Kentuckians, the country ham platter at Garage Bar (housed in a former auto repair shop) is served in paper-thin slices alongside smoked peaches, locally made bread and red-eye aioli. Two blocks down, the bourbon slushy at Feast BBQ is sweet and whimsical enough to stand in for dessert, or practical as a mouth-cooling antidote to some Royals Hot Chicken.
Browse the old-school vinyl selection over a cup of joe and a cookie at Please & Thank You. And a true Louisville original, caramel-covered marshmallow Modjeskas capably quell sweet tooth cravings at Muth’s Candy just up the street, a neighborhood fixture since 1921.
Radiating out from Market and Main streets near the river, Louisville’s traditional meatpacking district has evolved into a full-fledged dining destination defined by colorful murals, an all-inclusive vibe and an influx of establishments that celebrate regionally sourced meat, produce and foodstuffs.
Across the street from the JBS Swift pork processing plant, Butchertown Market anchors the neighborhood with five local retailers under one spacious roof. Handcrafted bourbon balls from Cellar Door Chocolates or a couple bottles of Bourbon Barrel Foods small-batch soy sauce make great take-home souvenirs.
Not to be confused with the market, Butchertown Grocery helmed by chef Bobby Benjamin boasts uniquely continental-meets-Kentucky menus that highlight white cheddar grits, bourbon-smoked pork belly and beignets with bacon anglaise. Sneak upstairs to the speakeasy-ish Lola for a nightcap after dinner, or pre-game with a tour and tasting at Copper & Kings, the only dedicated brandy distillery in the whole of Bourbon Country.
A more recent addition to the neighborhood, the plant-centric Naïve belies its name with expertly prepared seasonal dishes like a veggie-laden breakfast fried rice, green pea hummus and watermelon poke. The ‘Butcher Block’ strip proposes another fun little row of shops and restaurants to consider, including Red Hot Roasters coffee, Hi-Five Donuts and Pho Ba Luu.
Longtime Louisville residents joke that every corner in historic Germantown holds a church, a cemetery or a pub. Immigrants settled this working-class neighborhood back in the late 1800s/early 1900s, and although hipsters are beginning to ease into the shotgun homes with their young kids and urban chicken coops, the strong German roots still run deep.
Maple bacon donuts from Nord’s Bakery make for a ‘guten morgen’ indeed, especially when washed down with a cup of coffee from Bean or Heine Brothers. At lunchtime, blue-collar workers rub elbows with bluebloods and everyone in between at Check’s Café over servings of braunschweiger and chili. For something a little more contemporary, check out Monnik Beer Co.’s creative pub grub and craft brews.
Everyone gets along in Germantown, where dive-y beer-and-a-shot hangouts like Nachbar and the Pearl comfortably coexist with modernized German/American cuisine at Eiderdown, up-market burgers at Four Pegs Beer Lounge, thin-crusted New York-style pizza at the Post and elevated Italian fare at Sarino.
Zanzabar appeals to Millennials through Nashville-style meat-and-three lunches, arcade games and live music in a building that dates back to the 1930s. And Couvillion satisfies stomachs and souls with Deep South dishes like shrimp and grits, duck Creole and smoked cornbread.
Long considered Louisville’s ‘Restaurant Row’, Frankfort Avenue still commands respect around these parts for its wealth of around-the-world ethnic eateries. Clifton technically covers the St. Matthews and Crescent Hill neighborhoods as well, only adding to the area’s already wide-ranging appeal.
Greet the day with authentic chilaquiles (when the server asks if you want to add chorizo? Yes, you do.) and decadent Mexican hot chocolate prepared tableside at Con Huevos. And because you can never have too many tacos, follow up later in the day at El Mundo, home to a heckuva tequila/mezcal list. If Italian’s more your jam, you can chow bella at some of the most romantic upscale spots in town – Porcini, Volare, Varanese and DiFabio’s Casapela.
The Champagnery merges art, bubbly and light bites to makes any occasion feel soignee, a perfect prelude to sustainably sourced Pacific seafood at Ostra. Spanish for ‘oyster’, this elegant eatery headed up by chef Adam Burress shows off his skills with shellfish, poke and ceviche, as well as tasty turf options and some unexpected desserts. Cricket-flour brownies, anyone?
In Crescent Hill, Red Hog shape-shifts from artisanal butcher by day to sleek eatery by night featuring high-end charcuterie and craft cocktails. The sausage, prosciutto and other meaty treats also make breakfast and lunchtime appearances on the café menu at the Blue Dog Bakery sister operation.
Lonely Planet has produced this article for Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau. All editorial views are those of Lonely Planet alone and reflect our policy of editorial independence and impartiality.