Walking through Louisville, Maggie and I were immediately struck by how unmovable, how unchangeable the city feels. In a world full of 2.0’s and flash-in-the-pan trends, Louisville has remained completely and utterly unfazed. Their annual race features the original horsepower, their baseball bats are still made of wood, their spirit is still aged in oak barrels, and the recipes for the perfect Kentucky Hot Brown and Mint Julep are chiseled in stone.
But, it is along the edges of these cornerstones of tradition where we found a new culture sprouting. While you would be remiss to skip over the “must-sees” that make Louisville an American classic, there are some hidden tracks to explore in Derby City.
The little house across the way
After a long day of travel, diving headlong into a formal bourbon tasting was a bit too much for my wife, Maggie, and me. Even so, we were excited to sip, so we opted for drinks with a dinner. Just across the powerful Ohio River, down on the riverfront sits the Portage House. The small restaurant resides on the state line of Indiana in a charming home built in 1907, and features the best views of the Louisville skyline the city has to offer. You can nestle into a cozy corner in the beautifully curated home, but my wife and I chose to sit on the patio and enjoy the cool breezes coming off the river.
Maggie found herself a lovely cucumber-infused gin cocktail from their creative list. While I was impressed with the wine list’s approachability…this is Bourbon County, so I selected a personal favorite from the extensive menu.
Award-winning Chef Dallas McGarity, who has already established himself in the area food scene with his first restaurant, The Fat Lamb, brought out our entrées himself. His take on American classics such as shrimp and grits and hot fried chicken forever changed the way we think of the often-abused term “modern American cuisine”. We ordered dessert in an attempt to stretch the evening later into the night. I’m proud to report that we managed to remain civil in sharing the heavenly chocolate mousse, which Chef Dallas devilishly laced with mascarpone cheese.
I could feel my internal metronomes fall in sync with the city’s beat as the Big Four Bridge’s rhythmic light show danced across the last few sips of bourbon in my glass.
A taste of Prohibition
As we strolled past towering copper stills shimmering inside distilleries’ windows, I found it hard to imagine what a town built on bourbon would have looked like during America’s Prohibition. But, we had been given detailed instructions on where the libations flowed.
Just off Main Street, close enough to the hustle and bustle to not raise suspicion but hidden enough to avoid unwanted attention, we spotted the charcoal gray door above which hung a globe lamp reading, “HELLO CURIO”. I opened the door, and we stepped inside.
“You sure this is the place?” Maggie asked, her eyes scanning over the bleach white walls covered in oddities and trinkets. We waited for a moment, and just as we began to speculate on if we needed a passcode or secret knock, an incognito door creaked open, and we were ushered in to the hidden world of Hell or High Water Bar.
The term “speakeasy” should be reserved for places such as this. Yes, they can legally pour you a drink, and no…the Law won’t be busting down the doors anytime soon. But, it has the brassy glow that would make even The Great Gatsby’s infamous Mr. Wolfsheim blush with excitement.
Inside we found our choice of venue: the library featuring bookshelves filled with vintage books and dark leather arm chairs, red velvet booths in the lounge or an absurdly well-stocked bar boasting classic tin ceiling tiles. If we had planned further ahead we could have reserved the hidden room that guests enter through the doors of an inconspicuous wardrobe.
The knowledgeable barkeep crafted two amazing drinks for us, and we relaxed into the soft shadows in the corner of the library.
A basement block party
There came a point on our trip when Maggie and I felt the need to venture off Whiskey Row, to explore beyond Derby-themed restaurants and glowing bottles of bourbon, and just eat some barbecue. Lucky for us, Louisville sits nearly equidistant from our nation’s barbecue Meccas: Kansas City, Memphis, Atlanta, and Charlotte. Needless to say, if you have a favorite style of barbecue, you’ll be able to find it in here. But, we didn’t travel to Louisville to get a taste of someplace else! We wanted something uniquely Louisville.
Hiding in what once were the city’s suburbs, in the basement of a quaint-looking house on the corner of Swan and Caldwell, sits Hammerheads. We knew we were in the right place when we saw the line of foodies waiting for the doors to open…and the life-sized Hammerhead shark hanging above what would be the garage.
Hammerheads feels more like a block party thrown by a group of talented chefs than it does a barbecue pit or upscale restaurant, and we were immediately enamored.
While their menu features all the classics including brisket, pulled pork, and ribs, this is not your traditional barbecue joint. Hammerhead takes everything to the next level. We ordered a half-rack of lamb ribs, a duck taco, and a venison burger covered in blue cheese and sage aioli. And oh how satisfying it was!
Needless to say, we weren’t moving very quickly after our visit. But, why would we want to anyway?
The living city of Louisville
Louisville is already a must-visit American classic. You can lose yourself on the Whiskey Trail, enjoy a Hot Brown for breakfast at the Brown Hotel, and refresh your palate with a Mint Julep on Whiskey Row. You can watch the first stretch of a Triple Crown run at Churchill and possibly win enough money to pay off the oversized hat or seersucker suit you bought. So, by all means, take in all of Louisville’s traditions. After all, that is what made Derby City what it is today.
But don’t be fooled; a new and vibrant food scene is emerging in this storied city. From The Holy Grail (a church-turned-craft-beer-draft-house) to The Silver Dollar (an old firehouse turned into one of the city’s must-eat brunch spots), there’s an all-new Louisville waiting to be discovered.