If you’re reading this you’re probably expecting to spend most of Nov. 2-3 at Churchill Downs. To make the most efficient use of your limited time, I suggest you get to know Old Louisville, the historic neighborhood close to the racetrack that will be your best option for food and drink immediately before and after the races.
Of course, you should absolutely do your best to visit as many parts of town as possible. Like any great city, most of our neighborhoods have their own distinct character. Some are notable for their history (Old Louisville) or ethnic heritage (Germantown), while others are defined more by a commercial identity, like trendy Market Street (cloyingly referred to as “NuLu” by developers and marketers) or emerging Portland.
But what if you just want to stop for a quick bite on your way to the track, or are starving by the time you get out of there after the Classic? The answer is to head toward downtown on 3rd or 4th streets into Old Louisville, where you can find quality neighborhood joints that won’t require a reservation, as well as world-class restaurants where you’re almost certainly already too late to get a reservation.
In the morning, stop at North Lime Donuts, which opened last year in a thoughtfully renovated industrial building that had been abandoned for more than 25 years. The space establishes a relaxed vibe, with its high ceilings and abundant natural light. An upstairs loft tends to be quieter, occupied by families in the mornings and students in the afternoons. Most importantly, though, the donuts are the best I’ve ever had, substantial and greasy, with a handful of standard offerings and creative daily and seasonal specials.
I should also mention that this is the second location for North Lime Donuts. The original opened in Lexington on North Limestone about six years ago and already commands a following among the horse people there.
For a quick but superb lunch very close to the track, try Wiltshire at the Speed, the café at the Speed Art Museum, adjacent to the University of Louisville on South Third Street. It’s operated by Susan Hershberg of Wiltshire on Market and features the same kind of light, fresh, seasonal cuisine that has made her flagship restaurant one of the city’s best. The café has its own entrance so museum admission is not necessary. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Wednesday to Saturday, and noon to 4 p.m. on Sunday, so this is the perfect option for an easy but high quality meal before the races.
The foremost dining experience in Old Louisville, or anywhere else in the city, is at 610 Magnolia, the wildly popular and inventive kitchen headed by celebrity chef Edward Lee. The menu takes Southern cuisine and mixes it with Lee’s own Korean familial influences, combining two of the best food traditions in the world into something wholly original. The only problem here is that a reservation at 610 Magnolia usually needs to be had several months in advance, so I suggest forgetting about it for this visit and instead contacting them now for Derby week! (You can, however, as of this writing, still get in at Milkwood, which is Lee’s downtown restaurant that is more casual and not near as immersive an experience, but excellent in its own right).
So let’s assume you’re not going to 610 Magnolia but you do want a legitimately special dinner in Old Louisville, right?
Just this afternoon I made a reservation at Buck’s, a charmingly peculiar mainstay on Ormsby, minutes from Churchill Downs by way of 3rd Street. The menu is of an old-school country club variety, where class and execution – and being able to order your favorite dish year after year – are prized above all else. Your parents would love it, but so will you, because the décor is dominated by an over-the-top, almost comical obsession with live flower arrangements and the atmosphere provided by a piano player nightly. It’s got a timeless, festive feeling that hits the right notes for any special occasion but strikes me as especially appropriate for toasting the Breeders’ Cup winners with friends. When I checked today, the hostess (who called me “sweetie” five times in our two-minute exchange) said they had a few openings left for Breeders’ Cup weekend but that they started to fill up just in the last few days. Get on it now and if you see me there on Nov. 3 you can thank me by buying me a drink!
But let’s say you don’t have a reservation on Saturday night, or you’ve lost all your money betting the American horses in the Turf, then what do you do?
Bar Vetti on 4th Street is a chill joint in the lobby of a residential building with a menu that is mostly Italian but also has the requisite Southern touches that are so popular right now (for example, the small plates include Broadbent Country Ham with no accoutrements, just as it appears on other local menus, like at Garage Bar, which is not necessarily a bad thing, just an observation). They’re best known for pizza and pasta, but there are serious entrees, like the $28 sea trout (with butter beans, black truffle, black butter, bitter lettuce, champagne vinaigrette, and lemon). I’ve been impressed by the food at this place and was delighted when the city’s most informed food writer, Lindsey McClave, said it was serving “some of the best food being crafted in Louisville at this moment.” There’s a nice little patio outside, but overall the food definitely outshines the ho-hum design. (BTW, you can read that full Courier-Journal review here and find Lindsey’s blog here.)
There are other great restaurants in Old Louisville, of course, but with most Breeders’ Cup visitors only coming for a few days, I’ve decided to strictly highlight the absolute best. As mentioned before, I focus only on the places I would take one of my closest friends if they had just a few days to experience my city and I really wanted to impress them. Those mentioned above are worthy of the most discerning palates from the world over!
I’ll have more recommendations between now and Breeders’ Cup week. If there’s a particular topic you want me to write about please e-mail me at YourFriendJimbo@gmail.com or connect with me on Twitter, @YourFriendJimbo.
Louisville resident Jim Mulvihill is Sr. Director of Betting Information for Churchill Downs Inc. and a member of the Breeders’ Cup Festival’s publicity committee.