For many years Louisville was the city I simply visited every May for the Kentucky Derby. But since 2014 it’s been my home. Over the next few months I’ll use this blog to show you the Louisville that I know and love. I’m going to treat it as if you’re a dear old friend visiting me here for the first time over a long weekend. I’ll show you my favorite tiny restaurants, hidden bars, warehouse art spaces, serious coffee shops, and independent bookstores. I’ll turn you on to my favorite local bands and non-commercial radio stations. When you leave I want you to feel like you lived like a local.
What I won’t be doing is highlighting any expense-account steakhouses or pretend distilleries for tourists. Many of those places are wonderful, of course, but I don’t see the point in writing a blog with information you can get from any hotel concierge, or even Google.
Like most great cities, the best parts of Louisville aren’t the most obvious. You have to dig a little, ask around, make friends, and be willing to explore.
For this first installment I’m going to tell you about some of the bars I’ve been hitting lately. Maybe I should start by explaining that Louisvillians love to drink. I moved here from New Orleans thinking there could not possibly be a city that enjoyed its alcohol as much as my hometown does. But then I came to Kentucky, where dinner parties, and sometimes even lunch meetings, are soaked in Old Forrester. There is a unique appreciation for the good stuff here. Whereas New Orleans was all about chugging cheap beer and sugary daiquiris, Louisville is for sipping aged spirits and dissecting their characteristics.
That said, I love exploring the bars of this town, which are plentiful and come in all shapes and sizes. Last weekend, for example, I had my monthly “Dads Night Out” with a few of the other fathers of toddlers on Saratoga Drive in my little corner of The Highlands. We have a regular pub crawl as an escape from diapers and Elmo where we sample different watering holes or nightclubs and try our best to pretend that we’re still young and childless.
So here are a few of the lesser-known spots from our most recent outing that I would want to take you to if you were my guest in Louisville:The Pearl is a corner bar in Germantown that is a locals’ spot for the young folks that have taken over the neighborhood. I’d recommend this as a place to start your evening. Good for conversation, a jukebox of 45s, and happy hour specials. This is where you hang out with your neighbors before the night gets weird.
Hell or High Water on downtown’s Whiskey Row has a speakeasy vibe, but not in the overly contrived way that makes you want to roll your eyes because it’s all a little too precious. This is a legitimately beautiful space that takes cocktails very seriously. The entrance is marked with a white globe, which also opens to a curio shop. It fills up fast, though, so even though a reservation for a bar sounds pretentious, you probably want to do that if you’re coming on Breeders’ Cup weekend.
The Limbo , also downtown, is the perfect place to let loose after the refined Hell or High Water. It’s a new tiki bar on the ground floor of an office building and the whole experience is a little bit off in the best possible way. The décor is a loving homage to tiki bars your parents might have gone to in the mid-20th century, but doesn’t obscure the fact that you’re in the low-ceilinged first floor of an office building in the middle of a business district. It’s kitschy and fun, especially the later it gets when DJs take over the patio. On Derby night this year I danced with a mermaid.
My absolute favorite spot for a nightcap is back in Germantown at Mr. Lee’s , the only place I’ve ever been that starts you off with an “amuse cocktail” to welcome you in. The modest sign on Goss Avenue is imperceptible unless you’re looking for the place, and even then you’re likely to miss it. The interior is extremely dark, with small candlelit tables. You pull a cord to alert the server that you’re ready to order. Last time I was there I can’t recall what exactly I ordered but my drink included some sort of infused smoke produced by a small fire lit tableside.
The last place I’ll mention is not as glamourous as those mentioned above but it seems to be where I always end up on my way home. The Back Door is a large dive bar connected to the side of the Value Market grocery store in the Highlands. Yes, you read that correctly – connected to the grocery store. I can’t really explain why everyone seems to go there or what special ingredients make up the magic of this place. There’s just something about it. It’s a diverse crowd and you always know people will be there having a good time. It’s dependable and friendly and sometimes that’s all you need.
I’ll have many 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 Director of Media & Industry Relations for the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and a member of the Breeders’ Cup Festival’s publicity committee.