Now that brown spirits are white hot, there’s never been a better time to visit bourbon country. If you’re planning to embark on the Bourbon Trail, the nine distilleries that stretch through the rolling hills of Kentucky, Louisville makes a great home base. But the city is a draw on it’s own, with a few new craft distilleries worth a trip right in the city, including Peerless and brandy maker Copper & Kings, as well as smaller city outposts of big whiskey operations including Jim Beam and Heaven Hill inviting visitors in for a tour and a taste, with more under construction.
Of course, drinking all that bourbon means you definitely need to eat. Whether you’re traveling or reacquainting yourself with its food scene, here’s where to dine like a local in Louisville to really get a taste of the city, including farm-to-table spots serving locally-sourced produce, crave-worthy barbecue, and, of course, Southern staples like pimento cheese.
Seviche, A Latin Restaurant (Highlands)
Chef Anthony Lamas cooks up Latin American dishes with a Kentucky twang at this acclaimed restaurant in the Highlands, like a tostada made with pimento cheese, a Southern delight. A specialty is a variety of fish seviches [sic], like the Tuna Old Fashioned, with locally made Bluegrass Soy Sauce, bourbon, and pineapple. Don’t skip dessert — the “avocado” made from avocado ice cream, a bourbon truffle pit, and a hard chocolate shell is a winner. Make a reservation at Seviche, A Latin Restaurant.
Proof on Main (Downtown)
Located in the boutique 21c Museum Hotel, this restaurant is a hot spot pretty much all day, starting with the power breakfast in the morning through a hip bar scene at night. The menu emphasizes local produce and harder-to-find proteins like rabbit and bison. After, be sure to check out the rotating (and sometimes edgy) art exhibits on display in the hotel, which are free and open to the public 24 hours a day. Make a reservation at Proof on Main.
Lilly’s Bistro (Highlands)
A Louisville staple since opening in the late 1980s, chef Kathy Cary is an O.G. in the Kentucky farm-to-table movement, changing the menu every few weeks to show off locally sourced produce, meats, and cheeses. Hope that you’ll get lucky and get to try the pimento cheese wontons or the stellar chicken liver pate. The restaurant was one of the first to participate in the Urban Bourbon Trail program, meaning they feature more than 50 different kinds of bourbons behind the bar and incorporate whiskey into dishes and desserts, too. Make a reservation at Lilly’s Bistro.
Doc Crow’s Southern Smokehouse & Raw Bar (Downtown)
Two of the most crave-worthy foods are raw oysters and barbecue — and this sprawling downtown restaurant specializes in both. If you want to create a base layer for a night out, try the stuffed baked potato with cheddar, sour cream, and scallions, served with either pulled pork or brisket. Doc Crow’s does not sleep on their whiskey list either, with options from around the world but emphasize on bourbons, including hard-to-find varieties. Make a reservation at Doc Crow’s Southern Smokehouse & Raw Bar.
Butchertown Grocery (Butchertown)
This eatery in the emerging hipster Butchertown neighborhood is both rough-hewn and sleek at the same time, decked out with brick and wooden beams, marble countertops, and mosaic tile floors. The menu also includes comfort-food classics, like burgers and chicken and waffles, and fare for a bigger night out, such as a splurge-worthy 55-day dry-aged steak. Chef Bobby Benjamin gives a lot of love to meat, even hand-curing some on site, but the veggie-focused small plates are not to be missed. My Morning Jacket drummer Patrick Hallahan is one of the partners behind the place, and the upper-level lounge sometimes homes music and comedy performances. Make a reservation at Butchertown Grocery.
This restaurant, housed in a renovated 1870s building is a favorite among locals for a night out in the trendy NuLu neighborhood. Chef Annie Pettry serves up locally sourced meats and produce with global accents, like fried green tomatoes with harissa cream, feta, and marinated cucumbers. It’s essential to try a wood-grilled item, like the broccoli with anchovies and almonds or a pork chop with panzanella, peaches, and shelling beans. The inside is open and airy with exposed brick and warm wood, but the terrace and large patio are where to be any time it’s nice enough to sit outside. Make a reservation at Decca.
Mussel Burger Bar (Downtown)
Standing outside this macho-looking downtown beer bar and restaurant, you’d probably assume the muscle half of this combo isn’t referring to the bivalve. But inside, this gastro pub has creative bar bites, like short rib nachos and dates in a blanket with artisanal Nueske’s bacon. The namesake mussels come with a variety of sauces including curry cream or blue cheese, beer, and pancetta. The burgers can be offbeat as well, like the Mediterranean with ground lamb, quince marmalade, feta, and tzatziki, or the Southern Belle with fried green tomatoes, remoulade, and pimento cheese. Of course, there’s plenty of beer and bourbon to wash it all down. Make a reservation at Mussel Burger Bar.
Set @ Theatre Square (Downtown)
This newcomer serves up creative takes on American and Southern classics, but with unique and theatrical presentations that reference some of Louisville’s most iconic attractions and residents. Sliders come on a plate with a mini Louisville Slugger baseball bat, the Knock Out Burger, complete with cheddar, bacon, and a fried egg pays homage to the city’s own Muhammad Ali and is served on a platter with a boxing glove. The most popular dessert is the Mane Event, a “ginormous” mane of bright pink cotton candy, served atop a dramatic ceramic horse sculpture. Make a reservation at Set @ Theatre Square.
Photo credits: Louisville CVB (Proof on Main, Butchertown Grocery, Decca, Mussel Burger Bar); Dan Dry (Lilly’s Bistro); Gina Pace (Doc Crow’s); Set @ Theatre Square (Set @ Theatre Square).