Louisville's Dining Renaissance
Above photo: Chef Shawn Ward’s take on a locally sourced salad.
Story and photos by Igor Guryashkin
Igor's work has appeared in The New Yorker, Salon and ESPN The Magazine. He lives in Louisville with his cats.
The food scene in Kentucky's largest city is driven by bountiful bourbon, local chefs and Southern cuisine.
Take a drive at night down Bardstown Road — historically the cultural vein of Louisville — and you’ll spot one thing immediately: wall-to-wall restaurants and bars. A mile or so north is Frankfort Avenue, another stretch bustling with hungry diners; there’s barbecue, sushi, New American and coal-fired pizza (to name but a few). Then, a few hops west are downtown and the Ohio River, another portal to near-endless great dining and drinking options. These include nationally renowned outposts like 610 Magnolia, run by chef Ed Lee of Netflix’s “Mind of a Chef” fame.
But for a city that recently was voted as the second-best local food scene in the nation by the readers of USA Today, it wasn’t always so.
For many years, Louisville has struggled with the fact that the word “Kentucky” followed right after it. Some people conjure an image of fat-laden fried edibles in the tradition of the Deep South. While that food is certainly offered, a sweeping label is about as fair and accurate as saying that New Orleans is nothing but gumbo, or that Maryland is solely the land of crab cakes. Visit Louisville and you’ll soon see that if offers a delicious and diverse culinary odyssey, something it wasn’t able to do a mere 10 years ago.
So what has been the key to Louisville’s success?
Undoubtedly, one the reasons for the renaissance is that local businesses — especially restaurants and bars — have been fervently supported by locals. In return for their loyalty, restaurants created cuisine with a growing ingredient selection from local farmers, craftsmen, distillers and brewers. Take The Silver Dollar, a place that offers a play on traditional Southern food using local produce to draw in countless nightly patrons. The brisket, catfish and beer-can chicken is prepared like you’ve never tried before.
“[The Louisville food scene] is really eclectic right now, and it hasn’t always been that way,” explains Larry Rice, owner of The Silver Dollar and a two-decade industry veteran.
“We’ve always had great chefs in town, but maybe Louisville was a little safe ... now we’ve realized that we could be adventurous. [The Silver Dollar is] very Southern-driven, and we try to have fun with that ... we’re not trying to just throw out pork chops anymore.”
Rice says Louisville has now become a certifiable tourist destination beyond the Kentucky Derby, which helped spur the renaissance. The reason? Bourbon. Louisville is the biggest city in a state that produces 95 percent of the nation’s bourbon. For visitors looking to learn about the state’s drink heritage, Louisville lends itself to being the first stop on the Bourbon Trail, a collection of distilleries that are keen to show off and teach people about their fine product. Along the Trail, you'll learn that all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. Bourbon must be made to exacting standards — a minimum of 51 percent corn, aged in charred new oak barrels and bottled at no less than 80 proof.
In Louisville, The Evan Williams Bourbon Experience is the perfect museum/distillery to start learning about bourbon. Afterward, walk a block to Proof on Main, a nationally renowned restaurant inside the 21c Museum Hotel, which Conde Nast Traveller named best Southern hotel.
“It used to be that anytime you saw someone from out of town it was around Derby,” says Rice. “But with bourbon being so hot, it’s brought people in.” For a bourbon enthusiast like Rice — Silver Dollar’s motto is “Whiskey by the Drink” — it’s allowed him to show off his passion by offering one of the area’s largest selections of Kentucky whiskey.
“One of the things that distinguishes us from other bars is that we only do bourbons and ryes that come from Kentucky,” explains Rice. “We think there is no reason to go outside of that because there are so many great ones.”
The success and growth of Louisville’s food scene cannot be attributed to bourbon alone — the resurgence of Southern cuisine and spirits has been strengthened by the city’s long-standing tradition of supporting local and independent businesses.
Shawn Ward is chef and co-owner of Ward 426 — perhaps the city’s best take on refined, seasonal, locally sourced cuisine. Think of Southern staples like shrimp and grits and country ham that have been upscaled by a trained chef.
“I think we have more restaurants than ever before that mimic the chefs that cook there,” explains Ward. “People recognize those chef’s names and associate themselves with certain genres and types of food. It opens up the market because Southern-type cuisine is now really hard to categorize ... there are so many people here that are from everywhere.”
But it is also far from the complete journey, according to Ward. Louisville has one of the top 20 culinary schools in the nation — Sullivan University — and is a culturally diverse town. Thus, the food scene is likely to evolve even more, with young chefs bringing their varied backgrounds to the kitchen and table. Already, countless Sullivan alumni fill kitchens throughout the city.
“It will be really interesting to see the kind of twist that they place on their food,” adds Ward. “They’re not just going to start cooking traditional food from here; they’ll start cooking food that they grew up on.”
Louisville’s size clearly does not lend itself to compete pound-for-pound with the likes of New York City and Los Angeles. Still, its location at the crossroads of the South and the Midwest certainly lends itself to embracing phenomenal local products and incorporating them into their local food and drink scene. Bourbon is forever enmeshed with the history of this region, as is diversity and a love of independence. For those reasons alone, Louisville is easily one of the best up-and-coming food towns in America.