When you’re in horse country, sometimes you find yourself hungry enough to eat one (figuratively) -- and with Louisville's culinary star on its current upward trajectory, it's important to take a step back and appreciate the signature restaurants that are a part of the very fabric of this city.
Whether it be high-class fare or a greasy-spoon go-to, whether old (some nearly a century) or new, these are the 12 restaurants that make Louisville, Louisville.
Proof on Main changed the culinary landscape of Louisville the moment it opened its doors in 2006. Located within the 21c Museum Hotel, the museum galleries spill into the dining room where rotating contemporary art exhibitions offer the perfect setting to enjoy the carefully curated dishes turned out by Chef Levon Wallace and his team.
The Mayan Cafe stood at the helm of East Market St long before the NuLu neighborhood captured national attention for its wealth of local eats. A pioneer in Louisville's farm-to-table movement, Chef Ucán cooks seasonally, crafting dishes inspired by his Mayan heritage.
Sometimes the very best food can be found in an unassuming strip mall restaurant (sometimes). Such is the case with the Vietnam Kitchen, neatly tucked in between a laundromat and a dive bar in Louisville's Iroquois neighborhood. Louisvillians will travel well out of their way to indulge in the wide variety of noodle bowls & vegetarian dishes the kitchen puts out.
Established way back in 1933, Jack Fry's has been a long-standing staple of the Louisville fine-dining scene. Southern flavors are showcased using classical French techniques and the atmosphere is always buzzy. The multitude of photos lining the walls leaves no doubt that you are in horse country and it is kinda' impossible to secure a reservation during the Kentucky Derby weekend, but Jack Fry's is still the go-to for any authentic Louisville dining experience.
What you're getting: The beef filet, w/ prosciutto & asparagus
Known for the strength of their margaritas and their excellent Mexican cuisine, El Mundo set up shop on Frankfort Ave nearly 20 years ago. If you're willing to wait (and it's worth it), you will score a coveted table on the back patio, and the roar of the scarily close train flying by makes for a unique edition to the, er, ambiance.
Chef Kathy Cary more or less introduced locavore-style, farm-fresh, and locally grown food to Louisville's palate years ago, and continues the tradition today with the Southern-inspired and authentically bluegrass offerings on her menu.
There are dive bars, and then there is the Bambi Bar. A rickety structure in the Highlands neighborhood houses this one-of-a-kind hole-in-the-wall where locals have been escaping to for years. They keep the beer cold, the burgers juicy, and the bourbon flowing.
Pat's opened over 50 years ago on Brownsboro Rd and pretty quickly established itself as Louisville's signature steakhouse. But it's not all about the cow cuts at this old-fashioned restaurant. Frog legs and pan-fried oysters are up for offer and they are as well known for their variety of side dishes, all served family-style, as they are for their aged, hand-cut beef.
Sitting a stone's throw away from Churchill Downs, Wagner's has been serving up breakfast and lunch to a who's who of the equine world since 1922. The food is simple, homemade, and hearty, and if you're visiting the tracks, it's practically illegal not to drop in.
Tucked into a quiet corner of the Old Louisville neighborhood, 610 Magnolia is intimate and tailor-made for special occasions. Louisville's only restaurant with an exclusive and ever-changing prix fixe-only menu, Chef Edward Lee has garnered national attention for the refined nature of his restaurant and for his celebration of the bounty of the Bluegrass.
You can smell the Frankfort Avenue Beer Depot long before you reach its doors and that isn't a bad thing. Two large smokers use the low-and-slow method to grill up some of the very best barbecue in town. Plus? You get corn hole and makeshift mini-golf out back, with cold beer and bourbon never more than a few feet away.
Not just anyone would take a small, century-old church and give it a second life as an artisanal pub specializing in beer and food pairings. That is exactly the sort of genius expected of founders Tyler Trotter and Lori Beck, who built on the success of the Louisville Beer Store, a tasting room, and added locally sourced, gourmet pub-fare to the mix.
Located in The 21c Museum Hotel Louisville, a boutique hotel and art museum, Proof on Main serves up gourmet meals from Chef Levon Wallace, including a unique and scrumptious burger made out of bison and topped with a Jezebel sauce that gives it a fruity, earthy flavor, plus Tillamook cheddar and applewood-smoked bacon. You'll want to throw in a side of the crispy cauliflower, and top it all off with the s'mores dessert. This trendy spot houses the Proof Bar, too, which offers an enormous bourbon list (we're talking upwards of 50 varieties).
Chef Bruce Ucán heads up Mayan Cafe, a beloved veteran restaurant in NuLu, infusing the traditional flavors of his Yucatan heritage into every beautiful plate on the menu -- from the signature tok-sel lima beans to the Mayan Burger, a grass-fed beef patty topped with chili aioli, greens, pickled onions, mozzarella cheese, and tomatoes, and (best of all) served on a warm pretzel bun.
Tucked in between a laundromat and a dive bar in Louisville's Iroquois neighborhood lies Vietnam Kitchen, a true hidden gem. Within its four bright, baby-blue walls, you'll find ample seating that's constantly full of diners looking to try authentic Vietnamese cuisine like the ever-popular Hủ tiếu Saté, a spicy rice noodle with sate sauce, bean sprouts, broccoli, peanuts, and lemon grass, with your choice of beef, chicken, or pork.
Established in 1933, Jack Fry's has been a long-standing staple of the Louisville fine-dining scene. This Highlands resto features Southern flavors that are showcased using classical French techniques and the atmosphere is always buzzy.
Located in the heart of the Highlands, Lilly's is a go-to spot for celebrations. Chef Kathy Cary introduced farm-fresh and locally grown food to Louisville's palate years ago and continues the tradition today with the Southern-inspired offerings on her menu.
A rickety structure in the Highlands neighborhood houses this infamous dive bar, where locals have been flocking for years to kick back with a cold beer or a shot of bourbon. The real reason you're coming to Bambi, though, is to indulge in the beloved Bambi Burger, which you can order in one of five ways: no sides, with chips, with fries, with onion rings, or with your choice of appetizer. No matter what, this juicy delicacy comes topped with American cheese, onions, tomatoes, pickles, lettuce, and mayo -- just like a classic watering-hole burger should be.
This old-school, classic steakhouse in Clifton opened more than 50 years ago, and has continued to draw customers in with its white-glove service and quality cuts of meat. Alongside New York strip and porterhouse t-bone, Pat's also offers non-beef entrees, like frog legs and pan-fried oysters, a decent selection of wine, and homestyle desserts.
Located just outside Churchill Downs, the pharmacy/general store opened in 1922 and branched into a cafe to gain the business and friendship of the racetrack workers and horse trainers. You’ll get plenty of history with your huge and cheap breakfast plate (go for sausage & eggs with biscuits and potatoes), and you might also overhear a tip before placing your bet for the day.
You can smell the Frankfort Avenue Beer Depot long before you reach it's doors and that isn't a bad thing. Two large smokers use the low and slow method to grill up some of the very best barbecue in town. Frankford Avenue also features a large selection of cold beer (duh) and there's even a mini-golf course out back. What are you waiting for?
This converted century-old church now works full-service as an artisanal pub specializing in beer and food pairings. The space is equal parts ingenious adaptation and gorgeous design and the menu is always changing, as are the beers. Be sure not to miss the choir loft and the beer garden, and if the Scotch quail eggs are on the menu, order them immediately.