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Photograph by Magnus Lindqvist, courtesy 21c Museum Hotels
Less than two hours away from downtown, our Ohio River sister city boasts a haven for food lovers, a burgeoning art scene, and that touch of Southern hospitality that we Midwesterners crave. While in the throes of a historic revitalization, Louisvillians have reimagined their city core and redesigned it as a rich destination—one that’s about much more than just a famous race.
The 21c Museum Hotel & Proof on Main
Beloved by Condé Nast Traveler, the 21c Museum Hotel has been consistently championed for first-class food, boutique-style lodging, and contemporary art from around the globe.
Founded in 2006 by philanthropists and art collectors Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, this 90-room boutique hotel was designed by world-class New York architect Deborah Berke, who retrofitted a group of 19th-century tobacco and bourbon warehouses into a hotel and art gallery—all at once bringing a dynamic cultural scene to the city center.
Part of the 21c experience is a meal at Proof on Main. Swanky and inviting, the restaurant gives you the rare option of a bourbon flight before (or after) taking in art from world-renowned artists at the museum next door. With more than 50 brands of bourbon to choose from, Proof does right by its old Kentucky home. Louisville’s historic Seelbach Hotel may have inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Muhlbach Hotel” in The Great Gatsby (as well as the Seelbach cocktail), but his 21st-century self would surely stay at the 21c and belly-up to Proof on Main’s eclectic bar to drink a “New American” (Riverboat rye, ginger liqueur, and Aperol) or “Hard Thyme” (thyme-infused gin, lavender syrup, and club soda).
The Queen City will have its own mix of artwork and luxury soon enough, with the opening of the 21c Museum Hotel Cincinnati later this year.
Horses have played an important role in the growth of Derby City, but lately food has taken the lead. Named one of the “best foodie getaways from around the world in 2012” by Zagat, Louisville boasts everything from fine dining to divey deliciousness.
You may have recently seen high-profile chefs Anthony Lamas of Latin restaurant Seviche and Edward Lee of contemporary Southern restaurant 610 Magnolia flexing their culinary muscles on national television. Both restaurants are located in the heart of “Old Louisville.” Try Lamas’s Kentucky bison empanadas or go for a three- or five-course seviche tasting. Or if you want something closer to Southern food, Lee’s squab breast with house sausage, sunchoke (sunflower) hash, and dandelion greens salad is charming and unexpected.
If you’re looking for a more low-key dining experience, Hammerheads is what every Louisville local is raving about. Go underground to Swan Street in the Highlands/Germantown corridor and look for the namesake hammerhead shark mascot. The menu of duck tacos, pulled pork sliders, and smoked cheddar grilled grit cake takes this dive up more than a few notches.
The East Market District or “New Louisville” (NuLu) is to Louisville as Over-the-Rhine is to Cincinnati. Exploding over the last five years with an edgy, artistic ethos of urban-meets-sustainable, NuLu is now the “other” artistic hub next to Bardstown Road. Located about a mile from the urban center, you’ll find one of the largest collections of cast-iron- facade-clad buildings next to New York’s SoHo.
NuLu’s commitment to becoming the most sustainable neighborhood in America comes through in its eclectic shops and restaurants. With a vibrant food philosophy and practice, NuLu continues a tradition of “farm-to-table,” a concept that is practically a religion for locals.
One of the many fun and diverse stops on Market is Please & Thank You, a combination coffee and music shop that puts a new spin on an old concept. Jump-start your morning with a Mexican hot chocolate and a vegan My Morning Muffin, or grab a breakfast panini and check out the vinyl. If you’re into the music scene, Jim James from My Morning Jacket loves the place (hence the muffins). But Please & Thank You isn’t all muffins and granola: You can also pick up a slice of pumpkin chocolate chip loaf or Kentucky-inspired bourbon Rice Krispie treat.
From speakeasies like MEAT in the new Butchertown district to hipster dives, Louisville has an impressive nightlife, including the Urban Bourbon Trail: 20 watering holes lining the Bardstown Road-Baxter Avenue stretch of the Highlands that each have at least 50 bourbon labels on offer.
Cool and classy, Bardstown Road has been a hub for culinary and artistic efforts. For a Shakespeare-inspired night out, check out The Bard’s Town, a bar and restaurant that is also a theatre. Or visit Garage Bar in NuLu for a selection of craft beers coupled with handmade wood-fired pizzas, all in a repurposed car repair garage. Striking a balance between grunge and gourmet, Garage Bar brings out Filetti and Country Ham pies to service the late-night New Louisville crowd.
In the middle of downtown Louisville, just a few blocks from NuLu, Hillbilly Tea brings a hipster vibe for brunch, lunch, or dinner. This trendy café boasts more than 16 organic gourmet teas and several tea-infused vodkas, plus plenty of bourbon-inspired “tea concoctions.” Like the city’s swanky new nightlife districts and inventive superchefs, Hillbilly Tea connects the dots from old Louisville to new.
Originally published in the December 2012 issue