Why Louisville’s Everyday Culinary Treasures Are Worth the Trip

updated May 24, 2019
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(Image credit: Susanna Hopler)

Any time I come to Louisville, I play a little game. Sit at a bar, sniff out the bourbon section, and start counting bottles. The tiniest little neighborhood bar might have about 50. Renowned whiskey bars often pour a few hundred brown-water variations.

From the bar at Harvest, a middle-sized farm-to-table eatery in the artsy NuLu (New Louisville) district, I stop counting at about 80. The bartender passes me the full list, which clocks in at over 100 bourbons — and that’s before you start counting other whiskey variations (rye, Scotch, etc.).

As a fan of fine American whiskey, I am deeply impressed. As a fan of Louisville, an oft-overlooked gem of a city, I’m both ecstatic and comforted.

(Image credit: Tara Donne)

Louisville is one of those mid-sized regional towns that seems perpetually under-appreciated on a national level. Sure, it’s always on the radar of bourbon obsessives and college basketball aficionados, but the river city’s placement at “the top of the South” makes Louisville a city that’s often hidden in plain sight — a distinctive town with a million little treasures for the curious traveler.

Of course, Louisville gets its annual two minutes of fame as the hometown rite of spring — the Kentucky Derby— thunders through town. The 120-second thoroughbred run around Churchill Downs brings with it an entire Cotillion Industrial Complex and an accompanying media frenzy. For that weekend, the Derby City lives up to its nickname, with enough celebrity effluvia, fancy-hat pomp, and seersucker circumstance to (figuratively) choke a horse. Network sports announcers recycle “local color” on the city’s long-standing food traditions — the Hot Brown (a gravy-topped turkey sandwich) and Benedictine (cucumber-cream cheese finger sandwich spread).

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The city’s walkable neighborhoods, from Butchertown to Shnitzelberg to Old Louisville to Germantown and the Highlands, now play home to thriving modern-day restaurant rows, gallery spaces, and boutique clusters. (Image credit: Tara Donne)

But when the Triple Crown spotlight dims, Louisville goes back to everyday life as a fascinating regional city with more than its share of cultural and culinary delights.

The city’s walkable neighborhoods reflect its port city history and ethnic roots — from Butchertown to Shnitzelberg to Old Louisville to Germantown and the Highlands — and now play home to thriving modern-day restaurant rows, gallery spaces, and boutique clusters. Seven (count ’em, seven) historic parks designed by Frederick Law “Mr. Central Park” Olmstead connect city folks to the land, and are a gateway to the rolling hills of horse country and the Bourbon Trail.

Part of what makes modern Louisville so fascinating is its distinctive connection to the past as it powers forward. Downtown’s 21c Museum Hotel project transformed a block of former tobacco warehouses into a thoroughly modern boutique hotel complex wedded with an aggressively contemporary, often challenging collection of modern art. There’s been a recent flurry of urban distilleries under construction — echoing the region’s proud and signaling the next chapter of Louisville’s thriving whiskey culture.

(Image credit: Adam Creech)

Which brings us back to the bar at Harvest — and not to the glass so much as the plate and mission behind the restaurant.

The self-described “locally grown restaurant” does a lot more than glom on to the recent farm-to-table trend — it’s an ongoing project spearheaded by actual farmer and local-foods activist Ivor Chodkowski. For decades, Chodkowski worked the fields at his Field Day Family Farm, growing crops for local farmers markets and experimenting with emerging agricultural business models (CSAs, restaurant sales) while developing heirloom seed-saving initiatives and acting as advocates for local farmers trying to shift from small-scale tobacco plots to profitable crops.

The menu at Harvest directly reflects this mission-level dedication to local producers and traditions. With a stated goal of “Eighty percent of ingredients from within a 100-mile radius,” Chodkowksi and his chef, Patrick Roney, actively support their farming community, highlight seasonal local products on the plate, and earn James Beard semifinals nods in the process.

After eating my way through their Tuesday three-course special, I’ve sampled locally grown greens, handmade bucatini with Kentucky pork ragout, and house-preserved summer berries in an angel-food trifle — a great way to learn the flavors of the land and the modern-day flavors of Louisville.

And of course, an after-dinner digestif is always in order — I ask for my favorite kind of after-dinner reading.

“Can I see the bourbon list, please?”

(Image credit: Susanna Hopler)
(Image credit: Rotem Raffe)
(Image credit: Rotem Raffe)