Psst! Here’s our Derby dining secrets

Welcome, Derby visitors!

No, really! I understand that the ubiquitous banners that hang on bar and restaurant windows during this exciting season, welcoming you and hawking industrial beer brands, don’t entirely pass the sincerity test. I know, you can reasonably translate them as “Come in heeeere and spend your moneeeey!”

But seriously, we really do mean it. Louisville is never more pretty than it is right now, at the peak of spring; and Louisville is never more exciting than it is during Derby time. This middle-size, middleweight burg that’s not quite Southern and not quite Midwestern wants you to see us, enjoy us and tell us how cool we are. Seriously, welcome!

While we’re talking, let me offer you a couple of tips, and I don’t mean “Psst, buddy, bet on No. 2 to show in the fourth race.” No, this is on the race to get a good table at one of the best restaurants in town.

Now, let’s be realistic: If you’ve got your heart set on hanging out with the high rollers after the Derby, Oaks or Thurby, you’re facing heavy competition. Most of the city’s top tables, such as 610 Magnolia, Seviche, Proof on Main, Decca, Rye, bar Vetti, Pat’s, Bourbons Bistro, Le Moo, Le Chasse, Anoosh Bistro, Fat Lamb, Lilly’s, Volare, Varanese and Vincenzo’s, for instance, not to mention high-end corporate eateries like Morton’s, Jeff Ruby’s and Ruth’s Chris, just to name a few, have been fully booked for Derby-week seats for months.

Pretty discouraging, eh? But don’t worry. Tip No. 1 is to ignore everything I just said. Take your best shot at the best restaurants in town anyway. This may work, if you’re lucky, because quite a few people will bug out on their reserved seats. Maybe they just partied too heartily at the races, poured themselves into a cab and went straight home. Plus, some bad actors will break all the rules of civilized society and reserve at several places, then blow off all but one. Your challenge is to start calling around about 6 p.m. in hope of snagging a no-show’s table. Or just head straight for your favorite place, try to squeeze in at the bar and ask the host to let you know if something opens up.

If this approach doesn’t ring your chimes, here’s Tip No. 2! Try your luck at some of our equally good, but less familiar, local eateries, where there’s a good chance they’ll have a table or three available to warmly welcome you with good food and drink.

Grassa Gramma (333-9595), for example, opened out on the northeastern side of town just a couple of months ago. This oversize venue offers good Italian fare in an over-the-top setting that looks like an Italian village plaza at night. Or try Steak & Bourbon (708-2196) in Westport Village, a brand new spot, opened just in time for Derby, replacing Artesano Tapas y Mas. Steak? Bourbon? What else do you need for Derby dinner?

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Perhaps you can outrun the competition by crossing the bridges to Southern Indiana. In New Albany, Brooklyn and the Butcher (812 590-2646) is as fine a steakhouse as you could ask for; Hull & Highwater (812 590-2249) offers good seafood (and new al fresco rooftop dining) and The Exchange pub + kitchen (812 948-6501) is a fine place for upscale casual dining. In Jeffersonville, Portage House (812 913-4250) offers fine dining and riverside views.

Staying close to the track, it’s a short walk from the Downs to El Molcajete (638-0300), one of the best and most-popular of the city’s many taquerias. You might run into a few jockeys and backside workers there, and you’ll get a great, cheap meal.

A short cab ride north from Churchill will bring you to Old Louisville, one of the nation’s largest Victorian neighborhoods, with quite a few good eateries. Buck’s Restaurant & Bar (637-5284), with its lovely setting and popular bar, may fill early, but you may be able to slip in to Amici Cafe (637-3167) for family Italian, or Burger Boy Diner (635-7410) for diner-style burgers and more (and it is open 24 hours).

Move over to Germantown, also a quick cab ride away, for Couvillon (365-1813) one of my local favorites for its excellent Cajun and Creole fare; Sarino (822-3777) for classic Italian, or Eiderdown (290-2390) for German cuisine with a Louisville accent. For more traditional German food and gemütlichkeit, try The Gasthaus (899-7177) in the near eastern suburbs.

I’m a big fan of Indian food, and Louisville has responded with a dozen good spots for subcontinental cuisine. We dined at Bombay Grill (425-8892) in the East End the other night for an excellent Indian dinner in an upscale setting. I was delighted to see an extensive new menu including Bombay chaat items and South Indian fare in addition to Indian standards. Try Bombay bhel puri for a crunchy snack that will remind you of spicy Indian trail mix; or walk on the wild side with goat or lamb dishes.

You really can’t go wrong, with well over 1,000 good, locally-owned eateries from which to choose. And, seriously:

Welcome, Derby visitors!

About the Author

Storyteller and seeker. Writer, editor, recovering metro journalist; playwright, poet, once a classical DJ. Hard-core food-and-drink geek, serious home cook. Seminary grad, part-time Episcopal preacher. Did I say eclectic? Deeply rooted Louisville native who’s lived in NYC, LA and the Bay Area; political junkie and unapologetic leftie. Covering the Louisville dining scene in print media since the 1980s, and doing it online since 1994.

@RobinGarr

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