Writer's Choice 2012

The LEO staff weighs in on the city's best bets


Best Place with a Staff Friendlier Than Family: Check’s Café

If I really want to feel some love, I don’t dial my mom, turn on Oprah or make a booty call — I head over to Check’s, where I know I’m good enough, smart enough, and doggone it, where people like me. Big Bill has been tending bar at this Germantown neighborhood tavern for more than 18 years, and his big smile and loud “Welcome to Check’s!” is comparable to a hug from Santa Claus. I’m usually there on Tuesday nights for $2 pints, so fortunately I’ve also gotten to know bartender Erin, a U of L grad who serves up my Southern Tier 2XIPA with a smile that makes me blush. This is my family night … I just might start bringing board games. —Sara Havens

Best Punch Bowl to Share With Three Companions: St. Charles Exchange

The St. Charles Exchange quickly became many folks’ favorite new restaurant when they opened last spring. Though it feels like a classy joint for old guys in suits (which it can be, if that’s what you want), it also manages to maintain a fun, relaxed yet energetic atmosphere. More importantly, the food is downright damn amazingly good (the “Elvis on Horseback,” yes!), and the adult beverages are inspired, delicious and devilish. Case in point: The eponymous punch, which includes Smith and Cross rum, Buffalo Trace bourbon, Allspice Dram, lemon juice, Demerara, chai tea, Fee’s, and Angostura and Bitter Truth bitters. It’s thirst-quenching and strong enough to share. L’chaim! —Peter Berkowitz

Best Salty-Sweet-Spicy Indulgence: Four Pegs Chicken and Waffle Sandwich

There are two types of people in this world: those whose mouths water at the thought of fried chicken and waffles, and those whose taste buds are defective. (Oh, and vegetarians, who apparently salivate at the thought of the veggie burger.) The sandwich version of this soul food classic at Four Pegs Beer Lounge in Germantown includes a boneless chicken breast fried extra crispy with cayenne pepper, served between two waffles and slathered in syrup. The first time I tried this huge hunk of calorific heaven, I noticed a few minutes in that I was no longer talking to my dinner companion … and I didn’t care. Despite its deliciousness, the $10 sandwich is way too big to devour in one sitting, meaning you’ll have a decadent breakfast the next day. —Sarah Kelley

Best Place to Buy Cheap Out-of-Season Beer: Old Town Wine and Spirits

I find the prospect of eating ice cream and popsicles only in the summer absurd. And why is eggnog reserved for the holidays? And for that matter, maybe if turkey and all the trimmings were enjoyed more than once a year, I wouldn’t gorge myself to incapacitation on Thanksgiving Day. Well, the same goes for beer: I want summer ales, pumpkin beer, winter lagers and hearty stouts year-round. If you’re willing to buy in bulk and aren’t dead-set on a certain brew, Old Town is the place to build up your stash of seasonals, a few of which are drastically marked down as the seasons change. As summer 2012 drew to a close, for example, I stocked up on Goose Island 312, buying five six-packs of the wheat ale at $4.99 each to last me through fall. (Turns out I should have bought more …) —Sarah Kelley

Best Place to Clean Your Plate and Your Ass: Dragon King’s Daughter

There’s a little secret lodged deep in the back of Dragon King’s Daughter, and only brave, adventurous women know what it is. But first, let’s get to the obvious. This little Asian-fusion sushi restaurant in the Highlands has amazing fare for any palate — bland or bold. Tacos, pizzas, fried wontons … it’s all here for your taste buds to buddy up to. But back to the secret — the women’s restroom has a toilet from the future … or maybe just another continent. Not only does it have a heated seat, but there’s a button for some bidet action — a warm stream of water will caress your caboose. It’s quite invigorating, so don’t be scared. Just sit back and relax. (There’s a stop button if you get spooked.) —Sara Havens

Best Dessert in the World: Harvest’s Sorghum Cookie with Candied Bacon-Vanilla Filling

Harvest changed the game when they arrived from the farm to the table on East Market Street. The ever-changing-with-the-seasons menu has provided numerous favorites, and I’ve never seen anyone who doesn’t want to at least hear about the meat pizza and veggie pizza of the day. Even after all that wonder, though, I’m always saving room for the best dessert this sweet-tooth has ever tasted — the sorghum cookie with candied bacon-vanilla filling. I’m not sure which individual component stands out, or if any do, as they all shine and work so well together. It’s big enough to be a meal unto itself (though not for me). —Peter Berkowitz

Best Pretzel Bread: Klaus’ Pretzel Bread

A longer title could be “Best Pretzel Bread Made by a Guy Whose Name Sounds Like a James Bond Villain,” which might be slightly xenophobic, but hey, Klaus Riedelsheimer is a pretty fun name. The only thing evil about this baking genius, however, is the caloric intake from the bread onto your flabby American figure (especially when you can’t stop eating it and inhale four in two minutes). Shops (like the delightful Nuts n Stuff) and restaurants go out of their way to brag about how they have Klaus’ pretzel bread, and the salty, rich flavor is great as a sandwich/burger bun, for dipping beer cheese, and even just as a happy thing to think about while stuck in a boring meeting. Now, picture it with your favorite beer … —Peter Berkowitz

Best Stop for Boiled Peanuts: AMI Food Mart

While some might prefer the $5 tiny bowl of boiled peanuts at Garage Bar, we’ll take the much cheaper Styrofoam cup of slimy, spicy goodness from the crock-pot at AMI Food Mart on Bardstown Road. If you’ve ever walked or driven by the gas station and noticed their plentiful “BOILED PEANUTS” signs, they’re not lying, as you can enjoy the Southern delicacy and fine convenience-store dining at its very best, or at least most convenient. They also have 5-pound bags you can buy to create your own nutty gas station ambiance in the comfort of your home. —Joe Sonka

Best Place to Watch Drunken Outdoor Karaoke: Schnitzelburg Beer Walk

Besides partaking in all of the corn dogs, pretzels and Miller Lite you can stuff into your gullet, the spring and fall Schnitzelburg Beer Walk gives you a chance to watch some of the best outdoor drunken karaoke this fair city has to offer. Whether it’s in the courtyard of the historic All Wool & A Yard Wide Democratic Club, on a random yard, or in the middle of Hickory Street, you can watch Germantown’s finest inebriated locals slur their way through the classics. I once watched a dead ringer for Glenn Danzig give a heartfelt performance of David Allan Coe’s “You Never Even Called Me By My Name” — while darting in and out of consciousness — and it still haunts me to this day (in a good way). You should definitely feel free to join in the chorus, because you probably won’t remember it the next day anyway. —Joe Sonka

Best Veggie Burger: Four Pegs

For all you righteous meat eaters, set aside your Hardee’s ethos and listen up. Sometimes veggie burgers are raging delicious, not because they expertly mimic the taste of beef, but just because. Case in point: Four Pegs’ veggie burger. The thick, tender burger truly stands out from the ill-defined mash of other restaurants. As crunchy as granola on the outside and packed with soft, generous vegetable chunks and beans on the inside, this ain’t no mamby-pamby black bean biscuit. It’s plentiful to the point of excess, though too tempting not to finish every last bite. Wash it down with a pint and fries and you will leave Four Pegs one happy human, no carnivorous high necessary. —Anne Marshall

Best Place to Hear a Joe Pesci Impersonation: Fridays at Busta Grill

I love the metropolitan feel of a downtown hot dog stand, but upon learning in graphic detail the ingredients of the average frank, I was horrified and immediately gave up the indulgence. Then I stumbled upon a stand at the corner of First and Washington called Busta Grill, which not only serves bison, veggie and chicken dogs, but also offers a discount on Fridays to customers who bust out their best (or worst) Joe Pesci impersonation. On my first visit, I sheepishly uttered, “You talking to me?” Turns out that’s a Robert DeNiro line from “Taxi Driver,” and though proprietor Adam Colvin let out a hearty chuckle, he still gave me a buck off my chicken sausage topped with roasted red pepper spread, fried onions, mustard and chimichurri slaw. I’ve since done my homework and have an arsenal of lines — delivered with hand gestures and mobster bravado — like, “I’m funny how? Funny like I’m a clown? I amuse you? I make you laugh? I’m here to fucking amuse you?!!” —Sarah Kelley

Best Place to Wait for a Train:  Louisville Pizza Pub

Yeah, trains are loud, slow and annoying, but if you happen to be chilling on the patio at Louisville Pizza Pub on Crittenden, a train is a good thing to spot. Nestled right next to the tracks, the little U of L pizza pub offers $1.50 domestic bottles and $1 Jell-O shots every time a train goes by. I’ve never been so excited to hear the train a-comin’ and see it rollin’ ’round the bend. Bartenders Courtney and Kendra start ringing the bell behind the bar and shout “Train beer!” as patrons scurry up to the bar to get a good deal. Choo-choo, woop-woop! —Sara Havens

Best Smallest Bar with a Big Name: Big Bar

Leave it to a gay man to take the tiniest space in town and turn it into a booming bar that’s packed every night of the week. Big Bar is my favorite new bar in the Highlands — the prices are reasonable, the staff is friendly and the company is eclectic. Occupying the small space next to the Wine Market that was formerly FABD, NV Tavern and Slick’s, Big Bar has finally made a go of it and has brought some diversity to the Highlands’ nightlife. The patio is prime for people-watching, and with only one bathroom, you’re guaranteed to make friends waiting in line. Come on in! We won’t bite … unless you want us to. —Sara Havens

Best Secret Park: Hal Warheim Park

As I feverishly peddled to keep up with my husband on what was supposed to be a leisurely bike ride, I noticed a paved pathway nestled between two homes in the hilly Belknap neighborhood. Intrigued (and desperate to lower my heart rate), I hopped off my bike to investigate what lie at the end of the path. What I found was my own private woodland retreat, replete with a gazebo and playground! OK, so this little patch of shady, secluded greenspace is actually a public park thanks to its namesake, who in 1974 bought the undeveloped, overgrown remnant of land bounded by houses on Overlook Terrace, Yale Drive and Boulevard Napoleon. Donors and volunteers sustain the park, so — you know — thanks! —Sarah Kelley

Best Live Action Sequence: Wild and Woolly Robber Smackdown

Back in January, some Hollywood-sized action muscled its way into Louisville’s perennial movie-rental mate, Wild and Woolly. A would-be crook walked into the store yelling he had a gun and demanding money. Then came the tense, scripted countdown: 5,4,3,2,1. Wayne Mansfield, a heavily biceped employee and security guard (you know exactly who we speak of if you’re a regular), tackled the man, gripping him in a headlock. Intoxicated by the heroics, at least one other customer took a turn roughing up the culprit before police arrived. No one in the store was hurt, though the man (who did not have a gun) was hauled away on a stretcher as customers, who’d gathered outside to watch the commotion, fogged up store windows in the chilly air. So cinematic! We hope the suspect got whatever help he needed. As for Wild and Woolly, y’all kicked ass in pure Jean-Claude style. —Anne Marshall

Best Non-Alcoholic Cocktail: Decca’s Grapefruit Fizz

Pregnant? Designated Driver? Mormon? Underage? Simply don’t have the taste for alcohol? (A rare but apparently real human condition.) Thank goodness some establishments in this drinker’s town offer non-alcoholic cocktails, commonly known as “mocktails.” But we’re not one for cutesy portmanteaus. Hence, the “Nojito” was never a contender for first place. Guaca Mole in the East End’s hinterlands has a delicious drink called Sanda Mia. It calls for tequila, rose wine, lime juice and watermelon juice. Surprisingly, the G-rated version delighted with sinful sweetness. But the winner? Decca’s Grapefruit Fizz, a citrus sparkler that satisfied this writer’s margarita and French 75 cocktail cravings. Is it Bar Belle approved? Absolutely not. But we guarantee you can guzzle these without the threat of a hangover. —Anne Marshall

Best Liquor Store Boozy Slushy: Beverage World

From spring to fall, Beverage World on Brownsboro Road provides an alcoholic elixir to cure both your thirst and your worsening delirium tremens. Why settle for a run-of-the-mill milkshake or Dairy Kastle slushy when you can have one loaded with booze via Beverage World’s handy dispenser. It’s like the Slush Puppie himself has followed you into adulthood and knows what kind of summertime Brownsboro Road diet you really crave. Just don’t put your straw into the cup until you’ve finished driving to your final location, because that’s a legal no-no. Woof, and cheers! —Joe Sonka

Best Soft Pretzel That’s Bigger Than Your Face: River City Drafthouse

The menu calls this pretzel “giant” … and that’s an understatement. The twisted Bavarian treat easily fills most of a 12-inch dinner plate, resulting in a perfect portion for three or four, a heaping helping for two, or an impossible feat for the solo diner. (The good news is it reheats nicely at home.) Outside, the pretzel is buttery and crisp with a sprinkle of fancier-than-your-average salt. Inside, it’s all warm and doughy goodness. It comes with homemade stone-ground mustard for dipping, a perfect combination of tangy and sweet. Pair this pretzel with one of more than two dozen beers on tap (offered in varying sizes) for a perfect carb-loading feast. And if, by chance, you still have room for an entree, try one of the watering hole’s Philly cheesesteaks, served on a roll flown in from the City of Brotherly Love. (Cheese Whiz optional but highly recommended.) —Sarah Kelley

Best Neighborhood Facebook Page: Germantown-Schnitzelburg

Part newsletter, part neighborhood crime watch, part community organizer. The Germantown-Schnitzelburg Facebook page — run by Dan McMahon, the owner of Danny Mac’s Pizza — is the digital age’s version of what close-knit neighborhoods used to look like before the iPhone 5. Whether it’s alerting residents to a suspicious crime wave, asking people to pitch in for a neighbor in need, promoting businesses, or attempting to create a new youth center, this Facebook page does its best to keep the Germantown-Schnitzelburg community informed, and just that: a community. —Joe Sonka

Best Graffiti Tag: ‘You Go Girl’

Along with its still-robust mafia scene, graffiti rules Sicily’s streets. But it’s like an invasive weed. There’s so much you hardly notice it. Here in Louisville, graffiti trainspotters generally find fewer aerosol droppings. But the rainbow blight of sloppy signatures and hieroglyphics proudly stain the River City with names like Unkle, Burzum, PWR, DUI and Brrrrr. For every misguided juggalo screed, Louisvillians also receive positive messages, disinformation and raw expressions of joy. Out of hip-hop’s four influential elements, graffiti’s the one that can’t be ignored, gracing private property and public space, like it or not. While Brrrr impresses with its sheer omnipresence and adorable bug-eyed creature, we award the best tag to “You Go Girl,” an affirmative ego trip that can make one appreciate urban calligraphy. —Anne Marshall

Best Louisville Reality TV Character: Gunnar Deatherage

We don’t produce a lot of big TV stars here, though we have had a few winners (Jennifer Carpenter, the scene-stealing Deb from “Dexter,” we love you!) and curios (that 30-year-old “teen” with the receding hairline on “Nip/Tuck”). On reality TV, well, does anyone ever really win? Actually, it’s possible; “Project Runway” remains an outstanding example of using the form to promote creativity and labor as admirable, non-Kardashian traits. It’s also produced some fun, inspiring “characters” who make us smile and wow us with their work: Jay McCarroll, Christian Siriano, Mondo Guerra, etc. When we heard that a 22-year-old Louisvillian and designer, the improbably named Gunnar Deatherage, had been chosen for the competition, we feared the worst. Fortunately, he’s proven to be a funny, insightful, kind and talented dude. Spoiler: He doesn’t win the grand prize, but sometimes being awesome is as important as winning. —Peter Berkowitz

Best Reason to Attend a YMCA Spin Class: The Colorful Darry Bell

Park your rear in a bike saddle about as comfortable as a city bus bench, then peddle and pant for 45 minutes. It’s not the easiest of routines. Motivation may lack. Enter Darryl Bell, a 55-year-old downtown YMCA employee with the footwork of Michael Jackson and the energy of a Fly Girl. For about a year, Bell, donning his signature purple fedora and blue rubber cleaning gloves (a nod to MJ’s white glove) has delighted spin class attendees with his hip-shaking dance routines influenced by studying “Soul Train,” MTV and his years spent as a DJ and karaoke host. Usually only lasting a minute or two, Bell always jolts a room full of aching quads. A retired, disabled Korean War veteran, Bell doesn’t have to work, but he’s a people person. “Spread the love, share the love,” Bell says one day before popping into a noon class, bringing smiles and cheers to his sweaty audience. —Anne Marshall

Best New Food/Drink Concept to Hit Louisville: El Camino

It may not be the newest concept — a tiki bar with Mexican food — but it’s new to Lou, opening up shop later this year in the coveted Avalon space (and patio) on Bardstown Road. For those who have lived in the Southwest or want to pretend like they do, it’s sure to be a perfect companion to its sister restaurant, The Silver Dollar in Clifton. The surf-rock sounds seem ideal, and the food — with recipes imported from Mexico, potentially going from affordable tacos to more gourmet high-end items — is ever-appealing. Even more special is the promised bakery in the old boutique shop on the patio, with breakfast treats, Mexican chocolate and coffee hopefully all available. Some of us have been longing for a true tiki bar for years: the drinks, the décor, the ambiance. Viva la tiki! —Peter Berkowitz

Best Place to Get a Piece of Heaven: Please & Thank You

I found a little piece of heaven in Louisville, and no, it’s not in a church or at an East End golf course. It sits on top of the counter at Please & Thank You, a cute little NuLu coffee shop and record store on East Market. This Valhalla takes the form of a decadent chocolate chip cookie, and for a mere $1.75, you can ingest something so delicious and mind-blowing that no one can muster adequate words to describe it. You pray for this type of inspiration, and you have to bow to no one … other than maybe the barista, if they happen to be sold out. There are no hoops to jump through, no fat guys to rub, no yarmulke to put onaka. Just fork over the dough, open your mouth and touch the stars. —Sara Havens