Race to Louisville for Kentucky Derby Week
**This post was written by Stephen Coomes for the Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau**
It’s challenging to write anything truly new about a sporting event entering its 141st year, but the Kentucky Derby is one of those rare events that’s so good, so steeped in living history that it needs no improving or upgrading. What’s old is new and still exciting in 2015.
Sure, its home, Churchill Downs, has undergone abundant changes since Aristides won that first race in 1875. In the past 30 years alone, a turf course was added and the already massive grandstands were expanded to host what’s always a beyond-capacity crowd approaching 160,000. But its iconic twin spires remain and the legendary race is still “The Fastest Two Minutes in Sports.” It’s also one of the most heavily wagered sporting events in the world and quite possibly the most amazing interactive one-day spring fashion show anywhere. The see-and-be-seen scene on the first Saturday in May is arguably unrivaled.
What’s also changed about the Derby is it’s no longer “a day at the track,” it’s now “Derby Week.” The horse-centered hustle-bustle officially begins with opening day of the Downs’ spring meet the Saturday prior to Derby Day. Over the decades, as Derby crowds swelled so large that locals struggled to get tickets to the race, Oaks Day (named for the Kentucky Oaks race for 3-year-old fillies) became an ersatz “locals’ day at the track.” The Oaks now attracts crowds exceeding 100,000 fans, leaving locals to do their social and (wink, wink) “business” visits to the Downs much earlier in the week. The result is there are no slow days at the track during Derby Week. From before sunrise to well after sunset, the place becomes more energized and increasingly crowded as fans swamp the track’s “backside” to see the horses readied for workouts.
But experiencing the Kentucky Derby fully includes much more than the dark and fickle art of wagering on ponies. Though always an engaging and exciting city, Louisville is truly abuzz that week. The Kentucky Derby Festival plays host to dozens of events, large and small, ranging from foot races and golf tournaments to black tie dinners to spelling bees and gospel sings—yep, we swear it’s true!—to beer, wine, and bourbon events and balloon races and the Pegasus Parade, and so much more. Some are ticketed, some aren’t, so visit the KDF website to learn more.
And that’s just the start. Louisville’s nationally recognized restaurant and bar scene offers more opportunities to sip and sup than the average pocketbook, stomach, or liver can withstand. Even its most buttoned up dining rooms have banished jacket and tie rules to let guests arrive relaxed and enjoy their amazing meals. No, there won’t be any shortage of well-made mint juleps and hot browns to be found ’round town, but to dub Louisville’s food and drink scene “Southern” would understate the works of countless progressive chefs and bartenders, many of whom moved here from major cities to make an impact in this burgeoning marketplace. Big city and small town visitors alike will find plenty to dazzle their palates.
After dinner, head out on the town to take in a wide range of live music or hang at the city’s amazing cocktail bars. Or just go home and rest so you can rise early and walk the Louisville’s amazing historic neighborhoods and 18 Fredrick Law Olmsted parks.
Were we not busy writing about all the things visitors can do when here (not to mention hosting out of town Derby guests), here’s a sampling of what we would do when visiting during Derby Week.
This is eaten like prosciutto, sliced paper thin and not cooked. That turns it leathery and salty. Eat as is or on biscuits or baguette. The best two places to taste this southern delicacy (often called “hillbilly prosciutto”) are Ward 426 and Garage Bar, where you can find country ham samplers.
The Hot Brown
There are a lot of good versions around town, but ain’ nothin’ like the real thing, baby! Get it at J. Graham’s Café in the Brown Hotel or go upstairs to the lobby bar. Then try one of the other 40 versions on the city’s The Hot Brown Hop.
Chef-owner and newly published cookbook author Anthony Lamas’ dazzling restaurant will be one of the busiest restaurants in town this week. But trust us, it’s not a bad thing to linger at the bar here either while waiting for your Latin-Asian infusion seafood delights.
One of the city’s most elegant restaurants, Corbett’s setting is an 1850’s plantation home modernized with southern elegance. Classy service, superb wine list, and amazing food.
Executive chef Michael Crouch serves an amazing three-portion-size menu (bite size, appetizer, and entrée) that allows guests to choose a little or a lot of amazing seafood, meat, and vegetable dishes presented like edible art.
There’s no better baguette in Louisville and the croissants are worth fighting for, but there’s so much more to enjoy at this Crescent Hill bistro, whose co-owner cures his own hams and charcuterie.
Executive chef Annie Pettry brings her unique cooking style blending New York City polish and San Francisco-sensible cooking to this beautifully modernized 19th century building. Expect ingredients to speak for themselves. Enjoy the lively atmosphere, especially in its basement cocktail lounge.
This Cali-surf-Mex restaurant is spectacular around the clock, but its weekend brunch is something special. Eat outside on its gorgeous patio, located alongside Bardstown Road. There’s great food, great people watching, and a superb tequila selection. (Yeah, really, a sip of tequila is great for breakfast!)
You’ll thank us personally for steering you to this lovely, relaxed spot where you’ll find big city quality pastries, sandwiches, and coffee served in a relaxed atmosphere. Get a bunch of pastries and take them back home to your party-worn friends.
You think you know Mexican food, but this is Mayan food created by Yucatan-born chef, Bruce Ucan. Don’t expect chips or salsa or, well, perhaps any south-of-the-border supper you’ve ever had. His food is truly authentic and amazing, drawing on ancient recipes Ucan learned in his homeland.
A Mint Julep
But only those made at a reputable bar, not at Churchill Downs. A real mint julep is made to order and with care. We like the julep at the lobby bar at the Brown Hotel, which was a founding member of the Urban Bourbon Trail.
An Old Fashioned
Created at the city’s Pendennis Club, the Old Fashioned is the standard measure for a local bartender’s mastery of a basic bourbon cocktail. Try any you can find at any nice bar.
This sort-of dive boasts an amazing collection of 200 whiskies, plus it’s a fantastic live music venue featuring an eclectic range of rock, bluegrass, indie pop, and country.
Housed in a former Unitarian church, this beer bar’s expertly curated selection includes 26 rotating taps and an amazingly diverse international bottle selection. This terrific gastropub is, however, only for those 21 and older.
Beers made by this cutting-edge brewery are regularly shipped to bars as far away as Europe. Its four owners are dedicated to adventurous beer made skillfully and cleverly, which means the lineup rotates often. It’s a great place to hang with a group and eat while sipping.
This hip cocktail bar, located in a former strip club, boasts a relaxed vibe and fantastic drinks. It achieved infamy among some bourbon aficionados when co-owner Jeremy Johnson made Old Fashioned cocktail Jell-O shots from Pappy Van Winkle bourbon. (Trust us, they were fantastic!)
With more than 160 bourbons available for sampling, the options are more than anyone can manage during a Derby Week stay. Bourbon flight prices are amazingly affordable, as are craft cocktails made from the bar’s huge private barrel selection. Great haunt if you’re staying at a Main Street hotel.
This somewhat raucous and really cool honky-tonk serves a wide range of craft cocktails made by an expert bar staff. Food is fantastic here, too, but definitely start with drinks.
Buy Bourbon Here
There’s no better Derby souvenir than a hard-to-find bottle of Kentucky Nectar. The trick is knowing where to find a selection chock full of bourbon that’s hard to find outside of Kentucky. Bargain alert: To maximize your dollars and snag selections you’ll struggle to find elsewhere, buy Bottled-In-Bond (BIB) bourbons. These are terrific 100-proof selections aged at least four years and costing between $10 and $30 each.
For the best balance of price and selection, visit these two shops:
Located in a Louisville suburb about 15 minutes from the center of town, this store has an incredible BIB selection at terrific prices. Expect lots of suggestions from the helpful staff.
Party Mart (Brownsboro Road)
A Louisville liquor store legend, the Party Mart is located just off the Watterson Expressway and about 10 minutes from the city’s center. Great prices, many choices.
Louisville is home to a host of eclectic shops selling myriad goodies tied to the Derby or any other time of year. Clearly this is an incomplete list, but for a targeted approach to retailing—since you don’t have much time this week—you don’t want to miss the following.
Located in the city’s Butchertown neighborhood is this beautifully revitalized building that once served as a tannery and a soap factory. Inside are two amazing shops, Cellar Door Chocolates (a winning hostess gift) and Work the Metal, a terrific collectables and jewelry shop.
Despite its humble name, this high-fashion stop is regarded by some as the city’s top store for ladies’ Derby duds. That includes last-minute items for the procrastinator or one responding smartly to our fickle spring weather.
Dresses, accessories, bags, baubles and more. This Westport Village store is a great go-to for East Enders needing a fashion fix in a pinch.
This is the perfect place for men and women to shop for their Derbywear together. Circe is a fashion-forward store harboring hats, fascinators, shoes, etc. for gals, and jackets, shirts, ties, etc. for guys.
Another great stop for couples shopping, but especially for guys looking to pick up track togs. Contemporary or classic, you’ll find what you need here, fellas.
Go “bling” or go home should be the saying at this stylish shop where the staff’s longstanding reputation of building Derby Day outfits is legendary. Just show up ready to be dressed like the best.
If you’re going casual, this is the place to find something unique, especially a take-home, wearable souvenir. This St. Matthews store will help you find the perfect piece of Louisville to wear either here or on the journey home.
Visit These Places
There’s no better place to see race horses up close, watch them prepare to work out, see them run, and then get their just reward of a soapy wash-down. Their rock star trainers will be there, too. You want a good party in the morning—as in starting at 5 a.m.? This is it.
You don’t have to be a baseball buff to appreciate the endless treasure trove of history from the diamond curated here. This uniquely Louisville experience even allows you to step in the batting cage to take some swings with the bats of baseball legends.
If you don’t know that Ali is “The Greatest,” you’ll surely know it after you visit this museum chronicling the life of this fascinating, polarizing, and famously generous Louisville native.
Located at Churchill Downs, this highly interactive and award-winning exhibit will teach novices more about horse racing and the storied Derby itself than just about anything. Plus, it’s a ton of fun. Great for all ages, but kids really love it.
Do a Little Dance Here
Like live blues music played loud to a crowd? Stevie Ray’s will help you get your groove on late into the night. Its 230 E. Main Street location is also near several great restaurants, brewpubs, and bourbon bars.
If you prefer dancing to live, original rock, and alt tunes, this is your place. Catch your breath while playing some vintage pinball machines and arcade games while sipping from a thorough and fantastically affordable beer and bourbon list. (We’re talking pours of Knob Creek Single Barrel for $8!) Food here markedly exceeds pub grub standards, too, so bring an appetite.