(Editor’s note: Several Insider Louisville contributors weighed in on this post, which will be updated as we hear from you. This post was updated at 11;30 a.m. on June 2. The original version included a misspelling of Tim Coury’s name.)
(Editor’s note: This post was updated at 12:30 p.m. June 2 with the addition of Ramsi’s Cafe on the World, which was inadvertently left off on the original post. We also added Kashmir Indian Restaurant. What were we thinking leaving “Krack-mir” off the list?)
Insider Louisville and everyone else devotes lots of megs of memory (they say “ink” at the CJ) to the latest and greatest NuLu/Frankfort Avenue/Highlands/downtown restaurant, and to aggregating all the national pub our top chefs garner.
A little bit lost in the hype are Louisville restaurants that don’t attract James Beard House attention – they just attract crowds every single day and night.
Yes, Louisville is one of the best per-capita restaurant towns in the U.S. And yes, Insider Louisville – like everyone else – goes crazy for the newest, latest, greatest while fawning over celebrity chefs: Edward Lee at 610 Magnolia. Anthony Lamas at Seviche. Soon-to-depart Michael Paley at Proof on Main. John Varanese at Varanese.
But too often, “latest and greatest” pushes “proven favorites” off the page.
So let’s take a moment to honor those enduring Louisville restaurants which never seem to fall out of favor. We think you’ll be surprised at a a couple of places on our list.
And, of course, there’s a little overlap between high-profile such as Bruce Ucan and less celebrated chefs, who still pack ’em in.
It’s Friday, we’re hungry and we’re tired of doing everything alphabetically, so we just threw out names and posted as we went. And we didn’t even put the addresses because, please, you’ve been there a dozen times.
(Though we have hotlinked each spot. Don’t thank us. It’s our job.)
• Jack Fry’s. Even in the depths of the 2009 recession, this place was filling its tables every night and asking those lined up at the door if they’d mind sitting at the bar or coming back at 9:30. Chef Sean Ward is creative and owner Stephanie Meeks has the warmest, brightest smile. A consensus favorite dating back to our grandfathers.
• Ramsi’s Cafe on the World: This landmark on the corner of Longest Avenue and Bardstown Road is prepertually popular, predictably pleasing and and perfectly priced. All those “P” words. For years, we got the fish and the houmous over and over again. Now, we like the World Food additions including fish tacos. We like fish, okay. But the duck mole and ribs of the Caribbean are fun. And that’s what this place is really about. Fun in the center of a very exiting section of Bardstown Road.
• Avalon. Avalon was a Highlands pioneer on a trail blazed by The Bristol Bar & Grill. Owner Steve Clements is one of the Casa Grisanti alums who have made this town the dining Mecca it is with reliably good, creative fare. Outside space arguably the coolest place to hang on Bardstown Road.
• Mayan Café. Bruce Ucan was on East Market Street well before it became trendy NuLu. His Mayan food is not what you normally think of – it’s from his native Yucatan Peninsula (thus the restaurant’s name), on Mexico’s east coast. Don’t think quesadillas and Dos Equis, think cochinita pibil (slow-roasted pork) and a great bottle of Argentine Malbec. Some of the most cosmopolitan insiders we know argue passionately that Mayan Café is the best restaurant in Louisville.
• El Mundo. This Mexican restaurant on Frankfort Avenue serves what you normally think of as Mexican food. But owner Bea Chamberlain kicks it up a notch, with great quality and a great urban ambiance that keeps packing in the 20-somethings, upstairs, downstairs and in the back. Think funky.
• Blue Dog Bakery and Cafe.Yes, it’s a bakery. And yes, its bread is a staple of restaurants and delicatessens all over town. But its Parisian-style café also serves some of the best sandwiches and brunch items in the city. One of the best, period! Which is why it attracts a polished, upscale crowd to Crescent Hill who eat here when they’re not in Gstaad.
• Porcini. This was the first restaurant across the street from the railroad tracks in Clifton. (“People asked me if I was crazy,” recalls owner Tim Coury.) And it’s still the place to go for just drinks or solid Italian food. Coury is another Casa Grisanti alum and a crowd favorite when he’s not out cheering for the Louisville Cardinals of his pal and infamous customer Rick Pitino.
• Jack’s Lounge. The picture in the dictionary for “great man’s bar.” Crowds flock to St. Matthews for the dark wood and rich leather interior, to drink, have an informal business meeting or watch a game on the various TV sets. And the menu from Equus is way better than bar food. This is a Dean Corbett joint, after all. If Frank Sinatra were still alive and – even more unlikely – lived in Louisville, this is where he’d hang his fedora.
• Sapporo. There are lots of sushi restaurants all over town, but this sleek blue cave on Bardstown Road seems to be the favorite. Dependably good creations and the highest quality fish and seafood, and sitting at the sushi bar is a show all by itself. There’s also a second location around the corner from the Brown Hotel on emerging South Fourth Street.
• Irish Rover. Forget the old jokes about an Irish meal being a potato and a six-pack. Yes, they line up at the bar for the Guinness and owner Michael Reidy’s Irish hospitality. But the back room (which is actually the front room in this historic Frankfort Avenue building) has an enticing selection of traditional bangers and mash, Guinness beef stew, ploughman’s plate, plus other offerings that are not Irish. Oh, and the Scotch eggs are our favorite health food.
• Kashmir Indian Restaurant. Insiders call this “Krack-mir” because you get so addicted to the Tandoori and the freakin’ masalas that you have to go back week for a fix at this Bardstown Road joint. When Kashmir closed after the fire last year, we went into withdrawal! Seriously …. We get a lot of pushback on this from people who prefer Shalimar out on Hurstbourne Parkway. No way we’re driving out there when we can walk to Kashmir. And apparently a lot of people agree –packed on weekends and pretty much every day past Thursday.
• Havana Rumba. Who in Louisville would have rushed out for Cuban food before this place opened in St. Matthews? Now, everyone rushes out for the amazing pork and shrimp and chorizo dishes, cramming into the small strip mall space and pouring out onto the parking lot. The bigger, newer, sleeker Middletown location is no less popular.
• Mojito Tapas. Same founders as Havana Rumba, different food. Another strip mall space, this one in Holiday Manor, but the same loyal clientele. The selection of tapas offerings is amazing, affordable and easy to share, and then there are the various kinds of – you guessed it – mojitos. But all that said, we always end up spending way more than we budgeted because it’s all soooo good. A great bar experience, too. Just you and like 500 of your closest friends.
• Captain’s Quarters. It’s summertime, the perfect time to enjoy the biggest, best multi-terrace riverside patio in Louisville. Sit on the expansive terrace and gaze out at the Ohio River as the boats motor by or pull in and tie up so their captains can chow down here, too. The food’s passable, even good sometimes– though rarely great. But you didn’t come here to eat – you came to see, be seen and to dig on the Bloody Marys and Long Island Iced Teas. We know you too well.
• The Bristol (Bardstown Road). There are four of these in the area, but this one’s the oldest and most popular. It’s another Bardstown Road pioneer. There’s a dynamic Sunday brunch, usually with music playing, and just solid food throughout the week, lunch and dinner. Still love the artichoke fritters and the green chili won tons after what? A hundred years!
• Vietnam Kitchen. It’s not convenient and most Americans aren’t entirely sure what Vietnamese food is. But once they’ve ventured down to this South End shopping center location for something unpronounceable but unforgettable, they come back. It’s always packed on Sundays. We’re addicted to the catfish cooked in the clay jar. Whooaa!
• Limestone. Chef Jim Gerhardt was one of the first in Louisville to concentrate on locally grown and raised produce with local preparations when he took over this North Hurstbourne Parkway Lane location, the old Blue Parrot, in 1995. He calls his offerings “fine Southern comfort food.” Don’t miss the bread pudding made of sour mash bread and bourbon, of course. One of the rare suburban restaurants worth the drive.
• Wagner’s Pharmacy. It was once a drugstore, but today it’s the favorite of the Churchill Downs crowd – jockeys, trainers, owners and stable hands – right across South Fourth Street from the infield gate. There’s still a pharmacist’s counter, from the time in 1922 when Leo Wagner opened the place. But now it’s just a great, informal place for beef stew, mac and cheese, breakfast omelettes and the ambience of Kentucky’s own Sport of Kings.
• Baxter Station. The train stopped here in 1892, when Stottmann’s opened on this Payne Street corner. Now, a model train runs around the top of the dining room. And owner Andrew Hutto serves an old-fashioned steam table lunch and reliably good dinner. He’s also the energy behind Louisville Originals, Taste of Derby and the Dare to Care food bank. Great “outdoor” indoor seating area.
• August Moon. Asiatique on Bardstown Road inspires more shock and awe among the foodies and industry websites. But Peng Looi has kept the parking lot full at August Moon on Lexington Road for 25 years with his Malaysian/Chinese delicacies. We know people who never miss a week and who always get The General’s Chicken. Really. Dedicated. Customers.