While its most known attribute may be the Kentucky Derby, our recent visit to Louisville proved that this Ohio River town is a whole lot more than just a one-trick pony.
True, Churchill Downs becomes the center of the sports universe every first Saturday in May for “The Greatest Two Minutes in Sports.” Since 1875, the famed track has hosted the Run for the Roses, drawing as many as 165,000 to Louisville for Derby Weekend. If you’re not much into crowds, but the lore of the world’s most celebrated race track fascinates you, the next best thing is to stop by in early spring for a sneak peek at the inner workings of this National Historic Landmark.
We began with the Barn & Backside Tour, an hour-long drive in and around the one-mile track, where we spied a handful of Thoroughbreds already prepping for the big day. We also took part in a walking tour into many of Churchill Downs' exclusive areas, including Millionaire’s Row and a step onto the private balcony where Queen Elizabeth II, a horse enthusiast, overlooked the finish line on Derby Day 2007.
The adjacent Kentucky Derby Museum offers all sorts of fun activities, including a ‘time machine,’ where they have footage of every race dating back to 1918. Of course, one of the Derby’s signature traditions is the wearing of the hat; and a good place to peruse an array of styles, shapes and shades is the museum’s gift shop.
Speaking of museums, one of the highlights of our Louisville trip was discovering Museum Row on Main Street. Find places such as the Muhammad Ali Center, where three levels of exhibits pay tribute to Louisville’s most famous native son. Don’t miss your chance to ‘train’ with and ‘shadow-box’ against the 'The Greatest,' as well as catch a glimpse of his many trophies and see the Olympic torch that he carried in Atlanta.
There’s also the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory, where visitors can take a swing with an actual bat used by Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle or Derek Jeter, as well as learn all you need to know about converting maple and ash billets into bats.
If you ask a local about their favorite stop on Museum Row, chances are, they’ll say The Frazier History Museum. There are more than 1,000 years of history contained here, among them: George Washington’s rifle and Teddy Roosevelt’s ‘big stick,’ as well as the museum’s newest permanent collection of more than 10,000 toy soldiers (the largest of its kind) depicting real people and events throughout history.
For a dose of Louisville’s lively theater scene, we took in a Sunday afternoon matinee at the intimate Actors Theatre, home to the internationally acclaimed Humana Festival of New American Plays, which has become quite the showcase for new theatrical work.
Hungry yet? Louisville certainly can satisfy any—and every—craving. Recently named one of the country’s ‘Up-and-Coming Food Cities’ by Zagat, there definitely is more than Derby Pie and bourbon balls to be found. For dinner one night, we ventured out to The Highlands neighborhood to experience Seviche, where Chef Anthony Lamas holds court with the magic he works on seafood—fresh seafood. Did you know that because Louisville is the worldwide air hub for UPS, it can command the freshest bounty from either coast? And if you’re a seafood lover, this is the place to savor Line-Caught Bigeye Tuna within hours of being caught. Another delicacy is The Avocado: avocado ice cream, dulce de leche and a bourbon truffle ‘pit,’ all encased in a chocolate shell. (You’re welcome!)
Looking for a brunch place? Look no farther than Harvest in the red-hot Nulu (East Market) district. And just as its name implies, the focus here is farm-fresh ingredients. The walls are lined with giant black-and-white portraits of the restaurant’s local farm suppliers, all found within a 100-mile radius of the city. The ‘Baked Goodness’ special of the day was old-fashioned strawberry donuts—and trust us when we say there are no words to describe these heavenly concoctions. We also sampled the Harvest Burger, with chevre and hog jowl bacon jam deliciously co-existing on a pretzel bun; accompanied with a side of ‘smashie,’ the restaurant’s take on the mashed potato—this one with sweet potatoes, butternut squash, shallots and three kinds of cheese.
Of course, there’s decadence, and then there’s decadence—and it can be had at The Brown Hotel in downtown Louisville. Consistently named as one of the world’s best hotels, the celebrated landmark opened in 1923 with former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George as the first person to sign the guest register. Through the years, The Brown has welcomed the likes of royalty (the Duke of Windsor) and Hollywood elite like Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Crawford, as well as presidents Harry Truman, Jimmy Carter, George H. Bush, and Barack Obama, just to name a few.
The hotel’s jaw-dropping English Renaissance lobby harkens back to the Gilded Age, complete with hand-painted ceilings and a Lobby Bar that features an approachable drink menu for sampling all that fine bourbon that Kentucky is known for.
And talk about Old South hospitality: The Brown Hotel staff—from the valet to the front desk to the clerk manning one of the most impressive hotel gift shops we’ve ever seen—exudes warmth and friendliness, and service that’s second to none.
Oh, Louisville…For decades, you’ve dazzled us with the Derby and all its pageantry; but we found the off-track attractions equally just as delightful. We can’t wait to make a return trip—you can bet on it!
The Hot Brown
A culinary tour of Louisville is not complete without a taste of The Hot Brown, created in the 1920s by Chef Fred Schmidt, who was looking for something new to feed more than 1,200 guests in the wee hours of the morning after a night of dancing at The Brown Hotel.
The Hot Brown is a mainstay at the hotel’s fine-dining restaurant, The English Grill, where some 1,500 of the open-face sandwiches are served up during Derby Week. Current executive chef Josh Bettis wows with other menu highlights such as the mouth-watering Crispy Kentucky Pork Belly, Prosciutto Wrapped House Mozzarella and Davis Creek Prime Beef Filet Mignon. And for dessert, treat yourself to the Grill's signature Chocolate Striptease (we'll leave that to your imagination).
And now, without further ado, courtesy of The Brown Hotel…
The Hot Brown (serves two)
2 oz. butter
2 oz. all-purpose flour
16 oz. heavy cream
½ cup Pecorino Romano cheese, plus 1 T for garnish
Salt and pepper to taste
14 oz. sliced roasted turkey breast
2 slices Texas toast (crusts trimmed
4 slices crispy bacon
2 Roma tomatoes, sliced in half
In a two-quart saucepan, melt butter and slowly whisk in flour until it forms a thick paste (roux). Continue to cook roux for two minutes over medium-low heat, stirring frequently. Whisk heavy cream into the roux and cook over medium heat until the cream begins to simmer, about 2 to 3 minutes. Remove sauce from heat and slowly whisk in ½ cup of cheese until the Mornay sauce is smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste.
For each Hot Brown, place one slice of toast in an oven-safe dish and cover with 7 ounces of turkey. Take the two halves of tomato and set them alongside the turkey and toast. Pour one-half of the Mornay sauce to completely cover the dish. Sprinkle with additional Pecorino Romano cheese. Place entire dish under a broiler until cheese begins to brown and bubble. Remove from broiler, cross two pieces of cooked bacon on top, sprinkle with paprika and parsley, and serve immediately.
IF YOU GO:
Louisville is a four-hour drive from St. Louis along I-64.
Contact the Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau (gotolouisville.com) for a free visitors guide.
For accommodations, contact The Brown Hotel, 502-583-1234 or brownhotel.com.