In Louisville, chefs have forged an adventurous new cuisine rich with Kentucky heritage. Benjamin Phelan eats his way through town.

Kentucky eats
Credit: Christopher Testani

When Edward Lee took over the restaurant 610 Magnolia (prix fixe $75–$95) in Louisville’s historic district in 2003, the city knew few gustatory pleasures beyond chicken-fried steak and a wedge of Derby pie. The Brooklyn-born, Korean-American restaurateur, who later became a finalist on Top Chef, loved the region’s cuisine—“I eat at every Southern restaurant I can find,” he told me—but sought to elevate it with technical prowess honed in New York City kitchens. Nobody came. “Most of my staff quit,” Lee recalled. “We made no money.”

A lot can change in 12 years. On a recent spring evening, servers sped across the hundred-year-old brick floors of 610’s elegant, unfussy dining room, delivering dishes like calf pancreas with grits and salt-roasted rutabaga salad over a “soil” of dehydrated hazelnut to the stylish diners who filled every table. The city’s palate had evolved enough by 2013 that Lee was able to fulfill his dream of opening a second restaurant: the speakeasy-style small-plates spot MilkWood (small plates $8–$25), tucked in a basement space in the Actors Theatre downtown. A menu Lee describes as “Southern food with an Asian pantry” features such nouveau comfort dishes as miso-smothered chicken with Carolina rice, octopus bacon, and the popular collards and kimchi.

How did Louisville become a center of experimental Southern cuisine? In the years between the near disaster of Lee’s 610 Magnolia relaunch and the immediate triumph of MilkWood, the cultural capital of Kentucky experienced the same kind of urban renaissance as other medium-size cities throughout America, from Nashville to Pittsburgh: young professionals elected to settle down there rather than move to the suburbs, historic buildings were restored and repurposed, and chefs embraced the farm-to-table movement sweeping the nation. Historic neighborhoods like NuLu, the burgeoning arts district adjacent to downtown (the name is a mash-up of new and Louisville) became foodie strongholds.

The arrival in 2006 of the 21c Museum Hotel in a downtown complex of 19th-century bourbon and tobacco warehouses also played a role in putting Louisville back on the map; its restaurant, Proof on Main (entrées $17–$37), joined 610 in offering sophisticated takes on supposedly humble regional ingredients like sorghum and catfish. The city got an additional lift from America’s renewed interest in Kentucky’s signature product—bourbon. The seven-year-old Urban Bourbon Trail, a collective of 34 restaurants and bars, each of which is required to stock a minimum of 50 bourbons, has become a force in elevating Louisville’s culinary profile.

In a city with such a strong drinking culture, it’s no surprise that next-gen bar food reigns supreme. At Hammerheads (entrées $7–$25), a low-ceilinged, unreconstructed dive in blue-collar Germantown, a mist of aerosolized duck fat and truffle oil hangs so thick it could qualify as an appetizer. Founders Adam Burress and Chase Mucerino founded the gastropub four years ago with an emphasis on game meat. “We’re both from hunting families, so we had an affinity for it,” Burress said. “Plus, we had this killer smoker.” The restaurant’s atmosphere might be raucous, but its technique is refined. Take the pork belly: it’s brined for 24 hours, smoked for six, braised confit for 12, chilled overnight, then seared and served with duck-fat-fried potatoes tossed in truffle oil.

Burress and Mucerino have since expanded to suburban Irish Hill, where they serve boar, antelope, kangaroo, and elk at Game (entrées $8–$18). Their latest venture, Loop 22 (entrées $10–$35) in the Douglas Loop area, specializes in rotisserie meats, including a fatty, perfectly gamy whole duck, and classics like a rich vegetable cassoulet. Feast BBQ (entrées $8–$24), which opened late last year in a sunny storefront in NuLu, is another can’t-miss destination for committed carnivores: it serves pulled pork, brisket, and beautifully smoked baby back ribs alongside bourbon slushies and an extensive selection of beers.

For all you hear about bourbon, Louisville is also a great beer town. Nowhere is that more apparent than at Gralehaus (entrées $9–$12), a bistro that opened last year a few blocks east of Hammerheads. Its chef, Andy Myers, previously helmed the kitchen at the Holy Grale (entrées $9–$15), a restaurant in a converted church that shares a Bavarian-style beer garden with Gralehaus, where he devised dishes like a dill-pickle-brined fried-sweetbread sandwich and quail cooked sous vide as a tribute to Nashville-style hot chicken. At Gralehaus, he specializes in such beer-friendly dishes as burgoo, a stew with origins in western Kentucky that’s made with pork shoulder and house-made duck sausage, and an open-faced pimento-cheese sandwich that goes perfectly with a glass of sour, salty Ritterguts Gose. It’s been so successful that Gralehaus is expanding into an inn—with beer taps in the guest rooms.

But not every great new restaurant in Louisville was set up with boozing in mind. The best example of the new style of local cooking forged by 610 Magnolia is the three-year-old Decca (entrées $16–$31), in NuLu. Its chef, Annie Pettry—who grew up in Asheville, North Carolina, and attended the French Culinary Institute—worked previously in several San Francisco restaurants, where she was influenced by the Bay Area’s produce-loving ways. “We’re very vegetable-centric,” she said, sipping spearmint tea in the restaurant’s warm, minimalist dining room, which features homey cork floors and geometric light fixtures. “Even the meat dishes start with the vegetable.” To create the steak, she explained, “we started with caramelized cauliflower, then blanched some cauliflower florets, then tossed that with lemon, olive oil, and herbs. So we had these deep flavors, and then some crunch, and that goes well with Parmesan and pickled cherries. And then we thought, ‘A little steak would be amazing with that.’”

Decca’s fellow pioneers in this emerging brand of Kentucky cuisine include its neighbor, Rye (entrées $22–$36), where vegetables from the region’s many farms are as prized as the bone-in rib eye, with even the most seemingly ordinary treated as eloquent expressions of the local terroir. The broccoli soup—puréed, seasoned with za’atar, and served with a crunchy sprinkle of quinoa and sunflower seeds—conveyed the very essence of the vegetable. At Harvest ($17–$29), the NuLu restaurant of Ivor Chodkowski, dean of Louisville’s farmers’ market, everything from the scones with sorghum butter to the delicate fried chicken is made with ingredients from within a 100-mile radius, evolving with the seasons. Nearby Ward 426 (entrées $14–$48) offers an especially deep dive into Kentucky produce: a seven-course vegetarian tasting menu that has featured locally grown ancient grains and a deconstructed ratatouille, in a dining room dominated by a 130-year-old bar salvaged from a long-defunct restaurant.

“If you only understand old traditions, you end up with something that’s culturally dead,” Ed Lee had told me at 610 Magnolia. We were discussing his Chef’s Collaboration whiskey, a bourbon-rye hybrid that is bottled by Jefferson’s Bourbon. But he could have been describing the way Louisville’s chefs have transformed their city’s dining culture. “I guess the purists might get upset,” he added. “But what’s more important—sticking with tradition or making it taste good?”