When you want to know where to eat in a new city, ask a bartender. Or your waitstaff. These people eat and drink for a living. They hear things from customers and fellow restaurant staff, they know the inside scoop, they know their ingredients and chefs, and they eat out a lot. They’re always in the know about new chefs, great cocktails, up and coming restaurants, longstanding favorites, the best wine lists, the most overrated locations, the most underrated locations, innovative drink lists, weird ingredients, and on and on. Ask a bartender about the best restaurants in the city, and you’ll get recommendations more valuable and honest than any guidebook. I know this both from asking their opinion in cities around the world, and from working as a bartender myself for years and years. If you really want to know where to eat in a new city (or even your own city!), ask a bartender.
So, on a recent trip to Louisville, Kentucky, I asked the local bar staff at the 21c Museum Hotel, where I was staying, where and what I should eat over the weekend. They pointed me to Proof, the restaurant connected to the hotel. A bit obvious, but also legitimate, as Proof is known as one of the best restaurants in the state. I finished my cocktail (the El Guapo–beet infused el jimador tequila, ango pf dry curacao, agave nectar, and lime), and moved to a table for dinner.
Proof embodies the farm to table concept growing ever popular in the United States, and even has its own farm a few miles outside of Louisville where the owners grow vegetables and raise bison. Chef Mike Wajda has been at Proof for a little over four months, and is on a mission to shake things up, so I wasn’t surprised when my first course, a homemade pop tart, appeared in front of me. “It’s one of the first items Chef put on the menu when he arrived,” said my server, a friendly man who has been with the restaurant for nine years and clearly loves his job. The pop tart was soft and filled with warm homemade blackberry jam, topped with a chicken liver pate and cracklins. The sweet fruit melded with the salty cracklins and oozed over my tongue and around my mouth. Yum.
Next up was a beet salad with smoked fig, hazelnut, sorghum, and lemon cookie crumbles.
Impressed so far, I awaited my tagliatelle, which arrived in swirls of citrus orange. The color comes from carrot juice, which is used to hydrate the pasta. There’s also carrot in the pasta dough itself, shining sweetly through with a tangy kick from shavings of preserved orange. The addition of anchovy praline and fromage blanc culminated in one of the best pastas I’ve had outside of Italy, probably because it didn’t pretend to be Italian at all.
At this point I was getting very full, but had a long way to go, so I took some time to relax with a glass of wine and check out the restaurant humming around me. The interior is modern but warm, sleek yet casual, with exposed brick walls and photos of old barns contrasting full-glass windows and contemporary tables.
My monkfish arrived, roasted and buttery with asparagus, mushroom pickle, cauliflower, chicken cracklin, and bison marmalade. Amazing. I was on my fourth course so it was the perfect size, but if you were only getting one entree you might think it a little small.
The ribeye with fondant potato, wild mushroom, marrow, and horseradish, however, was not small at all. While I do recommend every one of these dishes, I don’t recommend eating them all in one sitting. Especially because the desserts are really delicious and you’ll need to save room.
I had grilled peach cobbler with peppercorn gelato (the gelato really made it) and strawberry trifle with sweet corn biscuit. All meals at Proof end with cotton candy, so in the end I had three desserts.
One plus of eating in the hotel restaurant is that you can roll yourself up to your hotel room and fall into a food coma with reruns of Friends playing in the background, which is what I did, but not before getting my server’s recommendations for the next day’s feasting.
He told me to head to Please & Thank You for coffee, Garage Bar for brunch, and Feast for bbq.
At Garage Bar (get the sweet corn pizza with kale), the bartender argued that Momma’s is the best bbq in town, but both are good, and pointed me toward Hammerheads and Heart & Soy for indulgence and health, respectively. Hammerheads is all about reinventing guilty pleasure food, and they do it well. Think fries made better with duck fat and crispy mac & cheese balls. At Heart & Soy, I had a tasty Vietnamese sandwich and got a feel for the healthier side of Louisville. The vegetarian and vegan restaurant is new to the area and even makes their own tofu.
And so the weekend went on like this, each bartender guiding me on, until I’d eaten so many times in three days I started googling juice cleanses while stuffing myself with pork belly baked beans.
Here it is, the definitive Bartenders Know Best Louisville List:
Please & Thank You (Bakery and coffee shop with large record collection)
Oakroom Bar at the Seelbach Hotel (This is on the list because the hotel is historic and beautiful, not because the food or drinks especially stand out)
The English Grill in the Hotel Brown (Where the Hot Brown originated, and that’s what you should order)
FABD Smokehouse (More BBQ!)
Holy Grale (Great pub food, even better beer)
Hammerheads (Indulge here)
Con Huevos (Awesome Mexican breakfast)
Wagner’s Pharmacy (Not great food, but iconic atmosphere right across from Churchill Downs)