Eating Up Louisville’s Best Bar Food

The interior of the Brown Hotel's bar.Sarah Karnasiewicz

A recent trip to Louisville, Kentucky, convinced me that this convivial, whiskey-loving city is the bar food capital of America. The local drinking and snacking happens to be grounded in a vibrant bar culture. According to Amy Evans, an oral historian with the Southern Foodways Alliance, who visited Louisville last year to collect tales of its bars, bartenders, and dedicated patrons, "There's a real loyalty to place. I interviewed a guy who'd bellied up to one bar for more than 50 years." (To read more about Evans's fascinating Louisville Barroom Culture project, visit the Southern Foodways website.) A grasp of geography, from street level on up, is key to understanding this town's remarkable hospitality and joie de vivre. Louisville is a city of neighborhoods and longstanding neighborhood haunts; "local" means your block. And Louisvillians are joiners, whether it's the All Wool & A Yard Wide Democratic Club or the venerable Pendennis Club, where the old fashioned cocktail was invented. The city's prime location, on the Ohio River, its mercantile and industrial history, and the grand hotels and workingmen's saloons that sprang up as a result figure significantly, too. This is where the tavern culture of the Midwest meets the culinary traditions of the South; certain bar foods served here can't be found anywhere else in America. There are those who even claim that the cheeseburger was invented in Louisville. Factor in the local bourbon distilling industry, the brewing and culinary traditions that arrived with German immigrants in the 19th century, an abundance of locally grown produce, and the mint julep-fueled social season surrounding the annual running of the Kentucky Derby, and you have is a style of eating and drinking that makes Louisville an exceptionally inviting place in which to occupy a bar stool. The following guide touches on just a handful of the city's many bar food landmarks. For more information on where to eat and drink in Louisville, visit the Louisville Convention and Visitor Bureau's website or consult local restaurant critic Robin Garr's excellent online guide.

Brown Hotel 335 West Broadway (502/583-1234; www.brownhotel.com) The local specialty known as the hot Brown, Louisville's most iconic dish, is a decadent open-face turkey-and-bacon sandwich studded with tomato wedges and smothered in melted parmesan and rich mornay sauce. Many Louisville restaurants serve some version of it, but the gold standard is still the one served at the bar in the majestic, palm-fringed lobby of the Brown Hotel. The hot Brown was invented at the hotel in 1923 as a late-night snack for guests requiring refueling after an evening of dancing and carousing. The interplay of salty, sweet, crunchy, and creamy is singularly comforting, either as an accompaniment to cocktails or as an antidote to an evening's overindulgence.

Bristol Bar & Grille 1321 Bardstown Road (502/456-1702; www.bristolbarandgrille.com) Rolled oysters may be Louisville's longest-standing bar food tradition, but ask a Louisvillian today what goes best with a beer, and, almost invariably, the answer will be green chili wontons. They debuted in the late 1970s at the Bristol Bar & Grille's original location, still a standby on happening Bardstown Road. When I was there, the deep-fried parcels filled with jalapeño-spiked melted cheese arrived at my table piping hot; the cool, creamy guacamole dip that accompanied them—which I had, frankly, anticipated with some skepticism (wontons and guacamole, together?)—turned out to be the perfect counterpoint. The combination inspires passionate devotion in customers. I have a cousin in Louisville who actually upended her wedding reception plans after the caterers at the venue she'd reserved refused to bring in green chili wontons from the Bristol. Now I understand why.

Check's Cafe 1101 East Burnett Avenue (502/637-9515) Along with Flabby's, Check's Cafe belongs to a dense concentration of taverns, each with its own loyal clientele, tucked into the 14 blocks that constitute Schnitzelburg, a historically German neighborhood southeast of downtown Louisville. At Check's, there's no printed menu and no table service. You order at the bar and watch the door of the kitchen intently, waiting for someone to emerge with what looks like your food. It sounds like a recipe for confusion or even ill will among patrons who place identical orders, but somehow, happily, harmony prevails. The menu runs to barroom and Southern standards like fried chicken, cheeseburgers, and fried oysters. Interestingly, the chili is served Cincinnati style, over spaghetti. I savored a bowl of the smoky white bean soup per which Check's is justly renowned, and a sandwich of fried, thick-cut baloney made a satisfying accompaniment. My favorite of the locally brewed beers on offer was the oaky, malty Bluegrass Brewing Co. bourbon-barrel stout.

Flabby's 1101 Lydia Street (502/637-9136; www.flabbys.com) I've long held the theory that the hospitality of a place can be measured by the number of condiments found on its tables. It certainly holds true in the case of Flabby's, a cozy tavern that's served Schnitzelburg for some 57 years. When I visited, on a Thursday afternoon, the bartender greeted just about everyone by name, and each table held its own stockpile of jumbo-size squeeze bottles containing hot sauce, barbecue sauce, ketchup, and two types of mustard. Sunlight streamed in through the front windows to reveal a polished green linoleum floor, a well-worn wooden bar, and a caribou head mounted high on one wall. The setting was certainly agreeable—the platonic ideal of a neighborhood bar, I'd even argue—but I was really there for one thing: the Flabby's famous fried chicken livers. When they arrived, piled high in a plastic basket, I took a bite, and the crisp, salty exterior and velvety interior held each other in perfect balance. (Though they required no adornment, it was nevertheless reassuring to know that any condiment I might desire stood at the ready.) Other signature dishes at Flabby's include a variety of pork schnitzels and German wursts, as well as a pungent limburger cheese sandwich. I was especially taken with a side order of warm, meltingly luscious German potato salad. Flabby's is owned by the same family that used to run Mazzoni's, another local institution and the birthplace of the singular-to-Louisville bar snack known as the rolled oyster, a fist-size cluster of mollusks cloaked in cracker meal and deep-fried. Sadly, Mazzoni's closed last fall after a run of nearly 125 years, but the rolled oyster remains a fixture on the menu at Flabby's and a number of other Louisville bars.

Jack's Lounge 122 Sears Avenue (502/897-9026; www.equusrestaurant.com) A number of celebrated Louisville chefs are putting their own spins on the city's snacking and drinking tradition, and foremost among them is Dean Corbett. His Jack's Lounge is the kind of place that's nearly extinct nowadays. It's a true cocktail lounge, all low lighting and clubby sofas, full of grown-ups enjoying themselves in a civilized fashion. The menu is loaded with smart versions of bar food classics like crab cakes, burgers, and chicken wings. I tried the addictive fried calamari, served with a tangy caponata, and the aptly named Ultimate Nachos, each one individually constructed and as perfect as a flower. In both cases, Corbett's meticulous approach makes the familiar exciting. Still, the true jewel in the crown of Jack's Lounge is bar manager Joy Perrine. After more than 40 years behind the bar, she's gained an intuitive feel for her ingredients, particularly for the bourbon that she infuses with almost anything, from strawberries to peppermint sticks. Perrine told me that some traditionalists recoil at what she does, but she's more interested in engaging those who are new to bourbon (believe it or not, even in Louisville, they do exist). Each of her infusions is designed to draw out subtle aspects of the liquor's flavor, revealing its essential bourbonness in surprising ways.

Lilly's Bistro 1147 Bardstown Road (502/451-0447; www.lillyslapeche.com) Chef Kathy Cary has been called "the Alice Waters of Louisville" for her affinity for seasonal ingredients and the deep relationships she's fostered with local producers. Eating at her easygoing bistro, named for her daughter, Lilly, and decorated in happy colors by her husband, Will, is a little like being invited into a private home. The evening I was there, the Carys made their way from table to table and around the centerpiece bar, making everyone feel welcome. One of the most appealing aspects of the menu at Lilly's is the section devoted to small plates, listed under the heading "Kentucky Tapas". As bar food goes, these dishes are seriously fresh tasting and gracefully composed. I loved a crunchy croquette filled with scrumptious, gamy rabbit meat from nearby Duncan's Rabbit Farm. The delicate fried frog's legs had my father, who was my dinner companion that evening, waxing nostalgic about the frog-hunting expeditions of his childhood.

Morris' Deli 2228 Taylorsville Road (502/458-1668) When I was in Louisville, I spent an especially pleasant evening at Browning's, a downtown microbrewery that's since closed. What a shame. The unpretentious, beer-friendly food was lovingly prepared, and chef Jay Denham was a font of information regarding local foodways. I'm eternally grateful to him, in fact, for pointing me in the direction of one of his favorite neighborhood spots, a half liquor store, half grocery in the Highlands neighborhood called Morris' Deli. "I usually order the shredded lamb and pork sandwich," Denham told me. "It's even better if you scoop up the meat with salt and vinegar potato chips." I could hardly wait to do just that. The next day, while I waited for my sandwich, I strolled the cavernous walk-in cooler at Morris' and, despite the impressive beer selection, couldn't resist grabbing a Big Red soda, which you just don't see north of the Mason-Dixon Line. The sandwich arrived without ceremony and ungarnished on a white paper plate, a handwritten receipt tucked under the eggy, golden hamburger bun. The lamb and pork was delicious and deeply; with the tangy, salty chips, it became something sublime. I could have stayed all afternoon.

Proof on Main 702 West Main Street (502/217-6360; www.proofonmain.com) At the 21C Museum Hotel, a downtown boutique site that manages to be both chic and disarmingly eccentric, pieces from the owners' contemporary-art collection surprise and amuse at every turn. This latest heir to Louisville's grand-hotel tradition also boasts one of the hottest restaurants in town, Proof on Main, blessed not only with a steady supply of bison meat, which is raised locally on another of the owners' properties, but also with a chef who knows just what to do with it. House-made bison bresaola and juicy bison burgers are only the beginning: Michael Paley's bar menu distills the happy convergence of his Italian-inflected culinary training and the agricultural bounty of the Ohio River valley. In addition to the constantly evolving selection of cured meats and rustic pates, an array of pickles and relishes (including a lemony radish bagna freddo and peperonata boosted with capers and oregano) present a Mediterranean perspective on local produce. I could easily have devoured a second order of the savory chickpea and country ham fritters, a nod to Kentucky's famous way with cured pig. And I was glad to learn that even the sumptuous octopus bagna cauda included herbs grown as close by as the hotel's roof garden.