When I was growing up, my family made regular trips to Louisville, Kentucky, for two reasons: visiting my grandmother and eating fried chicken livers. Grandma was what's known in those parts as a firecracker; she loved a good manhattan and a lively debate, and she would take us around to local neighborhood joints that served up both, along with an array of bar snacks, including the crunchiest fried chicken livers I've ever tasted. So, it seemed appropriate that my father and I should pay homage to his mother's memory on a recent return to Louisville with a tour of some of the city's most venerable tippling establishments.
Louisville is a drinking town. A social town. The local bourbon industry is one factor; the julep-fueled Kentucky Derby season is another. This is the home of the old-fashioned, that glorious concoction of bourbon, bitters, and orange, and of majestic hotels, like the Seelbach and the Brown, both of which boast grand old bars. But one cannot live on booze alone, and so Louisville's bars have become great places to eat; they're where the genial tavern culture of the Midwest meets the fried-food mother lode of the South. The union constitutes one of the country's best bar-snacking traditions, of which livers are just the beginning.
Some of the bar snacks we sampled are unique to Louisville. Take the rolled oyster, a fist-size cluster of mollusks cloaked in cracker meal and deep-fried; the specialty was invented in the 1880s by the tavern owner Phillip Mazzoni and is served to this day in bars throughout the city. In the late 1970s, the Bristol Bar & Grille began providing its own incentive for ordering another round: green chile wontons, fried parcels filled with jalapeño-spiked melted cheese and served with a cooling guacamole dip. Then there's the hot brown, an open-face turkey-and-bacon sandwich smothered in mornay sauce. It was created in 1923 as a late-night snack for guests at the Brown Hotel, and the best place to order one is still the bar in the hotel's elegant lobby.
"There's a real loyalty to place," says Amy Evans, an oral historian with the Southern Foodways Alliance, who visited Louisville last year to research its vibrant bar scene. "Folks there tend to be monogamous with their drinking." My father and I realized almost immediately how true that is. In the historically German neighborhood of Schnitzelburg, which is home to many of the city's oldest bars, we stopped in at Flabby's, a cozy, 57-year-old tavern where the bartender knew every patron but us. The crunchy fried chicken livers, piled high in a plastic basket, were amazing. So was the smoky white bean soup around the corner at Check's Cafe, where we also tried a sandwich of fried, thick-cut baloney and a Bluegrass Brewing Co. bourbon-barrel stout. And in the nearby Highlands neighborhood, at the friendly half liquor store, half grocery called Morris' Deli, we made a detour into the walk-in beer cooler before settling at the counter for a succulent shredded lamb and pork sandwich.
Dad and I were gratified to discover that some of Louisville's most acclaimed chefs are upholding the city's bar snack traditions. At Lilly's Bistro, Kathy Cary featured an entire menu of "Kentucky Tapas". At Jack's Lounge, Dean Corbett's fried calamari with caponata complemented bartender Joy Perrine's infused-bourbon cocktails. We even sampled house-made bison bresaola from the bar menu at Michael Paley's Proof on Main. Truth be told, were Grandma here today, she might raise an eyebrow at the practice of serving such exotic offerings as bagna cauda at the bar. But after a few bites (and a cocktail, of course), I think she'd recognize their fresh flavors as her kind of food.