Mint juleps get all the attention, but it’s food, not bourbon, that drives the Kentucky Derby and its festivities. Hot browns, Benedictine sandwiches, and slices of Derby pie provide the fuel revelers need to enjoy the weekend ahead.
Here are some tips that will help guide you through your Derby dining experiences.
Getting in the Door
To get a table, you’ll need more than prayer to score some good food on Derby or Oaks nights. You need to plan, and plan well.
Consider heading out for an early or late dinner. Get a table while the crowds at Churchill Downs are still trying to find their cars—Proof on Main is taking limited reservations for a 5:30 p.m. seating. Since folks usually wrap up their evening meal by 9 p.m., slide into your favorite restaurant as others teeter out to Derby parties. Just remember to snack at home to keep your hunger at bay. Look for places like Dragon King’s Daughter, a sushi fusion restaurant on Bardstown Road that regularly offers late-night happy hour specials.
Call ahead. Didn’t get reservations to a popular restaurant? Call the day of your dinner to see if anyone has canceled. It happens on Derby night. A lot.
Eat at the bar. You might get some scowls from the bartenders, but many restaurants will allow you to order a meal at the bar. This cuts your wait time in half and gives you front-row seats to the alcohol. Just remember to tip your bartender well.
Think beyond the city’s restaurant rows. Main and East Market streets, Bardstown Road and Frankfort Avenue are restaurant hot spots year round, and this weekend will just exacerbate these areas’ popularity. Consider dining out off the popular grid. Vietnam Kitchen and Annie’s Café, authentic Vietnamese restaurants located in the South End, would be ideal for its close proximity to Churchill Downs. Or visit the East End to impress out-of-town guests with a visit to the new and noteworthy Mussels and Burger Bar.
Stay home. No lines, no waiting.
Where to See (and be Seen)
Short of pulling up a lawn chair outside the Barnstable Brown party, spotting a celebrity is a game of chance during Derby week. But celebrities have to eat just like the rest of us, so do a little stargazing during your meal. Celebrity Chef Edward Lee’s high-profile status will likely draw big names to his two restaurants, 610 Magnolia and the recently opened Milkwood. And there’s no shame hanging around a hotel to catch a glimpse of a Real Housewife—try Proof on Main in 21c Museum Hotel, The Oakroom in the Seelbach Hotel, or Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse in The Galt House. If you’re slick, you might even talk your way to a table.
The Pre-Oaks, Post-Derby Brunches
This year’s sudden shutter of Lynn’s Paradise Café left a hole in many Derby week brunch plans. But this restaurant’s closing, along with the recently revised Sunday alcohol sales law, provides an opportunity for other businesses to flaunt their best brunch fare.
Ramsi’s Café on the World, which offers a brunch buffet on Sundays, comes the closest to matching the quirkiness and charm that drew customers to Lynn’s. There are no ugly lamps, but there are plenty of mismatched tables and large pieces of arts that give patrons something to look at. Yet, no one focuses on the décor after one pass through the buffet. Ramsi’s offers traditional breakfast items such as biscuits and gravy and freshly made omelets along with restaurant favorites like chipotle con queso.
Ramsi’s or another brunch buffet might be the best option for Derby revelers trying to soak up a hangover and brace themselves for what while surely be a long Monday. Bristol Bar and Grille is a Louisville favorite that provides standard brunch selections for topsy-turvy stomachs and dim lights for delicate eyes.
Wild Eggs, a breakfast/lunch/brunch-only establishment, has enough character to appeal to former Lynn’s devotees and low prices that have a mass appeal. Wild Eggs is a family favorite, so be prepared for large parties and little crumb snatchers.