(Note: The following post was originally published in Feb. 2016 and updated in Oct. 2017)
For years, Kentucky’s best known restaurant was a charming little place called The Beaumont Inn. Located in historic Harrodsburg, The Beaumont lays claim to being the state’s oldest family-operated bed & breakfast. The quaint main dining room has been serving timeless Bluegrass classics liked fried chicken and country ham since 1845. But just as the number of bourbon distilleries has boomed in recent years, so has the number of innovative, ground breaking Kentucky restaurants.
Today, new highly touted dining spots are drawing crowds to Louisville, Midway, Lexington and beyond. Each one fronted by ambitious, young executive chefs who are redefining both the culinary landscape and the menu. And the accolades from national publications are starting to pile up. Travel + Leisure magazine recently added Louisville to their list of “America’s Best Cities for foodies”, while Thrillist named Derby City their “Best Up-and-Coming Food City.” Simply put: Kentucky is becoming a destination for foodies. But to find the very best that the state has to offer, visitors often need a sense of adventure. And a pretty good sense of direction.
Chefs to Know: Edward Lee
“You sure this is right?” The guide let out a light laugh as he pulled the bus around another corner in Old Louisville. He had heard similar expressions of concern from guests on this drive many times before. “Yeah, I’m sure.” On a block filled with Victorian homes, one neighbor gave the bus what could only be described as the stink eye.
The guide stopped right in front of a non-descript square building: Chef Edward Lee’s 610 Magnolia Restaurant, what very well may be the most unassuming fine-dining location on earth. Critically acclaimed 610 Magnolia is well known for their six-course pre-fixe meal served Wednesday through Saturday evenings. With intimate seating for only 50, the food served in this smart casual hideaway may be best described as Southern by way of Brooklyn by way of Korea. In fact, you could describe Chef Edward Lee, 610 Magnolia’s proprietor and Louisville’s own Food Network Iron Chef, in a very similar way. Lee has joked that he came to Kentucky to attend the Derby and then stayed to open a restaurant. These days, Lee has two dining spots. Milkwood, directly underneath Actors’ Theater on Main Street in Louisville, offers a more casual environment and the perfect subterranean escape from the bustle of downtown.
Places to Know: Wagner’s Pharmacy
If you want to eschew dinner for a hearty breakfast, then your itinerary should call for a pilgrimage to Wagner’s. The location, known as Wagner’s Pharmacy until they stopped issuing prescriptions in 2014, sits in the shadow of Churchill Downs and the building is every bit as modest as 610 Magnolia. While dining, you’ll share tables with thoroughbred jockeys, spot locals seeking out daily racing forms, and chat with horse trainers dropping in to pick up a mane comb or ointment. But don’t let all the activity distract you from the food.
Esquire magazine honored Wagner’s in 2009 as “One Of The Best Places to Eat Breakfast in America.” Wagner’s, which opened way back in 1922, gained a bit of national attention when Chef Bobby Flay famously threw down (and lost) in a televised competition centered around omelets. Most of the staff just shrugs off the adulation, but Flay quickly learned what locals had known for decades – no one in the country makes better omelets than Wagner’s.
Chefs to Know: Ouita Michel
With a growing number of amazing restaurants, it’s unlikely that you’ll go hungry in Louisville. Food options at bourbon distilleries throughout Kentucky, however, have always been a bit more limited. In fact, among the state’s major distilleries, less than half of them have lunch spots that allow guests to dine on premise. And, of those, only Woodford Reserve can boast a “Chef-In-Residence.” Glenn’s Creek Café, located inside the distillery’s visitors center, is the brain child of a chef who is leaving her mark all over the state: Ouita Michel.
Chef Michel started turning heads when she opened the Holly Hill Inn in tiny Midway over 15 years ago. Today, she currently operates five restaurants and a bakery in locations that span three Kentucky counties. Each restaurant is tucked away behind a horse farm or down a narrow country road. Visitors at Wallace Station often enjoy lunch outside over a game of horseshoes usually unaware they are dining less than half a mile from the 1825 birthplace of Zerelda James, notorious matriarch to the James Gang.
Windy Corner Market literally sits at a cross roads wedged on a small piece of land between large horse farms. In the spring, you’re likely to see young foals lounging beside the fence between bites of your Shady Lane Chicken Salad. All of Chef Michel’s restaurants are distinctly different from one another. And each one comes complete with a staff that could not be more warm and welcoming. And if that wasn’t enough, Ouita Michel was just named a 2016 James Beard Award Semi-finalist for Outstanding Restaurateur of the Year!
Sometimes the best meals in Kentucky are waiting for you just down a road that you might otherwise look past. To sample the very best dishes, visitors must to explore beyond the ubiquitous Hot Brown, the somewhat mysterious Burgoo, and Derby Pie. Plan a visit to see Kentucky’s legendary distilleries, horse farms and more. But make sure you schedule some time to slow down and eat. You’ll quickly discover for yourself why Zagat named Louisville one of America’s Next Hot Food Cities. And it has absolutely nothing to do with a certain famous Colonel.