Source: The Nashville Scene
By D. Patrick Rodgers
April 25, 2019
hanks to how far west it lies in the Eastern Time Zone, the beautiful Louisville, Ky., has sunsets well past 8 p.m. this time of year. That means they get about an hour more daylight in the evenings than we do here in Nashville — just one of many reasons to take the roughly two-and-a-half-hour drive up I-65 to Derby City.
All things revolve around the Kentucky Derby in the run-up to the famed springtime horse race, which takes place May 4 this year. The annual festivities kick off with the airshow and fireworks display known as Thunder Over Louisville — a tradition I was not aware of when I booked my fact-finding mission for this, the Scene’s inaugural Road Trip Issue. Much of downtown Louisville shuts down the day of Thunder, leaving the streets largely empty as sundry warbirds rip through the sky overhead. That made for a vaguely apocalyptic vibe on my visit, which was nevertheless full of lovely sights and eats.
From the crow’s-nest-like third-floor Sky Parlor suite at Gralehaus in Louisville’s historic Highlands neighborhood, you can hear the bell of St. Brigid’s Catholic Church across the street toll … well, clear as a bell, every hour on the hour. Gralehaus features only three rooms, and the Sky Parlor is quirky, intimate and cute, complete with a small Crosley record player, a handful of records and a bathroom (with both a shower stall and a separate tub) that’s nearly as big as the bedroom portion of the suite. Downstairs is Gralehaus’ delightful dining facilities, and adjacent is the Holy Grale, a wine and beer bar in a 114-year-old building formerly home to a Unitarian Church. Gralehaus and the Holy Grale share a charming little biergarten.
There are a number of historic places to stay in Louisville, including the ornate Brown Hotel on West Broadway. But perhaps no spot is quite as special as the 21c Museum Hotel just a block away from the Louisville Slugger Factory on Main Street. Though 21c, a boutique hotel and art museum chain, has expanded to a total of eight locations — including the one in Nashville’s Gray & Dudley building, opened in 2017 — the company’s Louisville spot, opened by Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson in 2006, was the first. A stay at the 21c on Christmas Eve a couple years back was genuinely among the most pleasant hotel experiences I’ve ever had, with the staff upgrading me to the magnificent Asleep in the Cyclone suite and comping my room-service charges simply out of holiday-spirit kindness. While you’re not likely to have the same intimacy in a 21c room as you have at Gralehaus, the larger and more attentive staff might just make your trip. Currently on display in 21c Museum are three exhibits: Labor&Materials; Interwoven: A Tribute to Enid Yandell; and The Other South: Photographs by Laura Lee Brown.
PHOTO: AMANDA MATSUI
The road to Louisville is peppered with weird and wonderful gems, from famed attractions like the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Ky., to quirky, lesser-known stops like Dinosaur Museum in Cave City. Also in Cave City — which is about 90 minutes north of Nashville on I-65, a little past the halfway point to Louisville — is the 50-year-old Mammoth Cave Wildlife Museum. Frozen in time like something Clark Griswold would insist his family stop off and see, the Wildlife Museum is full of genuinely impressive specimens, from a sprawling bug collection to massive, decades-old taxidermied bears (of the grizzly, Kodiak and polar varieties), exotic cats, birds and much more. Aside from the woman working the front desk (who described the museum’s loop as a “vicious circle”), the museum was empty on a recent Saturday, leaving me to wonder as I wandered, “How is this magnificent place still here?” and, “How magnificent is this moose?” Admission is $9, and it’s an absolute must — who knows how long this relic, complete with its Cracker Barrel-style gift shop, will remain. If you’d like to spend some more time exploring the natural wonders of Cave City, plan a stop at the awe-inspiring Mammoth Cave National Park (a destination that deserves more attention than a quick road trip could possibly allow you to pay).
PHOTO: AMANDA MATSUI
About a half-hour from Louisville’s city center is Clermont’s Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, a 15,000-plus-acre preserve founded nearly a century ago. Even on its own, Bernheim Forest is a beautiful stop that showcases Kentucky’s many verdant wonders, but a recently installed exhibit makes it essential. Danish artist Thomas Dambo’s Forest Giants in a Giant Forest features three massive creatures — Mama Loumari and her children, Little Nis and Little Elina — built using recycled wood from the area. Bernheim allows visitors to touch and interact with Dambo’s sculptures, and requires only a $5-per-car environmental impact fee on holidays and weekends. The Giants are expected to stay in Bernheim for at least three more years. (Consider visiting during the Fe Fi Fo Fun Fest on May 18, which will feature “nature discovery stations, construction of the faerie village, costume parade, giant tree giveaways” and more.)
Of course, if you want to do your exploring in Louisville proper, there are plenty of sights to see. There’s the independent and wonderfully charming Carmichael’s Bookstore on Bardstown Road, where I was just lucky enough to have been greeted by a puppy named Capone when I visited on a Saturday afternoon. Nearby are the historic Cave Hill Cemetery — where both Col. Sanders and Muhammed Ali are interred — and the rolling, 400-acre Cherokee Park, both of which are ideal grounds for an afternoon stroll. If you’re looking for some more active entertainment, try Baxter Jack’s on Baxter Avenue, Louisville’s so-called “volleybar,” which is open from April through October and features three sand volleyball courts.
PHOTO: JOSH MERIDETH
All within walking distance of Gralehaus in the Highlands neighborhood are Ramsi’s Cafe and loads of Irish bars (as well as a palm reader and a couple of tattoo parlors). While Butchertown Grocery came highly recommended for dinner, it completely closed up shop on the Saturday of my visit due to the aforementioned Thunder Over Louisville. So instead, my dining partner and I opted for New American cuisine spot Rye in the East Market District, which is sometimes referred to, unfortunately, as the “NuLu” district. (The plague of asinine neighborhood abbreviation rebrandings isn’t limited to Nashville.) Rye’s menu features small plates as well as large appetizers, and we went with a selection of fresh oysters along with the tender, whole-grilled pompano (prepared with lemon and berbere) as well as delicious milk-braised pork over grits and English peas. Our server was attentive and delightful, our cocktails refreshing and light — I highly recommend this one as a date locale if you’ve got the scratch for a fine-dining establishment.
On Sunday, I tried out popular Mexican brunch spot Con Huevos on Frankfort Avenue, and while there was a bit of a wait for a table, I used that opportunity to hit coffee shop Please & Thank You next door. I’d heard the scuttlebutt about P&TY’s supposedly phenomenal chocolate-chip cookie. Friends, let me tell you — I was not disappointed. It was among the best cookie experiences of my life. Back at Con Huevos, a chorizo torta and the huevos rancheros were quite savory, but the best bite I had all weekend — even better than that world-class cookie — was the plate of tres leches pancakes. They were obscenely good.
The brevity of my weekend trip meant I wasn’t able to check out other restaurants that were recommended to me, including the 86-year-old Jack Fry’s, a Southern-fare spot whose original owner and namesake was reportedly “a rambling, gambling kind of guy who loved amateur boxing and the race horses.” I did find time, however, for a drink at Germantown’s Mr. Lee’s, an inconspicuous speakeasy-style cocktail bar with little light and much ambiance. It was mildly difficult to hear my companions over the clamor in the place. (There’s a joke in here about it not being easy to speak at the speakeasy, but I’m too classy to make it.) That’s a minor complaint for a place with such excellent drinks, especially when they’re a bit cheaper than similar fare at cocktail bars in Nashville. Try the No Jacket Required if you’re a bourbon fan, and if you’re in the mood for a more divey spot afterward, walk to The Pearl or Nachbar — both are about two blocks away, also in Germantown.
Of course, if you’re a brewery and/or a distillery nut, you could easily fill a weekend touring much-loved facilities like the Angel’s Envy Distillery and the Copper & Kings American Brandy Distillery, or tipping a few back at Falls City Brewing Company.