by Tara Cochran
This weekend all eyes in racing are fixed on Louisville, Kentucky, as Churchill Downs plays host to the Kentucky Derby. If you are traveling here for the big event — whether it be for the first time or eighth in the event’s history — it won’t take you long to realize that Louisville is a rapidly growing city.
When it comes to dining options, there are plenty of regional and national chains that have come to the city; however, local horsemen and horsewomen know where the best local eateries are. If you are looking to take in the full Louisville experience, here is a list of dining options that some of the Louisville-based, Breeders’ Cup-participating racing personalities prefer and recommend that you try while you are here — from an inexpensive breakfast to a five-star dinner experience, there is something for everyone and every budget on this list.
And who knows? You may even get lucky enough to see one of your favorite players in the game there.
Bearno’s Little Sicily
Harlan Malter, of Ironhorse Racing Stable Group, enjoys this local pizza eatery when he is in Louisville. While Bearno’s has been serving Louisville for over 40 years, Malter joked that he had to tell local trainer Tim Glyshaw that it was just up the street from his (Glyshaw’s) house.
With nine Louisville locations, Bearno’s has affordable options for adults and children, including sub sandwiches, pasta dishes, salads and — you guessed it — pizza. The restaurant also offers online ordering.
Buckhead Mountain Grill
Located off of Bardstown Rd., locally owned Buckhead Mountain Grill has been a Louisville staple for over 20 years.
Trainer Steve Asmussen, who trains Kentucky Derby entrant Long Range Toddy, particularly enjoys lunch at this restaurant because “they bring you plenty of water and racing is always on the TV.”
Buckhead Mountain Grill has the type of fare that can be expected at similar grills — steaks, burgers, chicken — as well as 23 beers on tap.
Cottage Inn Louisville
Just a stone’s throw from Churchill Downs near the University of Louisville campus, in historic Old Louisville at the corner of Eastern Parkway and Bradley Avenue, is the Cottage Inn. Trainer Charles “Chuck” Simon, who spent several years based in Louisville, admits that the southern-style menu may not be the healthiest, but is among the most delicious anywhere.
His favorite meal to eat when he is in town is the meatloaf or country fried steak with mashed potatoes and fried okra. In business since 1929, you cannot go wrong with The Cottage Inn if you are looking for southern comfort fare.
Hailed as “Kentuckiana’s Original Authentic Mexican Restaurant”, El Caporal has been in business since 1990 and has two locations in Louisville.
Simon highly recommends the combo fajitas and “las yolandas”, three chicken enchiladas topped with their own enchilada salsa, cheese, lettuce, guacamole and sour cream, served with rice.
Voted “Top 101 Great Breakfasts in America” by Urban Spoon, this restaurant serves breakfast and lunch all day.
Ron Moquett, trainer of Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1) runner-up Whitmore, who is expected to run on the Kentucky Derby Day undercard, named the restaurant as one of his favorite places for breakfast in the city. It is located off of Bardstown Rd. and offers a variety of egg options, waffles, pancakes, French toast, sandwiches and burgers.
Self-proclaimed as “the best night in town”, Jack Fry’s was mentioned by several trainers as one of their favorite restaurants for lunch or dinner, including the aforementioned Moquett. Moquett’s go-to dish on the menu is the pork chops, described as a “herb-encrusted center-cut loin chop with a compote of new potatoes, asparagus, smoked bacon and shiitake mushrooms in a rosemary-vermouth reduction.”
Located on popular Bardstown Rd., the restaurant also offers live jazz Monday-Saturday from 7 PM – 11 PM. Reservations are recommended and can be placed online.
Trainer Norm Casse and his wife, television handicapper and personality, Gabby Gaudet, enjoy dining at Le Moo.
Le Moo features several unique dining experiences, including Wagyu beef, a Louis Vuitton booth, which is made from 18 pieces of vintage Louis Vuitton luggage, and a “drag brunch”, which — you guessed it — includes a drag show.
Reservations are recommended and can be made online.
Louisville Coals Artisan Pizza
When it comes to pizza, the previously mentioned Glyshaw is a fan of Coals Artisan Pizza.
With two locations in Louisville to choose from, Coals has both lunch and dinner menus with several pizzas to choose from, all named after Louisville landmarks, such as St. Matthews, Brownsboro, Prospect and Old Louisville. It also has several local craft beers and IPAs on tap.
Mojitos Tapas Restaurant
Jockey Florent Geroux’s agent and long-time Louisville resident, Doug Bredar, calls Mojito’s his favorite local restaurant. Bredar’s favorite dish is the queso fundido, described on the menu as melted Spanish tetilla cheese, topped with crispy chorizo and serrano ham, served with Blue Dog bread. He also gives high marks to their pear salad, mussels and short ribs. Another reason he prefers the restaurant is that “there is almost always a spot open at the bar.”
Located off of Brownsboro Rd. and the Watterson Expressway, Mojitos has lunch and dinner menus, which also include tacos, sandwiches and soup options, as well as considerable dessert menu.
The Vietnam Kitchen
Located just three miles away from Churchill Downs, the Vietnam Kitchen is a hidden gem loved by many local horsemen.
Louisville-based trainer, Michelle Lovell, considers it her favorite restaurant in the city.
In fact, she is such a frequent guest that they have named an egg roll after her, the “Michelle Roll”, which is filled with pork and avocado. It isn’t on the menu, so you will have to ask for it by name. Lovell also recommends the pad thai, which is stir-fried rice and noodles with egg, bean sprouts, and peanuts on top, with your choice of beef, chicken or pork.
If you have ever been to Churchill Downs, there is a good chance that you have heard of Wagner’s Pharmacy and, perhaps, have even seen it while leaving the track when driving east down Central Avenue. While no longer a pharmacy, the famous diner, with its walls lined with win photos of some of the most favorite racehorses the track has seen, has been serving horsemen and fans alike since 1922.
You can typically eat anything from eggs benedict, omelets to oatmeal, French toast and biscuits and sausage gravy for breakfast, or a sandwich, burger, salad, soup or even pork chops for lunch. While the menu may be limited for Kentucky Derby week, the atmosphere and tradition is reason enough to go. Wagner’s also has a gift shop with racing-themed items.
Honorable Mention: 610 Magnolia, hiko-A-mon, Rye, Seviche and Wild Eggs.
Georgia native Tara Cochran fell in love with horse racing during childhood visits to her favorite racetrack, Keeneland Race Course. Upon high school graduation, she set her sights on Kentucky to work in racing and attend the University of Louisville’s Equine Industry Program.
In 2015, she started All About The Race, to highlight and promote the positives in the racing industry, providing media, marketing, public relations and fundraising solutions to the horses, races, places and faces that make horse racing great.
Over a decade later, Tara has worked in several area of the industry, including jobs on the front and backsides of Churchill Downs, showing yearlings at the Keeneland sales, in the office of a bloodstock agency, as a production assistant for TVG and NBC Sports and as a paddock reporter at Gulfstream Park.