I recently browsed through one of those books that rates cities on things like cost-of-living, the arts, the quality of its museums and the like. The ratings seemed pretty plausible until I reached the section that explained how the authors reached their conclusions. They revealed that one of their main data points was what you might call the “Starbuck's Index” — the authors used the number of Starbuck's in an area as an indication “of the overall quality of retail establishments.”
Really. I don't make this stuff up.
Now I have no argument with Starbuck's. I keep some bottled Frappucino close at hand for caffeine emergencies, and I've never encountered a Starbuck's that didn't operate with pleasant efficiency.
When I consider Louisville, I have a hard time seeing how the “Starbuck's Index” comes anywhere near indicating the overall quality of anything. It certainly has nothing on, say, the “Heine Brothers' Index,” or, better yet, the “One-Of-a-Kind Coffeehouse Index” that includes places like Derby City Espresso, Day's Coffee and Ray's Monkey House.
In fact, one of the things that makes it difficult to compare Louisville's dining scene to that in other cities is a complete lack of meaningful, objective measures — or even a good sense of what the comparative benchmarks should be. We've all heard the plaudits declaring this one of the best restaurant towns for its size — somewhere between Indianapolis and Oklahoma City — and we've read about Proof on Main, Corbett's: An American Place and Lynn's Paradise Café in national magazines.
But where does the dining scene rank? If you throw out meaningless measures like the Starbuck's Index, you're left with nothing but anecdote and speculation.
Does Louisville truly offer a better dining experience than other metro areas of its size? Yes. Do Top-15 metro areas like New York, Chicago, Houston and San Francisco offer restaurant experiences you can't find in Louisville? You bet they do.
For the 2009 Velocity Dining Guide, we take stock of the things that make Louisville's dining scene good — and what it needs to do to become great.
Five Reasons Louisville is a Good Restaurant Town
1. Major league dining
Sports columnists may wish it weren't so, but the fact that Louisville remains a minor league sports city is arguably one of the main reasons the restaurant scene flourishes. The only thing that sucks disposable income out of an economy faster than a major league sports franchise is a casino. Last year, according to Street & Smith's Sports Business Daily, the national average for a family of four to attend an NBA game (four tickets, two beers, four soft drinks, four hot dogs, parking, etc.) was $291.
Multiply that times the number of home games per season. Slide those dollars into the hands of point guards and peanut vendors. Then subtract them from the cash registers of local restaurateurs, and see how many restaurants you have left. And when someone claims an out-of-town fan will stop for a meal at a local independent restaurant, think about where you ate the last time you drove to Indianapolis or Cincinnati for a game. And when someone claims that those point guards and coaches have to eat, too, consider just how few of them there are.
Major league sports may contribute to overall quality of life in a city, but not without tradeoffs. Most economic studies indicate that most major league franchises don't generate enough revenue even to offset the taxpayer funds used to subsidize them, let alone spin off enough dollars to bolster the local economy. The next time you face the dilemma of whether to eat at, say, the Mayan Café or Equus, count yourself lucky that in Louisville, the college game is king.
2. Immigrant cuisine
Not too many years ago, immigrant cuisine in Louisville meant fried-bologna sandwiches or spaghetti and meatballs. Finding a plate of pad Thai meant trekking to Chicago. A request for hummus was likely to be misconstrued as a desire for compost freshly scooped from the forest floor.
Now the city is home to cuisine from nearly every continent except Antarctica and Australia (Outback Steakhouse doesn't really count). You could make a parlor game out of stringing together alliterative strings like France and the Philippines; Spain, Sichuan, Senegal, Sudan and Sicily; Ireland, Italy and India; Morocco and Mexico. Or you can just thank your lucky fork that consecutive waves of immigrants have settled in Louisville, bringing along their recipes for Hyderabad goat (Dakshin); stone-pot bibimbap (Lee's Korean); Cuban sandwiches (Havana Rumba); full-throated Sichuan heat (Jasmine Chinese); white-chocolate mole (Mayan Café); thiebu jeun (Chez Seneba); shawarma (Safier); or tamales (La Rosita).
Louisville is perfectly situated — and perfectly scaled — to enable close connections between farmers and restaurateurs. We live in the heart of the American garden, with abundant access to great meats, fruits, grains, vegetables and cheeses. And our restaurants take advantage of it.
Twenty years ago, Kathy Cary, chef/owner of Lilly's, pioneered farm-to-table connections in Louisville, spearheading a movement that's now pervasive. Cary and Edward Lee (610 Magnolia) raise their own veggies and herbs. Chefs like Bruce Ucan (Mayan Café) build menus around the locally raised heirloom pork and beef, and freshly harvested produce still warm from summer soil.
In fact, the only downside of these connections between restaurants and farmers is that every once in a while a farmer can't keep up with restaurant demand — and suddenly the poultry vendor who sold those superb heirloom chickens disappears from the farmers' market. (Dang!)
4. Sullivan University
Led by chef John Castro, Sullivan's programs in culinary arts have earned a national reputation by turning out graduates who compete successfully for restaurant positions all over the country. Fortunately for us, plenty of them stay close to home. You'll find them cooking everything from spicy wings at Turkey Joe's to duck breast at Lilly's. Everywhere you look, they're running small businesses, heading up kitchens, cooking on the line or whipping up pastries.
5. We all get along
Maybe it's because there's so much job-hopping in the restaurant industry that nobody dares ever burn a bridge. Maybe it's because so many local restaurants are run by people who came of age together and got their first experience in the exacting traditions of fine dining at the legendary restaurants Casa Grisanti and Sixth Avenue — a career path that includes Dean Corbett (Equus, Corbett's: An American Place), Majid Ghavami (Volare, Saffron's), Frank Yan and Dominic Serratore (Ditto's), Mark Stevens (Stevens & Stevens Deli) and a couple dozen more.
Whatever the reason, the independent Louisville restaurant scene is about as friendly as it gets. Next time you're dining out, ask the server where you should eat the next night. You'll get a list of restaurants (including storefront ethnic places) that will fill the back of an envelope faster than you can write. Check out a table at your favorite ethnic spot on a Sunday night, when many fine dining restaurants are closed, and you're likely to see the chef and crew from the restaurant where you dined on Friday.
That sense of solidarity, mutual respect and pride accounts for a lot of things: The success of the Louisville Originals marketing group, whose membership includes nearly every excellent independent restaurant in town; the “Secrets of Louisville Chefs Live” TV show, which features host Dean Corbett regularly praising the work of his local competitors; and the sharing of good ideas and techniques that improve the dining experience for all of us. Perhaps more than anything else, it's this sense of that sense of community and shared purpose that's built Louisville into a dining scene with a significant national reputation.
So how do we get to the next level? What is the recipe that will thrust Louisville into the forefront of the American dining scene? How do we get the foodies buzzing about the River City again?
Five Reasons Louisville is not a Great Restaurant Town
1. Missing links
Where are the Greeks bearing gifts of spinach omelets and spanakopita? We have an abundance of Mediterranean restaurants, but the classic Greek diner is another critter altogether. As a young man, I spent a couple of years learning how to poach eggs from a guy named Gus who might well have stepped out of a Greek myth — if the story of Sisyphus featured a guy who worked morning to night frying up hash browns, wiping counters and filling cups with coffee.
We've seen a few Greek restaurants come and go (Maria Bell's third effort, a carry-out/delivery operation called It's All Greek To Me, recently opened on Frankfort Avenue), but none of them were in the Greek diner mode. Maybe we just missed out on all the waves of Greek immigration and are doomed never to enjoy this simple pleasure. Even on the East Coast the ranks are thinning. Greeks who started restaurants in the '50s are sending their kids to law school, selling their places and retiring to Florida.
And what about a great — or simply acceptable — New York delicatessen? The invaluable Stevens & Stevens notwithstanding, we have to leave town if we crave to walk among cases filled with tall stacks of corned beef, pastrami, marble rye, hard salami and smoked fish — let alone knishes, pumpernickel bagels and marble rye.
There are other ethnic cuisines that haven't yet found their way here. Sooner or later we're bound to get a Brazilian churrascaria (perhaps when the Cordish Group finds itself with another empty storefront). And if history runs true to form, a prolonged war in Afghanistan may bring us an Afghan place as appealing as the estimable Samira in Bloomington.
But the other food that seems underrepresented in the Metro has long been an American staple: Italian-American red sauce cuisine. We have a few places scattered about: The Come Back Inn, Le Gallo Rosso, Ray Parella's, Tuscany Italian — but it's reached the point where finding a good plate of spaghetti and meatballs is destination dining. Shouldn't there be a zoning requirement that every neighborhood must have easy access to an inexpensive, pleasant Italian restaurant?
2. Dining deserts
You could happily spend months eating your way through the main restaurant corridors — Bardstown Road, Frankfort Avenue, the Gallery District. And if you box the culinary compass from Charlestown to Pleasure Ridge Park, from Fairdale to New Albany, you'll find good eats all over town. No part of town is completely bereft, but some are under-served. Apart from carryout shops like the bustling Big Momma's Soul Kitchen on West Broadway and a few chicken shops and rib shacks, it's difficult to come up with a sure restaurant recommendation in the Shawnee and Portland neighborhoods. The slice of the metro pie that envelopes Dixie Highway and Cane Run Road harbors a few good spots (Mike Linnig's, Granny's Apron), but it's a market hungry for more choices. And though the casual restaurant scene on the Sunny Side of Louisville is strong — places like La Rosita, New Albanian Brewing Company, Charlestown Pizza Company and Clarksville Seafood are well worth the drive — it's been years since Jeffersonville's Inn On Spring shut down, and years since Southern Indiana could boast a truly exceptional restaurant.
3. Street food
We live in a temperate zone (no matter the humidity, the pollen count and the ozone index). We have sidewalks. We have sidewalk dining. We have folks who walk on sidewalks. What we don't have — except for a few downtown exceptions and a few taco trucks — is an entrepreneurial crew of sidewalk vendors hawking falafel, chaat, shawarama and sausages on the strolling sections of the Highlands and Clifton/Crescent Hill.
It's an economic fact of life that most independent restaurateurs start their businesses on hope, savings and a thin line of credit. They open in old buildings so they can scrimp enough cash to buy stoves, tables and chairs. And that's part of the reason so many restaurants wind up in spaces with dining rooms or restrooms that are inaccessible for people who use wheelchairs or have other mobility impairments. That said, since the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1992, it's been law in the U.S. that accessibility must be part of any renovations to a public accommodation unless it's technically unfeasible or the cost would be disproportionate.
Almost 20 years later, the city still has restaurants that aren't fully accessible. That's something that goes to the very heart of what “hospitality” means, and one that amounts to a significant economic development challenge. It's time for everybody involved — developers, restaurateurs, building code enforcement officials — to fix the problem. And frankly, given the financial commitment the city has made to projects like Fourth Street Live and the new downtown arena, it might be reasonable to set aside a bit of money for matching grants to help independent restaurateurs do the right thing.
5. What would Anthony eat?
There is a Facebook group with the lone goal of luring the adventurous gourmand Anthony Bourdain to Louisville — not just to speak at the IdeaFestival, but to feature the city on his Travel Channel show “No Reservations.” It has 1,500 members.
Yes, it's exciting when Louisville chefs get national attention, as erstwhile Seelbach chef Todd Richards did on “Iron Chef” or John and Joe Castro did with their Hot Brown on “Throwdown with Bobby Flay,” but answer me this: What would Anthony eat?
Any fan of the Louisville dining scene has an inventory of great Louisville dining experiences. We have excellent French, Tuscan, Spanish, Persian and German restaurants. We have the outrageously artsy Proof on Main. We have superb Texas brisket. We have Indian, north and south. We have Vietnamese, modern and traditional. Chez Seneba serves couscous as fine as any you'll find in the world. Palermo Viejo's sweetbreads and steaks come straight from the Argentine gaucho tradition. We have Chicago-style hot dogs and Italian beef sandwiches. We have Anthony Lamas's exquisite Nuevo Latino cuisine at Seviche, while Bruce Ucan cooks up Yucatan-influenced food at Mayan Café that is on par with anything in this country.
But there's the rub: If you're making a Travel Channel show about food from the Yucatan, that's where you going to take your cameras. You go back to the roots. You search for authenticity. The same is true of shows like “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives,” or, I suppose, “Man vs. Food,” the show that focuses on attempts to devour 8-pound hamburgers and the like.
Perhaps because Louisville is a border city — the northern tip of the South and the southern tip of the Midwest — local chefs lack a strong connection to their roots. Yes, they buy from local farmers and feature local meats and produce. They keep fried green tomatoes on the menu all year long and plenty of places turn out a credible Hot Brown.
But where is the Louisville chef who has spent as much time mastering the art of cornbread as she has spent figuring out how to sear a beautiful scallop? Where is the chef who has delved into the mysteries of the white half runner bean? Where is the chef who'll take the time to skillet-fry chicken? Where is the charcuterie platter that offers an overview of the best regional approaches to Kentucky Country Ham? Who has created a restaurant that focuses on celebrating not just regional products, but regional techniques and perspective?
So sure, if Anthony Bourdain asks where to eat, we can point him to a host of options.
But what if he asks, “Where can I go to food that distinguishes Louisville from every place else in the world?”
We'd shrug. Heck, I might have to send him to my mother-in-law's kitchen.