The Best Food and Drink in Kentucky for 2019
December 20, 2018
There's more to the Bluegrass State than mint juleps and moonshine
The Best Food and Drink in Kentucky
Kentucky is known as the Bluegrass State, a name that references the grass found in many of its lush pastures due to the fertile soil. The landscape is diverse, with mountains, hills, and broad river valleys, the world’s longest cave system (Mammoth Cave National Park), and the greatest length of navigable waterways and streams in the U.S. all found within the state. Natural beauty aside, the Kentucky is also home to many culinary attractions (it is the birth place of the old fashioned and home to the Hot Brown, after all). To celebrate all the great food and drink Kentucky has to offer, we’ve rounded up some of its claims to culinary fame as part of our second annual guide to the best food and drink in every state.
Horseracing, moonshine, bourbon distilleries, mint juleps and Kentucky Fried Chicken are all synonymous with the picturesque Southern state, but there’s more to the culinary landscape of Kentucky than one might assume. From The Old Seelbach bar, where F. Scott Fitzgerald may have begun writing The Great Gatsby, to one of the best cupcake bakeries in the country, there’s certainly more to this state than the Kentucky Derby and fried chicken — not that those aren’t exciting and delicious reasons to visit as well.
Over the course of the past year we’ve honored everything from its best hot dogs and brunch spot to its best bar and craft beer in our comprehensive and wide-ranging lists and rankings, compiled through extensive research and with input from a wide network of site contributors, bloggers, journalists, and chefs. We’ve compiled these into individual slideshows celebrating the best food and drink in every state, and you can find our Kentucky gallery ahead.
Best Airport Restaurant: Book and Bourbon Southern Kitchen (Louisville International Airport)
If you’re ever taking a trip to Louisville, treat yourself to some world-famous Kentucky bourbon for the last, or first, time right at the airport. In addition to a list of more than 85 local bourbons, which includes rare labels, you’ll also find classics on the craft cocktail menu such as a mint julep and Peaches and Beam. For food, enjoy a fried green tomato Benedict, buttermilk fried chicken sandwich, or smoked half chicken among other great Southern entrées.
Best All-You-Can-Eat Deal: J. Graham’s Café (Louisville)
Louisville’s elegant Brown Hotel is one of America’s most famous, due to its timeless luxury and because it was the birthplace of a local specialty, the Kentucky Hot Brown. The hotel’s warm and inviting J. Graham’s Café is the best place in town to try that famed open-faced sandwich, but its $19 lunch buffet (served Tuesday through Friday) and $28 Sunday Brunch and far and away the best buffets in town. The lunch buffet includes soups, salads, fresh breads, two rotating entrées, potato and vegetable sides, and a dessert spread; the Sunday brunch buffet includes a live carving station, a rotating entrée, smoked salmon, cheese and charcuterie, omelettes and scrambled eggs, biscuits and gravy, and a variety of other breakfast specialties. Both options are absolute steals.
Best Bar: The Old Seelbach Bar (Louisville)
It’s said that F. Scott Fitzgerald first started writing his masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, on cocktail napkins at the Old Seelbach Bar at the historic Seelbach Hilton. Whether or not that’s true, the place has still seen many celebrities, Grammy-winning artists, gangsters, and even presidents in the years since it opened back in 1905. Try the signature Seelbach cocktail (Old Forester bourbon, triple sec, Angostura bitters, Peychaud’s bitters, and Champagne, served in a fluted glass adorned with fresh orange), which was created in 1917, disappeared during Prohibition, and was rediscovered by a hotel manager in 1995. Located off the hotel lobby, the turn-of-the-century bar also offers more than 70 bourbons and a comforting, warm bourbon chocolate pecan pie. The bar food menu features a variety of Kentucky-accented dishes like Kentucky bison sliders with Kenny’s horseradish Cheddar and mini brioche buns, “cheese fries” (beer-battered fries with chorizo, sriracha, and warm Cheddar sauce), and funnel cake fries with powdered sugar and bourbon caramel.
Best Beer: 70k, Against the Grain Brewing Company (Louisville)
Against the Grain Brewing Company took its popular 35K stout and doubled it. The result was — you guessed it — the 70k. Double the roasted deliciousness, double the creaminess, this imperial milk stout has scored the elusive 100 on RateBeer.
Best Brunch: Butchertown Grocery (Louisville)
At night, Louisville’s Butchertown Grocery is one of its hottest cocktail bars. But on the weekends from 11 to 3, the sleek restaurant with cozy banquettes and exposed ceiling beams becomes the best brunch destination in the state. Chef/owner Bobby Benjamin has crafted a menu that’s creative, fun, revolves around fresh local ingredients, and is absolutely delicious. Look for dishes like chicken and dumplings with gnocchi; fresh blueberry scones and cinnamon rolls; eggs Benedict with pork belly on a toasted bialy; a Prime beef burger with a fried egg, bacon, and white Cheddar; a bialy with house-smoked salmon; Bourbon barrel smoked grits with poached eggs and foraged mushrooms; and chicken and waffles with chiles and fried rosemary and leeks. Wash it down with a cold brew Negroni, a creative combination of cold brew, Campari, red vermouth, and orange oil.
Best Burger: Mussel & Burger Bar (Louisville)
Mussel & Burger Bar’s executive chef and owner Fernando Martinez and his partner Yaniel Martinez also run popular Louisville spots Guaca Mole, Taco Luchador, and Artesano Tapas, and they’ve turned their attention to burgers and elevated pub fare at this standout. Fifteen different burgers are on offer, and the beef used is from Black Angus cattle, house-ground daily, and served on house-made buns. Standouts include the Spanish Blue (Le Peral blue cheese, pepper cress, and fig marmalade), the C.E.O. (Gruyère, truffle aïoli, caramelized onions, baby arugula, oven-roasted tomatoes, and optional foie gras), the BBB (maple-glazed pork belly, a fried egg, caramelized onions, aged white Cheddar, and maple aïoli), and the high-end Local Burger (local grass-fed beef, smoked Gouda, local tomato, lettuce, and onions). They also serve one of the best vegetarian burgers in town.
Best Chinese Restaurant: Oriental House (Louisville)
Photo by Suzanne B. via Yelp
If you thought you couldn’t find authentic Cantonese fare in Louisville, guess again and head straight to Oriental House in Louisville. Just flip through the menu until you reach the “Authentic Chinese” section, and have at it.
Beef stew hot pot, stir-fried fresh lobster with ginger and green onion, whole Hong Kong-style roast duck, wok-seared whole flounder, duck wings, Peking-style pork chop… the list goes on. One visit to Oriental House will change your impression of Chinese food for good.
Best Chocolate Shop: Art Eatables (Louisville)
Art Eatables is a suitable name for this Kentucky spot. Each and every confection is beautifully decorated, with hand-painted marshmallows and carefully drizzled chocolate-covered Oreos on the menu. In true Kentucky style, this place is known for their vast selection of bourbon- and moonshine-infused chocolates. Nothing can beat that in our book.
Best Coffee Shop: Sunergos Coffee (Louisville)
Sunergos has expanded to four locations throughout Louisville, bringing good coffeeand hospitality to all those who walk through its doors. If that's not enough for you, they also offer subscriptions to their coffees as well as a wholesale program that involves not just providing coffee, but also coffee equipment and training.
Best Cupcakes: BabyCakes Cupcakes (Lexington)
This bakery is run by a husband-and-wife team that has a thing for cupcakes almost as much as for each other! Drizzled and prepped to look like a cupcake right out of a dream, they offer a variety of adorably named cupcakes that steal your breath away. Our favorite easily has to be the A Rose for Mr. Darcy — white chocolate cupcakes topped with rosewater butter cream. Though the Georgia on My Mind — fresh peach cupcakes with peach butter cream — would also be thoroughly enjoyed.
Best Dive Bar: Magnolia Bar & Grille, Louisville
Better known as “Mag Bar,” the Magnolia Bar & Grille offers all the dive bar essentials: pinball machines, pool tables, a jukebox, and cheap drinks. With a notorious (and arguably disturbing) bathroom that’s rarely cleaned, a pole on the dance floor, and a dance party offered every Wednesday, this is the place for wild nights you’ll never remember and never forget.
Best Doughnuts: Nord’s Bakery (Louisville)
If you find yourself in Louisville, head to Nord’s Bakery to try its signature maple bacon doughnut. This Midwest specialty consists of a long, yeasted doughnut topped with a creamy maple frosting and a crisp strip of maple bacon: Fluffy, flavored doughnuts don’t get much better than this.
Best Food Truck: V-Grits Food Truck (Louisville)
Chef Kristina Addington created the V-Grits Food Co. after winning an episode of Food Network’s Cutthroat Kitchen. The truck specializes in creating vegan versions of classic comfort foods, reimaging dishes like macaroni and cheese, barbecue, chicken and waffles, and crab cakes. One of the most intriguing menu items is the “Po’boy,” which uses a jackfruit crab cake, pickles, spicy mayo, and is served on a pretzel hoagie. But please make sure to read the fine print before you order — the “Fish Sandwich” is actually a marinated eggplant filet; the “Crab Cake Mac” uses a jackfruit crab cake and vegan cheese; and the “Clam Chowder” uses oyster mushrooms instead of clams. Note, Addington is constantly adding new dishes to the menu, so come hungry and with an open mind.
Best Fried Chicken: Shirley Mae's Cafe (Louisville)
The large pieces of Southern fried chicken wings at Shirley Mae’s Café prove that the restaurant doesn’t fool around when it comes to providing you with soul food that really fills you up. No item here is complete without a side of their hot water cornbread. It’s a true family-run business: Shirley Mae and her older daughter cook, her son waits, and Mae’s other daughter handles the music. Feels like home? You bet.
Best Grocery Store: Lucky’s Market (Louisville)
Photo by Emily H. via Yelp
Lucky’s Market has locations in 11 states, but the Kentucky one is located in Louisville — the state’s largest city. Lucky’s is definitely a crowd-pleaser, and its logo boasts “Organic for the 99%.” One Google reviewer said of the store, “Lucky's is one of my favorite spots to visit! A market with specialty items you can't find elsewhere, an awesome meat department & deli, handmade sushi & pizza and you can buy a pint of beer to drink while you shop for $2!”
Best Hot Dog: Rick and Son (Lexington)
Former Silicon Valley bigwig Rick and his son David decided to go into the hot dog cart business last year, and the duo have already become pretty legendary in the Lexington dining scene. Drop by their cart and you can expect to engage in some friendly banter (You can spot the 7-foot-1-inch David from a mile away), but the hot dogs themselves are the main draw: They’re sourced from Chicago’s Vienna Beef, and the Kentucky Dog – topped with bourbon-bacon coleslaw – is a must-order.
Best Hotel Restaurant: The English Grill (Louisville)
The English Grill/Yelp
Louisville’s famed Brown Hotel is perhaps best-known as the birthplace of the open-faced Kentucky Hot Brown, and its main dining room, The English Grill, doesn’t just serve the definitive version, it’s also one of the finest restaurants in town. With wood paneling, equestrian paintings, rich carpeting, and its AAA Four Diamond award, The English Grill is decidedly upscale, and has the air of a private English club. Along with the fabled Hot Brown, the restaurant also specializes in shrimp and grits, gnocchi with duck confit, prime ribeye Delmonico, and crispy-skin duck breast. The wine list is, as expected, spectacular.
Best Ice Cream Stand: Crank & Boom Ice Cream Lounge (Lexington)
This Bluegrass State ice cream shop is the perfect mix of cool and cute. Their hot flavor creations come in adorable Mason jars, plus customers can get their booze on at Crank & Boom Ice Cream Lounge with alcoholic floats and ice cream cocktails.
Best Italian Restaurant: Vincenzo’s (Louisville)
Vincenzo’s Palermo-born chef Agostino Gabriele has been cooking professionally since 1963, and has been at the helm here since the restaurant opened in 1986. To say he’s learned a thing or two in the past 54 years is an understatement, and he’s turned Vincenzo’s into a venerable Louisville institution and certified standout. His skills are on full display in dishes like risotto with fresh seafood in a spicy red clam sauce; mascarpone ravioli filled with grilled chicken, spinach, and mushrooms; a thick veal chop stuffed with prosciutto and fresh mozzarella ; and made-to-order soufflés. Be sure to try the Fettucine Patricia: fettucine with scallops, shrimp, tomatoes, and scallions tossed in homemade red clam sauce.
Best Mexican Restaurant: El Mariachi (Louisville)
Going strong since 1998, this casual and unassuming downtown Louisville spot is spoiling locals with its wide variety of authentic Mexican street food, like tacos, tortas, gorditas, huaraches, tamales, and sopesitos, as well as homemade soups and entrées like carne asada and mojarra frita (whole fried tilapia). Customers can choose from 11 taco fillings, including carne asada, chorizo, lengua, pastor, carnitas, and rib-eye.
Most Expensive Restaurant: Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse (Louisville)
Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse/Yelp
This high-end Louisville steakhouse is a must-visit for high rollers, who drop $23 on oysters Rockefeller, $25 per king crab leg, and $75 on bone-in filet mignons and rib-eyes. If you want to pair your fillet with an herb-roasted lobster tail, it’ll cost you 92 bucks.
Most Iconic Dish: Hot Brown, Brown Hotel (Louisville)
The Hot Brown is Kentucky’s most legendary culinary contribution, invented in 1926 by Fred K. Schmidt, chef at Louisville’s luxurious Brown Hotel. The hotel is still going strong, and the best place to enjoy this renowned open-faced sandwich is at its point of origin. (It’s served at the hotel’s three restaurants and in-room dining.) To make the definitive version of this classic dish, toast is topped with sliced turkey and doused in a creamy pecorino-based Mornay sauce before being browned in the broiler. Crispy bacon and sliced tomatoes round it out.
Most Outrageous Restaurant Dish: The Louisville Lip, 502 Café (Louisville)
Louisville's 502 Café serves up a monster of a sandwich that, provided you finish it in 24 minutes, can earn you a free meal and a photo on the café’s wall of fame. It's a tall order, however — literally. The Louisville Lip is served on Texas toast and consists of a full pound of their house-blended burger and a quarter pound each of brisket, pulled pork, and pork belly. All of that is covered in brisket chili and topped with onion rings and beer cheese, with a side of tater tots.
Best Pancakes: Josie’s (Lexington)
This Lexington breakfast mainstay, named after owners Bobby and Jennifer Murray’s daughter, is a great spot for omelettes, Benedicts, biscuits and gravy, and a daily quiche. The pancakes are a major draw, though, and rightfully so: They’re light, fluffy, and high-rise, topped with whipped butter, whipped cream, and syrup, and filled with your choice of fresh blueberries, strawberries, chocolate chips, or Georgia pecans.
Best Pizza: Garage Bar (Louisville)
Housed in a former auto service garage in downtown Louisville, Garage Bar features Chef Michael Paley’s wood-fired pizzas that emphasize local ingredients. Highlighting the region’s specialties and tastes, Chef Paley serves brick oven pizzas with toppings that include house-made pepperoni and pancetta, local Prayer Mountain mushrooms, shaved country ham, and Broadbent bacon.
Best Restaurant for Breakfast: Lexington Diner (Lexington)
Open daily at 8 a.m., Lexington Diner is a small and unpretentious restaurant with tile floors, formica tables, a four-stool counter, and some of the finest all-day breakfasts you’ll find anywhere. Owners Ranada Riley and Karin West have assembled a stellar menu of egg dishes, French toast, waffles, and spins on regional specialties, and the results are nothing short of breakfast perfection, with some serious surprises thrown in. The overstuffed omelettes, bananas Foster French toast, breakfast burrito, biscuits and gravy, and Cheddar garlic grits are nothing to sneeze at, but the menu’s true jaw-droppers include a play on the Kentucky Hot Brown with chorizo, scrambled eggs, gravy, grilled tomato, bacon, and Cheddar; biscuits topped with chicken tenders, pit ham, Swiss, and bourbon honey mustard; shaved ribeye, caramelized onions, an egg, provolone, and horseradish aïoli on a toasted bagel; and French toast topped with pulled pork and balsamic drizzle. See, we told you there were some surprises!
Best Soup: Burgoo, Stella’s Kentucky Deli (Lexington)
Yelp/ Brent R.
You might not have heard of burgoo, probably because it’s still a regional Kentucky specialty that you’d be hard pressed to find outside of the region. So when you’re there, make sure you eat some of this thick, hearty soup loaded with meat and vegetables. The best place for burgoo is Lexington’s homey Stella’s, where it’s made with beef, pork, chicken, and lamb with corn, beans, and other veggies, and is served with four mini corn muffins for sopping.
Best Steakhouse: Malone’s (Lexington)
When restaurateur Brian McCarty realized that nowhere in the Lexington area could he get a steak as good as the USDA Prime ones he’d eaten in Chicago, he decided to singlehandedly change that. Today Malone’s is one of the city’s best restaurants, and they’re even selling their own line of steaks (purchased from those same Chicago butchers) online. At the restaurant, a wide variety of steaks are cooked under an infrared broiler including 12-ounce prime sirloin, filet mignon with king crab legs or crispy fried lobster tail, and rib-eye, and prime rib is also a standout. Make sure you start with their famous steak and potato soup.
Best Taco: Mahi Mahi, Seviche (Louisville)
Photo by Zee R. via Yelp
One of Louisville’s finest restaurants, Sevichealso serves what’s most likely the city’s best taco. The mahi mahi in the taco at chef Anthony Lamas’ shrine to Latin cuisine is marinated and grilled before being topped with a cumin-lime aïoli, cabbage, and a cilantro-flecked pico de gallo and placed atop two grilled corn tortillas. You might as well order two when you sit down, because you’re not going to want to stop eating these. For more states, check out our ultimate guide to thebest food and drink in every state for 2019.