Louisville (or Loo-a-vul, as the locals say) is a city that straddles the border between not just the South and Midwest, but also innovation and tradition. Bourbon’s been flowing here for more than 200 years and Churchill Downs has hosted the Kentucky Derby since 1875, making it the longest-running continuous sporting event in the country’s history. That won’t be changing anytime soon. But it’s not just iconic Hot Brown sandwiches and mint juleps now, as creative new eateries and bars are invigorating the food scene across town. While the city still prides itself on being the birthplace of Muhammad Ali and the Louisville Slugger baseball bat with respective museums, new cultural institutions are securing the town’s spot on the national contemporary art scene. To navigate Derby City’s pageantry and grit, we follow three locals—a stylish designer, a bourbon historian and a “SuperChef”—who showcase Louisville in all its multitudes.
For more on Louisville, see our city guide here.
Darnell Superchef Ferguson
Celebrity Chef And Restaurateur
A Trail of Deliciousness
“Pow!” “Wow!” “Boom,” “Breakfast” and “Lunch” are printed in a bold, pop-art style at the en-trance of Darnell Ferguson’s establishment in the Highlands, a quirky dining and nightlife hub southeast of downtown. Walking inside, you can’t help but wonder at first if it’s a comic-book store or a restaurant. In fact, it’s SuperChefs, a superhero-themed eatery whipping up playful breakfast and brunch plates (think red-waffle sandwiches stuffed with chicken wings and spicy maple syrup, and blueberry pancakes floating on lemon mascarpone).
I find the SuperChef himself (he legally added the phrase to his name) at the counter after the lunch rush. He’s beaming an infectious megawatt smile as his employees crack jokes and hustle in and out of the kitchen. “Oh, we worked 14- to 16-hour days during the Olympics and I was smiling, no complaints,” Ferguson explains, referencing his time cooking for Team USA at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. “That’s actually how I got the SuperChef nickname.”
It’s not just a theme. Ferguson embodies the superhero persona, using his own story of overcoming adversity to prove that “everybody has the ability to be an everyday superhero.” The Columbus, Ohio, native moved to Kentucky for culinary school, but found himself homeless, unemployed and in and out of jail until he returned to cooking, a passion that he’s had ever since watching Emeril Live while in high school. He began a series of pop-ups throughout the city and opened SuperChefs in 2015. But a few months after opening, a fire destroyed the location.
He never gave up, reopening at the current location on Bardstown Road in July 2016. His story of perseverance led to national attention, and Ferguson went on to win Guy Fieri’s Guy’s Grocery Games in 2016 and the Ultimate Thanksgiving Challenge hosted by Giada De Laurentiis in 2018. He’s appeared on Today, Rachael Ray, Beat Bobby Flay and Cheap Eats, and his restaurant was named one of the top 12 breakfast spots in America by the Cooking Channel. In late June, he’s opening a new seafood concept called Tha Drippin’ Crab in the West End.
Louisville is a “good family city,” Ferguson attests. He lives here with his wife and eight children (aged seven months to 14 years), some of whom are now shadowing servers and helping to bus tables.
“This is the place to come to taste Louisville.”
-Darnell SuperChef Ferguson, @superchef_23
Today, Ferguson wants to introduce me to the other superheroes in Louisville’s food scene. We drive south to the historically Black neighborhood of Newburg, just east of the airport, and arrive at a quiet shopping plaza. We enter the dimly lit Aura Lounge, where we’re greeted by chef Lavette Thomas, or “Auntie” as Ferguson calls her, who once worked at SuperChefs. “I always knew she’d get her own restaurant,” says Ferguson. “This is the place to come to taste Louisville.”
Her establishment, Jessie’s Good Eats, currently operates as a pop-up out of the lounge for dinner but is expanding to lunch by popular demand, with plans to open a brick-and-mortar location soon. “This is one of those places that was forced to open, it’s so good,” Ferguson whispers to me.
Crispy birria tacos are shuttled out for us. Ferguson dips the beef tacos in savory broth and shakes his head in approval: “This is the best rendition of a dipping soup that I’ve ever had!”
We continue driving down an industrial road towards the airport and pull into another shopping plaza for Seafood Lady, an unassuming Florida-style spot with Cajun and Creole twists run by Pensacola native Nichelle Thurston. The eatery was featured on the Food Network's Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. “This is the most nostalgic restaurant in the city,” Ferguson tells me as we walk in. “People will wait an hour and a half in line for it.” The place’s popularity is prompting a move from the original outpost on Oak Street to NuLu (New Louisville), a hip enclave emerging near downtown, known for housing the city’s best culinary talent. We order the Chee-Sea Fries (fries dripping in snow-crab meat) along with the most popular item, the Full Combo: Cajun snow crab and shrimp served with corn and potatoes, all drenched in Thurston’s special sauce and garnished with parsley and lemon.
“I’m a crab-leg fanatic,” Ferguson says. He takes a whiff of the platter, and once again shakes his head in delight. “The butter changes everything.”
As we dive into our feast, Ferguson talks of the city he loves, and insists that before I leave town I visit the Muhammad Ali Center. “I promise it lives up to the hype,” he says. “Any time anyone visits I take them there.”
Later, when I go, I learn about not just Ali’s life and unrivaled boxing career, but also the six core principles that the Center offers as the Louisville native’s true legacy: confidence, conviction, dedication, respect, spirituality and giving. It’s the latter—defined by the museum as presenting “voluntarily without expecting something in return”—that resonates most with Ferguson. I understand how a man championing other Black superheroes would hold the city’s original in such high regard.
Bourbon historian and author
A Bourbon Education Around Town
In downtown Louisville, Justins’ House of Bourbon showcases rare vintage bottles on backlit shelves behind glass, including Red Hook Rye—a real unicorn to any whiskey geek, retailing at more than $30,000. The vibe is more museum than liquor store, so it makes sense that bourbon historian Michael Veach would start our day here.
I find him at the lacquered bar in the middle of the shop, bourbon in hand, fedora on head. He’s in lively discussion with store manager Travis Hill about the coordinates of Whiskey Row, a block-long stretch of old Revivalist buildings on Main Street that once stored whiskey barrels from many of the city’s distilleries and is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
The man is undoubtedly Louisville’s foremost authority on bourbon history, having worked as an archivist for a distillery and bourbon historian for The Filson Historical Society; he also teaches a Bourbon heritage class as part of his business. He’s written or contributed to five books on the barrel-aged spirit and was inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame in 2006. “What can I say?” Veach shrugs. “I’m the luckiest student to ever come out of the University of Louisville history department.”
For our first course, Hill pours us three snifters of bourbon: Old Bardstown, Old Grand-Dad and Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year—the latter costing roughly ten times the price of the other two. But Veach explains that price doesn’t always guarantee quality. Under his guidance, I sniff first and with an open mouth. I sip, detecting caramel and vanilla, but my palate is not as refined as Veach’s and I struggle to distinguish the subtler notes, such as sandalwood in Old Bardstown, dark fruit in Old Grand-Dad and chocolate in Pappy Van Winkle. “I wouldn’t give you a dime for the Pappy 23,” he says. “Aging for 23 years, you’re mostly just smelling wood and it’s hard for me to get past the bitter oak tannins. I prefer the 15 or the 10 over the 23.”
Our next lesson is a 15-minute drive east, at Westport Whiskey & Wine, a rustic locally-owned liquor store in an unassuming shopping plaza. Co-owner Chris Zaborowski greets us like family—this is Veach’s go-to shop.
Veach considers Zaborowski a fellow comrade in American whiskey (he, too, is a longtime member of the well-respected Bourbon Society). As we peruse aisles, Veach points out small craft whiskeys from as far away as Texas and New York. “Chris has the best single-barrel picks of anyone in Louisville,” Veach says. “He’s also one of the most knowledgeable people I know.”
We head into the store’s tasting room, featuring empty bourbon bottles as chandeliers. Brands from all over the country line the shelves. “This is the best collection in Louisville, breadth-wise,” Veach says. Zaborowski smiles behind the bar: “I call this our theater.”
“There’s no wrong way to drink bourbon.”
-Michael Veach, @bourbonveach
He pours me Yellowstone Kentucky bourbon, one of the store’s single-barrel picks that both men recommend for a newbie like myself to sip, since it’s smooth. “You want to use all the senses,” Veach coaches. “Now what aroma do you smell? Caramel? Vanilla? Spices?”
I nod each time and then down it all in one gulp. “There’s no wrong way to drink bourbon,” Veach says. “If you want to drink Pappy or if you want a bourbon and Coke, it’s whatever you’re in the mood for. I prefer bourbon and Coke over Coke straight.”
Our final lesson is at Bourbons Bistro, an intimate bar and restaurant in the Clifton neighborhood. It is owned by Jason Brauner and John Morrison, former students of Veach’s who took his bourbon class before opening the eatery in 2005. At the time, they were the only bourbon bar in Louisville.
We find Brauner, with his goatee and black cowboy hat, behind the bar, fittingly made from barrel staves. More than 130 bourbons are on the menu, but Brauner wants us to taste something he acquired at an estate sale. It looks like an antique figurine of two ducks, but he un-screws a cap near a wing and pours the clandestine liquor into our snifters.
It seems like a relic from Prohibition, but Veach explains that it’s all totally legal—at least in 2021. Three years ago a landmark bill allowed establishments to legitimately sell vintage spirits. Now Brauner hunts these bottles in estate sales. “It’s like you’re tasting history,” he says.
A half-dozen bourbon flights are on the menu, but before Brauner pours us any more booze I plead for a time-out and ask for the other menu, the one listing food. We order the garlic and goat-cheese spread, shrimp and grits and Bourbons chop—a bone-in pork chop wrapped in prosciutto and topped with asadero cheese and a bourbon demi-glace—and, of course, bourbon bread pudding. I’m convinced the meal still manages to elevate my blood-alcohol content with its sneaky and masterful use of bourbon in the sauces, marinades and dessert.
After a sip of the duck whiskey, which is sharp and sweet and not as woody as I was expecting, I ask my teacher one last question: Where is his favorite place to drink bourbon in Louisville? Veach doesn’t hesitate. “My porch.”
Catherine Nikole Jones
Insider and designer
I’m peeking through a kaleidoscope of hats—wide-brimmed neon varieties, tan fedoras sprouting feathers and vibrant fascinators festooned with tufts of sinamay fabric—in search of Catherine Nikole Jones. I’m supposed to meet her here at The Mysterious Rack chapeau boutique in Downtown Louisville.
“Hi, Frankie!” I hear from amid the headwear. That’s not my name, but I venture towards the disembodied voice where I find an immaculately dressed redhead greeting Frankie, a green parakeet in a birdcage.
Decked in gloves, coat and knee-high boots, Jones can’t help but sigh when she sees me. “Kentucky weather,” she shrugs. “It’s snowed and stormed at the Derby before. The first week of May always brings the most unpredictable weather.” She then leans in and whispers a nugget of fashion advice. “That’s why I never wear feathers—you might get stuck with a wet mop on your head.”
We saunter up to the counter at the shop’s adjoining Riot Cafe and order Irish coffees from Olivia Griffin, the blue-haired owner/milliner who takes a break from sewing a hat to make our drinks. The space is idiosyncratic, furnished with bisected mannequins, retro jukeboxes and more than a dozen portraits of Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old woman killed by Louisville police last year. The café was opened after protestors used the space for coalition meetings and supply storage during the Black Lives Matter demonstrations last summer.
Though her 30,000 Instagram followers know her as @thesoutherngloss, Jones explains there was quite a bit of grit in her upbringing. “I grew up on a farm in rural Kentucky,” she says. “I’m perfectly happy either in full regalia and false lashes at the Derby or as a hippie on a hike in Guatemala.”
But the Derby is especially dear to her heart. “Whether you’re on Millionaires Row or having a picnic in the grass, for two minutes everything stops and everyone is cheering for the same thing,” she says. “Maybe you’re rooting for a different horse, but everyone feels the same excitement and it binds the city together.”
“I start planning my outfit for the next year the day the races are over!”
-Catherine Nikole Jones, @thesoutherngloss
Jones studied Fine Arts at the University of Louisville but was quickly recognized for her chic Derby ensembles and hats, many of which she designs herself. She’s now a fashion insider with the Kentucky Derby, a title that entails multiple outfit changes and keeping a pair of flats to sprint back and forth across Churchill Downs to offer fashion commentary at various events each May. “I start planning my outfit for the next year the day the races are over!” she says. “Derby isn’t a season, it’s a state of mind.”
Properly caffeinated, we drive east to Formé Millinery Co., a quaint hat shop with a vintage flair on Main Street. Owner/milliner Jenny Pfanenstiel greets us in her workshop among century-old equipment, wooden hat blocks and color-coded fabrics, some sourced from as far away as France. “I take these age-old techniques and materials and wonder who might’ve made hats on these back in the day, and try to make that energy come through in my work,” Pfanenstiel says.
Jones plays dress-up in front of the vintage mirrors—first a beige fascinator, then a whimsical wide-brimmed tangerine number, before settling on a coral-hued pillbox.
As we drive back downtown, Jones explains her respect for designers like Griffin and Pfanenstiel, now that she herself has stepped into the fashion arena, having recently launched Bonhomía, a brand of ethically produced leather goods and artisanal textiles handcrafted in Guatemala. “This city has so much talent,” she says. “It’s an honor to be a part of it.”
We pass the hip eateries on East Market Street, an emerging district known as NuLu. At Jones’ request, we make a quick pit stop at Revelry Boutique + Gallery, an eclectic shop with locally crafted art and trinkets. We thumb through raunchy greeting cards and handmade ceramic tableware and jewelry and then peek into the back gallery. It’s featuring an exhibition by local DJ and mixed-media artist Samosa, who uses bright acrylic paint, chalk, gold leaf and rhinestones.
I’m looking at a depiction of Louisville native Muhammad Ali when from the corner of my eye I spot Jones grabbing a hot-pink canvas displaying the queen of hearts. I gasp as she spins the canvas upside down on the wall. “We’re allowed to do this!” Jones insists. “At least I think we are.” We duck out before causing too much of a ruckus and continue downtown until reaching a gargantuan gold-plated statue of David marking the site of the 21c Museum Hotel. Like Jones, the property wears many hats: contemporary art museum, raved-about restaurant and boutique hotel.
The venue was opened by local philanthropists and art collectors, and has since expanded to eight more locations across the South and Midwest. Jones and I meander through what amounts to a visual playground in the form of five galleries, passing a giant metallic tornado, a one-sided ping-pong table facing a mirror, and an entire room of colorful black-light murals. Videos focused on the eyes of blind dart players appear on tiny screens on the women’s bathroom mirror, and words fall around silhouettes of Jones and me projected in the elevator lobby to create a poem. By now, Jones has worked up an appetite, and when we part she’s eyeing the menu at the on-site restaurant, Proof on Main, debating between a champagne cocktail or a bison burger.