After being knocked nearly silly in recent decades by brain drain, suburban flight and manufacturing meltdowns, Louisville is staging a rally. Portions of downtown are being redeveloped, and they've attracted upscale urban dwellers as well as visitors - many of them residents who've been ensconced in the 'burbs - with new galleries, museums and restaurants. We're witnessing the central city shake off its slumber.
Since my arrival here in the early 1980s, I've considered this town on the Ohio River to be a bit inscrutable. Its treasures lie in scattered pockets, its charms sprinkled like pixie dust on gems tucked into an otherwise unremarkable landscape.
The newest action is along Main and Market streets, near a waterfront that is being reclaimed after years of neglect. One strip that's especially bustling is West Main between Sixth and Ninth streets, blocks that contain the second-largest grouping of cast-iron-fronted buildings in the U.S. (only New York City has more). These well-preserved mid-19th century structures, many originally warehouses for goods shipped along the Ohio, are now prestigious addresses that set the stage for a burgeoning museum district. The Louisville Slugger bat factory and museum resides on West Main, as does a stunning collection of armor and weaponry from the European Middle Ages through the Civil War at the Frazier Historical Arms Museum. Exhibits marking the journey of "The Greatest" from pugilism to pacifism are located one block north at the recently opened Muhammad Ali Center.
Approximately 10 blocks east and one block south on East Market Street, a kinetic art gallery and upscale casual dining scene make this stretch a trendy destination for supping and sauntering. Serving rustic Italian cuisine - including fine wood-roasted pizzas - Primo is the current dining choice. My favorite art surprise has to be the Paul Paletti Gallery, where the eponymous attorney-shutterbug displays his stunning collection of art photographs and rotates in exhibitions from other lens masters.
As for those other pockets of charm? Much of the city's best non-downtown dining and boutique shopping can be found on two east-leaning spokes into the suburbs: Bardstown Road and Frankfort Avenue. South of downtown, Old Louisville is home to stunning Victorian residences and, of course, Churchill Downs. To the east is the Bluegrass Region and Versailles, with picturesque horse farms and a great bourbon distillery tour at the Woodford Reserve Distillery.
Louisville's restaurant culture is remarkably diverse and accomplished for a midsize city. Here are some dining-out suggestions from Louisville Magazine critic Stephen Hacker:
Breakfast in Paradise: For a decade and a half, Lynn's Paradise Café has amused natives and visitors alike with its whimsical playhouse décor (featuring, for example, a tree with dangling ornaments in the middle of the dining area). Breakfast remains the meal of choice ? "It's funky and fun," says Hacker ? and you can shop at proprietress Lynn Winter's adjacent World of Swirl, a zany version of a flea market. 984 Barret Ave., (502) 583-3447; www.lynnsparadisecafe.com
Turning Japanese: A place that combines our city's approachable nature with its wider horizons is Maido, with a Japanese menu served in affordable, small-portioned izakaya-style offerings. "It's not hibachi and it's not sushi," says Hacker. "It's Japanese bar food." 1758 Frankfort Ave., (502) 894-8775
Shining Star: Hacker's top-of-the-list fine dining choice is 610 Magnolia, where chef Edward Lee's deft touch allows the ingredients to speak with a gentle eloquence. "He has a very understated but powerful way with dishes," says Hacker. 610 Magnolia St., Old Louisville, (502) 636-0783; www.610magnolia.com
Louisville Courier-Journal pop music critic Jeffrey Lee Puckett could spot "cool" in a Wal-Mart. He lists these three haunts as top local scenes.
Best Bookin': Headliners Music Hall is the "hottest rock club right now," says Puckett, with a 700-person capacity, good sound and the savvy to book rising national acts along with best of the region. 1386 Lexington Ave., (502) 584-8088; www.headlinerslouisville.com
Best Groovin': Fringe rock bands, indie folk singers and rising hot-list bands come through 350-capacity Uncle Pleasant's. "This is the kind of place where a young band like, say, the White Stripes played to 75 people six years ago, but now more than 400 claim to have been there," says Puckett. 2126 S. Preston St., (502) 634-4147; www.unclepleasants.com
Best Mingling: The retro-chic urban club Main Street Lounge is a comfy hangout for the cocktail crowd, but it can get aggressive on Friday nights when goths take over for dancing till 4 a.m. "Any place that has a guy spinning records named DJ Sorrow-Vomit is a place you need to be," Puckett says. 104 W. Main St., (502) 595-6001; www.louisvillegoth.com
Louisville Magazine fashion editor Kathy Crum has considered activating a direct deposit of her paycheck into her favorite boutiques, so you'd do well to follow her money to these top shops.
The Accessory: Among the surprises at Scout are wool felt scarves from Scotland and pendants and rings from a New York sculptor. "They always get really neat things for your home, plus trendy handbags you might only find in New York," says Crum. 801 E. Market St., (502) 584-8989
The Outfit: The clothing boutique Circe features niche designers, European fragrances and stylish duds straight from the pages of a fashion mag. "You could get your whole outfit there," according to Crum. 3630 Brownsboro Road, (502) 894-0095; www.shopcirce.com
The Shoe: A true hidden gem is the Zappos outlet, about 30 miles south of downtown in Shepherdsville, Ky. Approximately 90,000 mostly Italian-made shoes and handbags - either returned or discontinued from the zappos.com Web site business - are available at tremendous savings, and you can try them on first. "You can luck out on a $300 pair for $50," Crum says. 271 Omega Parkway #100, (502) 543-7200, Ext. 7120 for hours and directions.