Proof on Main, a hot spot in Louisville, has turned dining -- and restaurant design -- into a fine art.
Proof on Main, a hot spot in Louisville, has turned dining -- and restaurant design -- into a fine art.
John Rott

Louisville Old and New: Either Way, It's a Knockout

Louisville's Muhammad Ali Center, which opened last fall, is a popular site for the prizefighter's fans.
Louisville's Muhammad Ali Center, which opened last fall, is a popular site for the prizefighter's fans. (Formations, Inc.)
By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 20, 2006

Proof on Main, Louisville's restaurant-of-the-moment, laid out the options squarely. I could surrender my appetite to Tuscan-themed gourmet treats such as green beans with San Marzano tomatoes and yellowtail fish with picholine olives. Or I could build a meal around cheese-filled Kentucky grits, country ham fritters and other Southern standbys.

I paused and, like a tourist fidgeting with a map, surveyed the plates around the dining room. Did I prefer my Louisville with a twist, or straight up?

During my long weekend sojourn through this northern Kentucky city last month, I met this question at nearly every turn.

Kentucky's biggest urban area, an expanse of grand residences and plain brick factories stretched along the Ohio River, has two starkly different scenes. There's traditional Louisville, home to a collection of American classics: Churchill Downs, the country's ruling stronghold of horse racing. The Old Seelbach Bar, a handsome swath of mahogany that offers so many brands of vintage bourbon you could sip a new one every week for a year. The Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory, producer of baseball bats since the 1880s. Old Louisville, an elegant neighborhood lined with hundreds of Queen Anne, Colonial and Gothic Revival and chateauesque mansions, extending over 45 quaint square blocks just south of the central business district.

Then there's downtown. Fresh from a spree of urban renewal akin to a spiked-hair makeover, it's an enclave of eclectic museums, fine dining and hip watering holes. Stage buffs hang in these streets, especially at the Actors Theatre, which features both classic and wildly avant-garde works. (Talk about avant-garde: A young artist recently spent three weeks on exhibit in a glass cubicle in a busy Main Street restaurant.) And the area's Muhammad Ali Center -- look for the contemporary building with the roof shaped like a butterfly -- opened last fall as a monument to a Louisville favorite son.

So which would it be: With a twist, or straight up?

* * *

Louisvillians typically sample a side dish of New Age with heaping portions of tradition. The city and surrounding Jefferson County, a motley conglomeration of neighborhoods spread over a large area, are not easy to typecast. The city -- a half-day's drive to Chicago and not much farther to Atlanta -- sits squarely on the divide between the South and the Midwest. The 700,000 inhabitants (including the city proper and Jefferson County) are a colorful mix of unlikely groups: landed gentry, tobacco farmers and factory hands, Jews, Catholics and Baptists, whites and African Americans.

Downtown along West Main Street, between First and 10th, revitalized Louisville is on display. Block after picturesque block, the broad boulevard is lined with dozens of 19th-century buildings constructed of cast iron and originally used as warehouses for tobacco and other goods. Recently restored, they're now residential lofts, restaurants and cafes. Picture a quieter version of New York's SoHo.

If the heroes of a place are any measure, Louisville is about as quirky and high-spirited as American cities come. You can see this city's stars painted across the sides of downtown skycrapers: Col. Harlan Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame, sporting his trademark white suit; Pat Day, jockey extraordinaire, captured in the exuberant moment when he won the 1992 Kentucky Derby; "Good Morning America" host Diane Sawyer, exuding the same confidence she offers television viewers; and Ali, flashing his familiar elfish grin. All four spent pivotal stages of their careers in Louisville.

A few blocks away, in the edgy 21c Museum Hotel, I ran into my first downtown Louisvillian. Lauren Argo -- the Lexington, Ky., artist who lived for weeks in an enclosed window space in the hotel's restaurant -- was working on a piece in a side gallery of the modern art museum in the lobby.

"I guess people didn't expect to see that kind of thing in Louisville," said the giggly blonde, referring to her show. "But why not? Cities change. They don't always live in the past."

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