One glance at the roster of 40 bourbons on the menu at Harvest, and you know you’re in Louisville. But you might not expect the way the chef uses Kentucky’s favorite liquor as a dipping sauce for the fried chicken livers or to caramelize the carrots paired with an affordable crispy pork confit. Add an owner who’s a local farmer and can bring the farm-to-table theme to new heights, and you have a restaurant that has reaped accolades since it opened last April, including being one of the James Beard Foundation’s semifinalists for best new restaurant in America.
Harvest is on East Market Street in the city’s emerging NuLu — or New Louisville — neighborhood. Less than a mile from the downtown office buildings and such favorite sights as the Louisville Slugger Museum, this five-block stretch has quickly become one of the city’s favorite dining destinations, rivaling the long-established Bardstown Road and Frankfort Avenue eateries. Another upscale dining establishment, Rye, opened in February, followed by Decca, a three-story restaurant and lounge that made its debut in March after a more than 15-month renovation of a 137-year-old building. They join a growing number of cafes, bars, boutique shops, home goods stores and art galleries in the area.
East Market is a broad street lined with two- and three-story red-brick buildings. For much of the 20th century, this was a desolate stretch of town, dotted with only the occasional merchant, such as Muth’s Candy Store, known for creating the Modjeska, a caramel-covered marshmallow confection. Across the street, a four-story 1890s schoolhouse has been the home of Joe Ley Antiques for more than 35 years.
When Paul Paletti arrived on the scene in 2000 to open his law offices, there was a pest control office next door and a funeral home two doors down. Paletti, an avid photography collector, soon opened a gallery on the ground floor of his building, joining a handful of other art gallery owners who’d made the move to East Market Street. Instead of artists paving the way to neighborhood gentrification, as has been the case in many other cities, in Louisville, it’s the gallery owners who have helped transform NuLu.
“In November 2001, I received a call from the mayor saying that he wanted to start a trolley hop the first Friday of every month that would stop at all the galleries in the area,” Paletti says. “I didn’t even have a name for the space at that point.”
Bringing workers to NuLu from downtown, the trolley hop became a huge success. On a warm night in spring or summer, it’s not uncommon to find the neighborhood’s sidewalks overflowing with people.
“I tell new restaurant owners that you better be prepared for that first trolley hop,” Paletti says. “They don’t understand the huge demand and usually tell me that they sold out of all food by 8 p.m.”
Clothing and home goods owners also know that they can make their month’s rent in that one night. I pop into Gifthorse, a stylish boutique in the 800 block, whose proprietors create their own hats, fascinators, women’s clothing and jewelry. Other local artisans fashion pendants and necklaces from bourbon bottles and garment bags from recycled yoga mats. This being Louisville, home to Churchill Downs, horseshoes are a strong motif throughout the store.
Next door, I find Peace of the Earth, which opened in October, selling soaps, lotions and other body products that owner Leslie Bowers makes from natural ingredients. Across the street, Scout offers an eclectic mix of merchandise, including silk scarves, soy wax candles, lamps, leather purses and ceramic bird’s eggs. Also on display were sofas and an exquisite table made of elm created by a local craftsman. Another interior design store, Hudson Home, uses reclaimed wood to create furniture and cabinets.
Needing a break from shopping, I head over to Cake Flour. Owner Claudia DeLatorre was another pioneer, coming to the fringes of the neighborhood almost four years ago to open her bakery. “NuLu wasn’t quite NuLu at that point,” she says, “but the rent was cheap and I was young and optimistic.”
DeLatorre uses organic ingredients to create her sweet and savory scones of the day, fresh berry tarts and a flourless chocolate cake that was highlighted in a Food Network show, “The Best Thing I Ever Ate.” Wash it down with a fresh cup of coffee as you sit at one of the sidewalk tables.
Another favorite pit stop for locals is the Louisville Beer Store, where co-owners Tyler Trotter and Lori Beck have compiled a list of more than 500 beers from the far corners of the globe. The couple travels to Europe at least twice a year to stock up on beer from Belgium, Holland and Germany. On tap are rotating regional specialties, such as 3 Floyds’ Gumballhead, a wheat beer with a hint of amaretto made in Munster, Ind. The customers grab their pints and head out to the back patio, where they can swig their brew around a fire pit. If you’re lucky, a longtime NuLu resident named Sam will be there to show you the building next door, where a young boxer named Cassius Clay, soon to be heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, used to train.
East Market Street has also lately become a popular spot for Sunday brunch. A former gas station has been converted into Garage Bar, known for its wood-oven pizzas and warm bourbon and pecan sticky buns. At Toast on Market, I try the signature dish, simply titled toast and eggs. Topped with spicy harissa sauce, the eggs sit atop toasted brioche bread. For the finale, I have one lemon souffle pancake, drizzled with lemon custard. It’s a winning combination that’s a fitting metaphor for NuLu, whose spicy and somewhat dicey history is now giving way to a sweet future.
Jermanok is a Boston-based writer who blogs daily at www.activetravels.com.