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21C.

I’ve often thought it would be nice to get married in Louisville, Kentucky. My dream guy and I would say “I do” in a small chapel in the blue hills in front of our families and closest friends, then we’d all go back downtown to the 21C Museum Hotel and party the night away in the company of red penguins and modern art. I discovered the hotel as a business traveler in early 2007, soon after it opened, and I eagerly returned several times to continue to enjoy its rotating art exhibits, menus, and acrylic red penguins with their enviable posture in the guest room hallways. (When you return to your room in the evening, they’re rarely standing where they were when you left in the morning.)

Last fall, as my then-boyfriend and I started to talk about a future wedding, he admitted he had reservations about marrying in Louisville. It had meaning mostly to me, really, and neither of us were from there. But we did have a good memory of it, together. When I moved to Los Angeles in 2010 to close the gap on our long-distance relationship, my guy joined me for the drive, and I requested that Louisville be our first overnight stop (and he requested that Las Vegas be our last).

We arrived in time for the end of the dinner hour and had a wonderful meal at Proof on Main, but by the time we were finished the galleries were either dark or locked. We went to the concierge and asked if there was any way to see them, since we had to leave early to get on the road, and a docent was summoned to come out. She turned on the lights and unlocked the doors to the galleries for us. And then she left us. We absorbed the art, kissed once or twice since no one was looking (except for security cameras), and went to bed.

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My kind of event space. Weatherproof and predecorated.

Still–I abandoned the thought. And when I was proposed to on February 17 of this year, in Las Vegas, I began to think seriously about beautiful locations that made sense for both of us. And then I began to do the research and make inquiries, and it was about as fun and uplifting as looking for a job in a bad economy. (I can speak to both.)

Except, imagine that the job postings don’t specify a pay range, and the job description is really vague. Most wedding venues’ websites don’t list the venue fee or include a floor plan, so I had to write inquiry letters to countless venues, with minimal copy-pasting from one to the next as I personalize everything I write, only to find out that, for example, they intended to charge $10k for an L-shaped room where half the guests wouldn’t be able to see each other, or that a tent would be needed in bad weather–only another $5k, minimum, on top of the $8k charge for grass and sky. The manager of our favorite venue for a time didn’t reply to an email from me for nearly two weeks. The worst venue manager actually called me and talked at me for more than a half-hour.

I’m an event planner for a living, by the way.

My guy suggested that I at least get a quote from 21C. I’d talked about it so much over the last few years. He hadn’t forgotten. So I did, reluctantly, because I knew Louisville wasn’t an obvious choice for him, and because I really cared about what he wanted. But the price was right, the space offered us a lot of possibilities, and the venue manager was really excited about us. And, when we really thought about it, it was meaningful. It was so us. We booked a flight out to take another look.

Red-eyes are the worst. At least on international flights, where you’re traveling through the day and night in something a tad roomier and softer than a toddler’s booster chair, you get complimentary wine, and who knows what time it is so you might as well drink it. That smell? Garlicky cuisine, sweat, secondhand cigarette smoke? So worldly! When you live in California and travel east with any frequency, you tend to take red-eyes to avoid taking a day off from work, and that international wine zone goes away while the booster seat remains, and you just reek. It’s terrible.

So we arrived to Louisville groggy and dirty and with our rear-ends neatly compressed into four-fifths their regular size. We checked into our first hotel and cleaned up, the Brown Hotel, then went over to 21C to meet with the venue manager–but we needed a late lunch first.

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Before and after at Proof on Main.

Proof on Main within 21C is Italian meets Kentuckian cuisine, and the food is exquisite. Their octopus was the first to show me what octopus can be, and my take on all subsequent octopus dishes have drawn upon that impression. A humble minted pea puree was so bright and refreshing that I attempted to make it for my family one Christmas. (Emphasis on “attempted.”) Chefs come and go as with most restaurants, and in spite of that, Proof has managed to attract only great ones since my mid-aught travels.

The latest bar menu offered mostly things that are very difficult to make from scratch. We ordered house-cured charcuterie and homemade ricotta, and twenty minutes later, the only proof that they’d ever been served to us at all were a few crostini crumbs and cornichons. The thing is, I’ve never even liked ricotta.

After our meeting (which, of course, went really well), we walked to the waterfront, then to 4th Street Live, a commercial development with chain steakhouses and sports bars that doesn’t reflect the rest of the city’s architectural charms but does reflect its good intentions in wishing to attract visitors and show them a little southern hospitality. More than a little hospitality was shown to us at one such bar. We meant to have a drink, but we ended up having several more than that when the bartender made it happy hour just for our tab. He even left the last round off our bill. We showed some good southern manners ourselves with the tip.

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Dinner and a fireworks show at Decca.

We had dinner at Decca. There was silken duck liver terrine with tart cherry mustard, then coarsely hand-chopped steak tartare with a quail egg, perfectly seasoned with a texture that makes me want to wish away meat grinders forever. Then there was ricotta cavatelli with rabbit, that undid everything bad I’ve ever said about both ricotta and rabbit. Then there was lamb. Soft, tender, beautiful lamb chops that needed only the whisper of a knife’s blade to fall away from the bone. We were among the last diners that night, but downstairs in the basement, the restaurant was still wide awake, thrumming to the sounds of a jazz band.

We took what little energy we had left to Garage Bar for a nightcap. Literally a garage turned bar, there were tables scattered around the tarmac, illuminated ping pong tables, and friendly locals who hoped we’d get married in Louisville.

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Garage Bar.

I like bourbon. Sure. I like it when it’s been mixed with so many ingredients as to render it indistinguishable from a caramel sundae with a cherry on top. Alone, or with a mixer? No. Nnno. But my guy loves the stuff, so we set off late Saturday morning for Buffalo Trace Distillery, the oldest continually-operating bourbon distillery in the great state of Kentucky. The sky went back and forth between misting and actually raining during our tour, and I loved the sweet earthy aromas of the various stages of production against the dampness of the surrounding trees and grass.

I’ve been to several Kentucky wineries in the past, most sharing a flare for residual sugar and kitschy tasting rooms, and I thought it might be fun to stop at one on our way back to Louisville. We walked in, and it was like entering menopause. It was hard to find a spot to rest your elbows on the bar amidst the rhinestone jewelry, sequined hats, and hand-painted wine glasses. I smartly ordered the sweet wine tasting, suspecting that if their offerings were mostly sweet wines, the dry wines probably wouldn’t be very good. (I was right.)

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A lab at Buffalo Trace. Great tour.

Here it’s worth mentioning that I’m a chatty person. My guy let me know that I don’t need to talk to everybody and tell them we’re visiting from LA to look at wedding venues and are originally from Virginia and we have a cute dog and so on. So I tried to show some restraint that Saturday. But in Kentucky, if you don’t start the conversation, everyone else will. We were stuck at that tasting room for, oh, about 45 minutes longer than we wanted to be there. And then my guy started to realize why I might feel so at-home in Kentucky.

The Kentucky Derby was the weekend after our visit, but that Saturday evening was Opening Night at Churchill Downs. It was raining intermittently, but we were undeterred–the opportunity to see horseracing at the most famous track in North America was too great to pass up. And the opportunity to partake in some low-stakes gambling held appeal for us as well.

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Churchill Downs.

So we spent our evening on our own miniature racetrack within Churchill Downs, from the paddock area to view the horses, then to the clubhouse to place our bets and refill beverages as needed, then to our seats to watch the race, (and they’re off!), and then we did it all over again. There were various carnival acts set up throughout the grounds, with the performers doing a wonderful job of looking enthusiastic for the paltry crowd the damp weather hadn’t scared away. We left after the seventh race, down $5 or $10, and very, very hungry.

On a friend’s recommendation, we at at the Blind Pig in Butchertown. True to the neighborhood, the menu was intensely meat-oriented, and we loved it for that. I started with a bacon bloody mary and moved on to jalapeno spiced sangria, while my guy enjoyed local bourbon. We devoured their salmon croquettes, beautifully fried with lemon aioli for dipping, and their aptly named Meat Plate, with a variety of homemade sausages, house-cured bacon, and, as the menu put it, NO VEGETABLES. We probably didn’t need the fried oyster fritters besides, but we ate those, too. And then we went back to our hotel and slept very, very well.

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Art at 21C.

True to my Irish roots, I had two hangovers at church the next morning: one for alcohol and one for meat. I had recently returned to the Catholic Church, thanks to a new Pope, a new role as a godmother, and the realization after much soul-searching that yes, I really did want to marry in the church and raise our future kids in it, though I’d want to leave out the guilt and shame and that victim-feeling when you’re told you have to forgive people who’ve done terrible things to you. For the most part, I think Catholicism focuses on the “love thy neighbor” thing, and that’s pretty wonderful. I don’t think I’m a very judgmental person as a result.

Except for, apparently, when I’m looking at potential churches for our wedding ceremony. I have been so picky about churches. That little country chapel idea I had? I’m pretty sure it doesn’t exist.

The church where I went to mass had a great location, and it was beautiful on the inside, but it was huge. I plan events for 80 to 100 people all the time, and it’s a group that just doesn’t take up much space. I didn’t want to look out from the altar at my wedding and see only the first three rows filled. So, sadly, despite all of its virtues, that church was a no.

We moved into the 21C Hotel for our last night in Louisville, then took off for a late brunch at the Silver Dollar in Clifton, a converted firehouse that GQ had just named one of its 10 best whiskey bars in the country. The restaurant is an homage to the honkeytonk bars that transplants from the American south opened in southern California in the 1950s, and this vintage east-met-west philosophy resonated with us.

We also thought our meals were about as perfect as they get. We started with a simple order of fries, and we got the perfect mix of crispy (my guy) and soggy (me) hand-cut fries, obviously fresh out of the fryer, with homemade ketchup and aioli for dipping. The portion was huge, and we finished every last crispy and soggy one in the basket. Then my shrimp and grits knocked my socks into the next county over, with creamy coarse grits, juicy heat-kissed shrimp not cooked a second longer than needed, small pieces of chewy slab bacon, cream-slicked cremini mushrooms, sweet diced tomatoes, and a sprinkling of fresh green onion. My guy orders huevos rancheros at almost every restaurant brunch we do, and theirs was one of his best. Our server deftly upsold us bacon and hashbrowns and top shelf liquor in our cocktails, and we didn’t mind.

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The Silver Dollar.

From there, we toured the Louisville Slugger factory and children’s science museum and somehow managed to get re-hungry for a special date at Jack Fry’s, one of Louisville’s most beloved restaurants, tucked away in the Highlands neighborhood on Bardstown Road. This was to be our “splurge” meal, and it was completely worthwhile. We loved the wine list, with big whites and reds, as well as the food offerings, like foie gras, which is banned for restaurant sale in California, and duck and lamb, my favorites, served as actual entrees with starches and vegetables, a concept which has all but disappeared in Los Angeles, where the small-plate has taken over. Our server was as professional as they come, and she made the evening really special for us.

We came so close to overdoing it at Jack Fry’s, but we didn’t. We retained just enough energy to keep the evening going. But we had no idea what to do with the energy. We considered just getting a drink somewhere, but we’d already done a lot of that over the weekend. A lot. One of us remembered seeing advertising for a casino on Native American land in Indiana, and we realized that actually, yes, we could use some more low-stakes gambling.

The casino was appropriately empty late on a Sunday evening. Vegas this was not, in so many ways. We passed a sign outside a Paula Deen restaurant that promised new healthier options, like chicken pot pie. I liked that. I just thought of the teeny-tiny cubes of carrots that made it a vegetable dish. The casino was multi-story, with floors designated either smoking or non, and the air filters on the smoking floors really had their work cut out for them. We found a $5 blackjack table that suited us, and while I quickly lost a little bit of my money (and my guy’s), he actually did very well. Dinner was paid for.

The next day, I was given the opportunity to satisfy years of curiosity, and I took it. I’ve always wanted to step foot inside the Pendennis Club in Louisville. It used to be a club for the thoroughbreds among the city’s gentlemen-elite, but in recent years it has redefined its mission and criteria to be more tolerant and inclusive. Still, there’s an air of mystery surrounding the intimidating red brick building. I happen to be close to someone who boxed there for their annual boxing night when he was a university student, and he wouldn’t tell me anything. So when an old friend in Louisville offered to show us around for a few minutes, I hesitated–it didn’t seem right–but I said yes. And it was everything I hoped it would be.

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My new favorite store.

By mid-afternoon, we had covered so much territory in Louisville that we had a hard time coming up with something to do with ourselves before our evening flight out. I remembered a beautiful farm and winery in southern Indiana I had visited on an earlier visit, which seemed like a good enough idea, but I was doing a terrible job of navigating us. We ended up in the parking lot of a Bass Pro Shop to look at our GPSes, and my guy decided it was too far and begged me to please just make an activity of going in the store with him. I started spouting off about how terrible it would be and how much I would hate it, and I could not have been more wrong.

Did you know that Bass pro shops have target-practice games where you shoot a laser-shotgun at animal targets and they flash and make animal noises if you hit them, and you can compete with your fiance to get the most kills? And did you know that they have a huge fish tank and forest dioramas with animal taxidermy except not even behind glass? And did you know that they have a women’s clothing section with pretty cotton sun dresses for $30 or less? I did not know any of these things, but I do now, and I will never turn down an opportunity to go to a Bass shop again. I bought two dresses and a shirt, and I’ve worn them all the time this summer. Tons of compliments.

And I think that there, it’s safe to say that we did it all in Louisville, Kentucky. Or pretty close. And I finally found out why the penguins move around. The housekeeping staff has to maneuver their supply carts around them, and it’s easy to just move them from one side of the hallway to another as needed. I’m going to keep thinking it’s a trick they play to make you think you’re going a little crazy, though. That’s much more fun.

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