Derby Week is almost upon us! All over the city, chefs and restaurant managers are tweaking their menus, their training and their scheduling, anticipating the many Louisvillians and out-of-towners who will flood their establishments in the coming days. You and your guests can have successful Derby dining experiences in the River City during this whirlwind time if you follow a few simple guidelines.
Make a reservation. Thursday through Saturday of Derby week, you should make a reservation ahead of time at all but the most casual eateries. This will ensure that the restaurant staff is ready to welcome you, and won’t have to scramble to seat you. The kitchen will have an idea of the number of diners they’ll be serving and be prepared with plenty of product and staffing.
Don’t make reservations at multiple restaurants for the same time. Some people think this is a workaround that will give them a choice of dining spots for their meal. After they make their ultimate choice, they either abandon their other reservations or call to cancel them. This tosses chaos into the mix for the restaurants that aren’t chosen. It isn’t fair to the staffs or the other patrons of those restaurants. Don’t assume “someone else will take the table” – that someone else might be a party of a much larger or smaller size than the organization was planning for.
Be aware of which parts of the city will be especially busy or have road closures due to Derby events. An unplanned re-routing due to a marathon or parade could add an hour or more to your travel time, causing consternation for both you and the establishment you’re heading to. Visit louisvilleky.gov and click on “road closures,” or use Waze or another app to plan your route.
Avail yourself of prix fixe menus. Some restaurants run a limited choice of menu items during special events, but this can be a good thing! It means the staff has streamlined the menu, ordering premium ingredients and practicing the execution of certain dishes to perfection. You’ll also know the basic cost of your meal before you get there.
If you have dietary restrictions or allergies, it’s okay! Just let someone know ahead of time. Call the restaurant a day or two before to alert them. In most cases you will be cheerfully accommodated if the staff knows in advance. Don’t be that guy who plops down in an Italian restaurant on Oaks night and says ”I’m gluten-free and allergic to garlic and tomatoes – whattya you got for me?” This could throw your server and the cooks into consternation, and possibly delay your meal and those of your fellow diners. Give the restaurant a heads up for the win. That gives them a chance to put a plan in place to serve you something you can enjoy.
If, despite my previous advice, you somehow find yourself without a reservation after the race on Saturday, don’t despair. Many folks run out of steam from the week’s activities and decide to cancel or not honor their reservations on Derby night. Call around and see if you can nab one of those empty spots. Historically, while Oaks night is a madhouse, Derby evening is more subdued in terms of the number of diners clamoring for a table.
Finally, please budget to give an adequate tip. Servers plan for weeks to make Derby week dining seamless and special. Don’t fall into the mindset that “they’re making bank tonight.” They’re working twice as hard as usual, so if they provide excellent service they should be rewarded. Remember that most of them make an hourly wage far below the federal minimum. And if your meal’s especially tasty, it wouldn’t be inappropriate to send a tip directly to the kitchen, as well.
It’s Derby, y’all! At least this year isn’t what we in the industry refer to as “Derby-geddon” (years in which Mother’s Day falls the day after Derby). That time will come around again, but this year we’re free to sort of lay back and recover on Sunday. Enjoy it! A lot of us certainly will.
Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro, Café Lou Lou, Marketplace @ Theater Square, Fontleroy’s and Harvest.