Derby Derby Derby Derby Derby! For those of us in the biz in Louisville, it’s New Year’s Eve plus the Fourth of July times Easter Brunch this week. At least it’s not Derbygeddon this year (Derbygeddon is the nickname given to the years in which Derby and Mother’s Day fall on the same weekend. Yikes!).
But of course it’s not just us hospitality workers that Derby season is hard on. It can be difficult for local diners and foodies as well.
First up: tasting events. You know the drill. These are often set up to benefit a charity. A big venue full of six foot tables all in a row. The smell of butane burners and accidentally-scorched polyester tablecloths. Chafing dishes and tiny plastic plates, with tiny plastic forks to match. Tiny sips of free booze in tiny plastic shot glasses that abrade the lip. Overfilled square cardboard trashcans. That lady from your local big box store who hugs you gleefully and you don’t recognize at first because she’s not wearing that smock you always see her in.
But guess what? These events are a blast for us. Everyone dreads them but everyone ends up having a great time. For industry folk, getting there and finding your assigned table and setting up on time can be a bit stressful, but once things get rolling, it’s praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.
If you (as a ticket-holding patron) imbibe, you are feeling fine. We’re feeling fine, too! What’s not to love about big room full of booze and food and industry co-workers? You knuckle-pound that guy that you used to work with at that other restaurant. You trade plates with that chef you hope to work for some day. There’s a rapid exchange of business cards and gossip. Also, importantly: you are out of the restaurant for one shift. The only thing missing is a big swing set for us to swing on and yell “Wheeee!” for a few minutes, because that’s what it feels like.
Advice for tasting event attendees: arrive early. We have tried hard to calculate how much food to bring, but if it’s a big event we might eventually run out. Also, we’re more on point with the quality of the dish early in the evening. So start in as early as you can. Read signage if it’s provided. Don’t simply ask “what is this?” at every table. Engage with the table’s staff – you might be surprised what you’ll find out about the restaurant they’re from, their everyday menu, their history, their hours, their catering availability. Bring a bag and pick up menus and business cards – these will be valuable in the coming year when you’re strategizing your own dining.
Plan to go through the room twice. There will be certain tables jammed up with patrons, and you can skip over those with a mental note to visit them on a come-back-through sweep. You can also make a second visit to booths whose offerings you loved the first time. We love repeat diners! There’s hardly anything better than hearing “We just had to come back because this dish was so delicious.”
Finally, say “thank you” as much as possible to the folks working the tables for coming out, and for supporting the charity the tasting event is benefiting. Let them know if you plan to visit their restaurant because of their efforts. And then go back and get that third serving of Guinness Stout cake with cinnamon cream cheese butter cream, because that shit was on point. Get the business card from the baker at that booth, because you know you want that cake at your next party. And you can have it!
And now I will offer my perennial Derby dining tip: Oaks night is the difficult one. Make sure you have reservations. We are excited to accommodate you and you will have your best restaurant meal of the year if you show up on time.
You should have made a reservation for Derby evening, too, but the truth is that so many folks make Derby reservations and don’t honor them (because drunk/track/partied too late Friday night/Let’s just go home dear/Where’s my Uber?) that you might just be able to get a table nearly anywhere Saturday night. So get out there and get that awesome fish special and that mint julep dessert. We have plenty.
Happy Derby, diners!
Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro and Café Lou Lou.