Derby dining dos and don’ts

Happy Derby week! Enjoy your light workload, unless you’re a hospitality worker in Louisville. You’ll be pulling horses’ names (written on tiny paper slips) out of Styrofoam cups; getting off early to attend (or evade) the parade; and showing off your hat. It’s our week, people!

Are your relatives in town? Perhaps your brother and his wife are snoozing comfortably in your queen-sized bed while you manage on the sleeper sofa, or maybe it’s your long-lost college roommate, recently rediscovered on Facebook. We’ve all been there. We love to share Derby with our out-of-town friends and family.

First of all, your friends and relatives don’t have to sleep at your place, nor do they need to submit themselves to an anonymous, generic hotel stay. There are many fine bed-and-breakfasts in Old Louisville and all over town. B&Bs are affordable, offer customized experiences, and many come with a heartfelt, special Derby-themed breakfast on one of this weekend’s mornings. Make your reservations now for Derby 2012, and put down a deposit. Then you’ll know you have somewhere for your people to relax and enjoy next year.

Second, what will you do about restaurant dining this weekend? My advice is to call around. You’d be dumbfounded at how many tables are available Derby night. Yeah, you heard me — it’s a lot easier to get a table on Saturday night after the race than it is on Friday night after Oaks.

Submitted for your perusal, here is my list of Derby dining dos and don’ts:

If you don’t already have an Oaks reservation, DO expect to have trouble in this department if you’re a party of more than two … and even if you’re two, you’ll probably have to eat at the bar. This is not a bad thing. Eating at the bar can open up a new world of cocktails, appetizers and conversation. Embrace it. Enjoy the crowd. People-watch. My boyfriend and I recently had a grand old time playing “The Oregon Trail” on his smart phone while we were waiting for seats on a busy Friday at one of our favorite restaurants. Make the night yours.

DON’T expect to eat well in the Infield on Derby Day. You can’t be sure of getting your own food in, or of finding a proper spot in the Infield for a picnic. If you’re planning on an Infield Derby, prepare to be nourished by beer, hot pretzels and nachos until the races are over. The people upstairs in Millionaire’s Row will be snacking on peel-and-eat shrimp and skewered celery and pickles in a top-shelf Bloody Mary, but you won’t be. Prep something perfect, with the ingredients already arranged, ready in your fridge for when you get home. Then wow everybody with your arrabbiata sauce and penne pasta.

DO be confident about getting a table after the race on Derby. Lots of folks hedge their bets and book multiple tables for Saturday night — or over-imbibe and ditch on their Derby reservations. Do your homework. Some restaurants even save seats for Derby walk-in parties. Be smart and take advantage of their policies.

DON’T drink substandard Derby cocktails. Avail yourself of a proper mint julep. Yeah, I hear you — I never want them any time except the first Saturday in May, but on that day, my thirst for them is mighty. Do not succumb to those pre-mixed bourbon-and-mint-flavor impostors with powdered sugar on top, like the ones they serve at the track. If you’re not going to get one at a decent bar, make the fixings at home. On Thursday, steep fresh mint leaves in equal parts sugar and water, heated on the stove until the sugar dissolves. Then, on Saturday, crushed ice is de rigueur — and splurge a little on some decent bourbon. A chilled pewter julep cup is ideal, but a plastic party cup is acceptable, as long as you have a tall sprig of mint to tickle your nose.

DO tip heavily in appreciation of the Louisville Restaurant Apocalypse: Derby and Mother’s Day are on the same weekend this year. Imagine our stress. This confluence of holidays only occurs once every decade or so. So, if you have a good meal and good service this weekend, let your server and the kitchen workers know you appreciate it. We appreciate you … and we can sleep when we’re dead. Next week.

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. She now works for her alma mater, Sullivan University, as sous chef at the residence hall Gardiner Point.