Derby time!

This article first appeared in The Voice-Tribune, Louisville’s suburban weekly newspaper. LouisvilleHotBytes publishes monthly restaurant reviews and wine-tasting reports in The Voice, which is available on East End news stands and by subscription.

Every year around this time, I face one of the most difficult chores a food critic encounters: Explaining to scores of hopeful Derby visitors that they are probably not going to be able to walk into the city’s top restaurants on Kentucky Oaks or Derby evening and secure a table without a reservation. In fact, the chances are that it’s already too late to get a reservation for most of the city’s popular eateries during Louisville’s biggest party of the year.

“I’ve been booked since Derby night last year,” Melillo’s manager Ashley Chesman said with a laugh. “Sometimes it’s best to make the reservation WAY in advance.”

Here are a few dining survival tips for getting the most out of this and future Derbies, based on my own experience and advice from the food-savvy participants on the LouisvilleHotBytes online forum:

  • Plan far ahead. For local favorites, it’s no joke to suggest that you consider calling now to see when they’ll start taking reservations for next year.
  • Try newer spots that may not be as widely known as the long-term standards. As of early April, Danielle’s, for example, still had some availability, spokesman Don Donahoe said. Chesman said Melillo’s still had a few spots on Oaks evening, and maitre d’ Amy Hoover at Primo said this hot new Italian spot on East Market still had several openings for Derby and Oaks for parties of four or smaller.
  • How about an ethnic dinner? Some of the city’s fine Asian restaurants are likely off the path beaten by most visiting race fans. Vietnam Kitchen makes my four-star list for outstanding food and value that belies its downscale ambience, and it’s just a short drive south from Churchill Downs.
  • Take the less-beaten path. Westport General Store, a fine bistro in the lovely setting of Westport, on the banks of the Ohio in Oldham County, is wide open at this point for its memorable Derby party, proprietor Will Crawford said. If you’ve got your passports in order, don’t overlook Southern Indiana’s finer dining rooms, which reportedly don’t book up as fast as the hot spots on Bardstown and Frankfort and downtown.
  • Look for the silver lining: Derby Day tops even Mother’s Day and Valentine’s as busiest of the year for Louisville restaurants, raising the risk that even the best-managed will be “slammed” with crowds and not showing their best. The smart money may cook at home, pick up picnic fare in advance or leave town for the weekend.