Couvillion’s namesake catfish couvillion.

Psst! Want to know our Derby dining secrets?

Welcome, Derby visitors!

No, really! I understand that the ubiquitous banners that hang on bar and restaurant windows during this exciting season, welcoming you and hawking industrial beer brands, don’t entirely pass the sincerity test. I know, you can reasonably translate them as “Come in heeeere and spend your moneeeey!”

But seriously, we really do mean it. Louisville is never more pretty than it is right now, at the peak of spring; and Louisville is never more exciting than it is during Derby time. This middle-size, middleweight burg that’s not quite Southern and not quite Midwestern wants you to see us, enjoy us, and tell us how cool we are. Seriously, welcome!

While we’re talking, let me offer you a couple of tips, and I don’t mean “Psst, buddy, bet on Number Two to show in the fourth race.” No, this is a tip on a different race: the race to get a good table at one of the best restaurants in town.

Now, let’s be realistic: If you’ve got your heart set on hanging out with the high rollers after the Derby, Oaks or Thurby, you’re facing heavy competition. Most of the city’s top tables, such as 610 Magnolia, Seviche, Proof on Main, Decca, Rye, bar Vetti, Pat’s, Bourbons Bistro, Le Moo, Le Chasse, Anoosh Bistro, Fat Lamb, Lilly’s, Volare, Varanese and Vincenzo’s, for instance, not to mention high-end corporate eateries like Morton’s, Jeff Ruby’s, and Ruth’s Chris, just to name a few, have been fully booked for Derby-week seats for months.

Pretty discouraging, eh? But don’t worry. Tip No. 1 is to ignore everything I just said. Take your best shot at the best restaurants in town anyway. This may work, if you’re lucky, because quite a few people will bug out on their reserved seats. Maybe they just partied too heartily at the races, poured themselves into a cab and went straight home. Plus, some bad actors will break all the rules of civilized society and reserve at several places, then blow off all but one. Your challenge is to start calling around about 6 p.m. in hope of snagging a no-show’s table. Or just head straight for your favorite place, try to squeeze in at the bar, and ask the host to let you know if something opens up.

If this approach doesn’t ring your chimes, here’s Tip Number Two! Try your luck at some of our equally good but less familiar local eateries, where there’s a good chance they’ll have a table or three available to warmly welcome you with good food and drink.

Grassa Gramma (333-9595), for example, opened out on the northeastern side of town just a couple of months ago. This oversize venue offers good Italian fare in an over-the-top setting that looks like an Italian village plaza at night.

Or try Steak & Bourbon (708-2196) in Westport Village, a brand-new spot, opened just in time for Derby, replacing Artesano Tapas y Mas. Steak? Bourbon? What else do you need for Derby dinner?

Portage House’s seared duck breast entrée.
Portage House’s seared duck breast entrée.
Perhaps you can outrun some of the competition by crossing the bridges to Southern Indiana. In New Albany, Brooklyn and the Butcher (812-590-2646) is as fine a steakhouse as you could ask for; Hull and Highwater (812-590-2249) offers good seafood (and new al fresco rooftop dining), and Exchange Pub & Kitchen (812-948-6501) is a fine place for upscale casual dining. In Jeffersonville, Portage House (812-913-4250) offers fine dining and riverside views.

Staying close to the track, it’s a short walk from the Downs to El Molcajete (638-0300) one of the best and most popular of the city’s many taquerias. You might run into a few jockeys and Latino backside workers there, and you’ll get a great, cheap meal.

A short cab ride north from Churchill will bring you to Old Louisville, one of the nation’s largest Victorian neighborhoods, with quite a few good eateries. Buck’s (637-5284), with its lovely setting and popular bar, may fill early, but you may be able to slip in to Amici (637-3167) for family Italian, or Burger Boy (635-7410) for diner-style burgers and more.

Move over to Germantown, also a quick cab ride away, for Couvillon (365-1813) one of my local favorites for its excellent Cajun and Creole fare; Sarino (822-3777) for classic Italian, or Eiderdown (290-2390) for German cuisine with a Louisville accent. For more traditional German food and gemütlichkeit, you might try to get in at Gasthaus (899-7177) in the near eastern suburbs.

Bombay Bhel Puri, a crunchy, spicy snack that reminded me of fiery trail mix, at Bombay Grill.
Bombay Bhel Puri, a crunchy, spicy snack that reminded me of fiery trail mix, at Bombay Grill.
I’m a big fan of Indian food, and Louisville responds a dozen good spots for Subcontinental cuisine. We dined at Bombay Grill (425-8892) in the East End the other night for an excellent Indian dinner in an upscale setting. I was delighted to see an extensive new menu including Bombay chaat items and South Indian fare in addition to the Indian standards. Try Bombay bhel puri for a crunchy snack that will remind you of spicy Indian trail mix; or walk on the wild side with goat or lamb dishes.

Enjoy the races. Enjoy Louisville. You really can’t go wrong, with well over 1,000 good, locally owned eateries to choose from. And seriously: Welcome, Derby visitors!