Bardstown Road is one of the most unique shopping districts in Jefferson Country, and features some of Louisville's finest dining establishments, along with the best antique shopping and people watching in the country. Known variously as “punk street” and “Restaurant Row” for its copious nightclubs, pubs and eateries, Bardstown Road is a mixture of artistic, organic, punk and yuppie influences. I saw nothing ordinary here.
A local told me about the city’s motto: Keep Louisville Weird, a phrase that refers to the city’s mandate to encourage and support local talent to flourish and keep the local culture alive; this is no better represented than on Bardstown Road, which fully embraces that motto on a number of fronts. Among the eclectic shops that provided body piercing, tattooing, and acupuncture, I saw clothing stores called “Eccentric” or “Weeds of Eden” (they sell hemp clothing, by the way), beauty salons called “ScissorHands” and “Raindogs” (named after a Tom White tune), funky restaurants like “Za’s Pizza Pub”, “Karma Café” or “Ramsi’s Café On the World”, which is featured in the Best of Louisville CitySearch (2003). Late-night nibblers can stop at this funky eatery for international cuisine ranging from Morrocan to Italian. Of course, I had to go there!
Continuing on my walk I passed Doo-Wop, which sells musical equipment and Ear-X-tacy, a different kind of music store that sells CDs and DVDs. Among the many antique stores, a contemporary furniture store calls itself “Objects of Desire”. Practically every shop, bistro and bar is adorned with original hand-painted signs or old-style neon lights; like the eye-catching mural and avant-garde recursive-post modern design of the Metro Café. Upon entering, I felt a little like Alice as I left funky for high chic (must have been the blue pill I took earlier). Patrons are treated to the elegant ambience of a dining room lined with original German art-deco prints as they dine on anything from a starter of Vidalia Onion Tart with roasted tomato crème fraiche to a main course of Veal Scaloppini with Bing cherries and a Frangelico cream sauce with mashed potatoes and vegetable of the day. There’s a reason why the Metro Café was voted one of Louisville’s top five restaurants. And I didn’t even get dessert! Ah, those German pastries!
Stuffed with the diverse rich flavors of a good meal, I walked into the Old Town liquor/wine store, and was greeted by an imposing wooden Indian statue (affectionately named “Chief Wooden Head” by its staff). Jeremy, who stands in the picture next to the Chief with a bottle of one of Kentucky’s best bourbon, tells me that the Chief came with the establishment over twenty five years ago and survived the great tornado of 1974. The owners of Old Town Wine Store would prefer that the locals consider it as their neighborhood wine store, despite its more than ample selection of hard liquors and exotic soft liquors from all over the world, including champagnes that go for over $300. Toulouse had his heart set on the “Buffalo Trace” Bourbon Whiskey, but after Gordon showed me all the local bourbons, I decided on the “Old Weller Antique” Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey to take home as a souvenir. I guess I ticked off Toulouse because I was half-way home in the car when I noticed that he was missing. I had to go back and found him lingering in the “Old World” Pinot Noir section of the store—Bad Toulouse!...But he does have good taste.
While parts of Bardstown Road seemed old and almost run-down, even these displayed incredible character, particularly juxtaposed to the side streets, which showcased wealthy residential areas, shaded by impressive over 100-foot high mature oak, elm or maple trees. Streets east and west of Bardstown Road house mostly single-family residences, and range from working class neighborhoods to some of the most expensive streets in Louisville, such as Spring Drive, home of Louisville's most famous Kentucky Derby parties.
In a park beside one of the side-street cafés, I met Nikki and Adam, a young couple with their two month old baby girl, who were travelling through Louisville in their converted school bus from New Orleans on their way west to Oregon. Nikki’s pen and ink sketches sprawled on the street ahead of her, for sale, as she played the musical saw to Adam’s lively accordion. Their lyrical bluegrass folk music transported me to an era of freedom, self-expression and spiritual-searching during university days and I saw myself reflected in their rasta hairdos, love beads, body piercings and tattoos. Once they’d finished their set, I asked Adam how long he’d played the accordion. Fixing on me striking blue eyes, rivaled only by a younger Mel Gibson’s dreamy gaze, Adam flashed a disarming smile. He’d only picked it up a few months ago. I was impressed.
Later, when I stopped to write, check my internet and drink at a Starbucks, I couldn’t help noticing three youths in lively conversation; one of them was sporting a bright pink Mohawk. I just had to ask him the question and barged in on them with my signature smile. After introducing myself, I asked, “Why did you do it and how do you sleep at night?” Ryan’s answer, after a good-natured chuckle, was “I don’t know” and “I sleep on my side.” Ryan is a stylist at “Raindogs” on Bardstown Road, along with his colleague, Tiffy. Both are locals from Louisville and area. They were joined by their friend, Eric, just moved from California. When I asked Eric what brought him here, he replied, “people care here…they genuinely care…” Tiffy added, “Louisville is where northern meets southern…and it works really well.” I understood exactly what she meant and realized that Louisville, and Bardstown Road particularly, had successfully married the northern qualities of progressive tolerance and avant garde-bohemian with a sensual southern charm and warmth. Ryan said, “there’s lots of diversity and people are open-minded in Louisville.” I certainly saw good evidence of that on Bardstown Road.
Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit www.ninamunteanu.me. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for more about her writing.