Cheers! Kathy Cary raises a toast to the crowd at her surprise party.
As part of my 120 Eats series research, I get to visit restaurants in all corners of the state. I spend an hour with an owner or chef, I observe the diners and staff, sometimes I stick around and eat. And from that I try to tell a story. I know I'm not getting a whole picture; I'm getting just a slice of everyday life in a place that, in some instances, has been in business for decades. I have to hope that's enough to share a little bit of the magic behind every well-loved restaurant – at least enough to spark an interest for you, reader, to maybe make a drive there some day to check it out for yourself.
While I'm only getting a glimpse of each place I visit, I'm lucky enough to get to make some Louisville restaurants part of the fabric of my everyday life. People may swoop in and out of these places after they've read a story (maybe, sometimes, one I've written somewhere else) but they won't know the place like I do. And there's something very satisfying about that. There's a lot of talk in travel circles about traveling like a local. And while, sure, I'm all for that, you're really only a local in your home. And I'm endlessly happy to be a local in Louisville. You may have read about my love for Eiderdown in the magazine last fall. But there are more places in town that go beyond being a place to get a bite to eat – they make Louisville my Louisville, a city I love to call home.
I'm writing this from a table at Please & Thank You (not my table, because someone got here before me this morning and beat me to it – a new regular with a stack of textbooks who doesn't know I cherish my corner seat facing Market St., next to the plug-in). This coffee shop/record shop/cafe is the darling of travel writers who come to town, and with good reason. But it's more than another trendy place to check off your list when you're in Derby City. For me, and the slew of other regulars, it's a home away from home. I see the same faces every day. The baristas know what I drink – even what I read, hanging on to newspaper articles for me that they think I'll enjoy. I pick up on conversations about things happening around town, I see friends, I have meetings. I've tried other coffee shops, but they just don't fit me like this one.
Last night I got to witness – and take part in – the celebration of a beloved local chef. I joined a packed house at Lilly's Bistro for a surprise party honoring owner Kathy Cary (who, in the way of this small world, is mother to Lilly, who works at Please & Thank You). Kathy was recently nominated for the sixth time for the James Beard award for best chef Southeast, and her staff and family schemed to throw a party to recognize her for 40 years of passion and devotion to serving fantastic food to Louisville.
Kathy was one of the first local food leaders I interviewed years ago, and Lilly's was one of the first nice restaurants my husband and I went to in Louisville. It's become our automatic place to go for celebrations. (I'll never forget going for dinner during my powerlifting days after accomplishing a huge goal – the then-manager sent out a wedge of cake emblazoned with '200' -- the weight I'd lifted. Now that is knowing your diner like family). But Lilly's isn't just for special occasions – many random weeknights have found us at the bar for a cocktail and small plates. Lilly's is an institution, a landmark of the Louisville dining scene, and of course is a destination for many travelers looking for some of the best food in Louisville. But it's also a gathering of people, led by Kathy, who love what they do.
The love that local diners have for Lilly's shines through every day, but I couldn't help but tear up last night when I heard from Kathy's fans what Lilly's means to them. Visitors can surely appreciate the fine food, and may even have a chance to meet Kathy, who has a penchant for sliding into the booth next to folks. But I just can't help but think they won't truly appreciate it for the treasure it is – just like I can't fully appreciate the places I visit for such short spells. But that won't stop me trying, and I hope visitors to Louisville – especially the throngs about to descend for Derby – get past the obligatory lists of top places in town and look for their own local favorites.