Louisville and Lexington  offer bluegrass appeal for gay travelers

BOURBON AND BLUEGRASS | Verdant Bluegrass County surrounding Lexington and Louisville abounds with scenic horse farms and bourbon distilleries. (Photo courtesy Andrew Collins)

ANDREW COLLINS  | Contributing Writer

Each May, eyes fall upon Kentucky’s pastoral Bluegrass area as Louisville holds the Kentucky Derby, the world’s most celebrated Thoroughbred race. But from spring through late autumn, it’s a fine time for touring the hilly, verdant swatch of northern Kentucky that includes the state’s two largest cities, Louisville and Lexington. Despite the region’s generally conservative demeanor, Louisville has a growing core of hip neighborhoods, an increasingly locavore-driven restaurant scene, first-rate culture and one of the world’s largest gay nightclubs, while collegiate Lexington makes a charming base for exploring nearby horse farms and acclaimed small-batch bourbon distilleries.

A large, modern metropolis (city-county population 721,000) on Kentucky’s Ohio River border with Indiana, Louisville’s West Main Street area boasts an impressive stock of grand, Victorian cast-iron buildings and a few of the city’s gay nightspots. A paved RiverWalk affords great views of the city as well as the Louisville Slugger Museum, the excellent Frazier International History Museum and Muhammad Ali Center. Louisville excels at the arts, with respected opera and ballet companies and the Actors Theatre of Louisville, which hosts the acclaimed Humana Festival of New American Plays every spring.

You’ll find a number of gracious residential districts both downtown and south of it, and a particular lively and gay-popular stretch of businesses and restaurants along Bardstown Road in southeastern Louisville’s Highlands and Cherokee Triangle neighborhoods. Many of the city’s most gay-popular eateries are on Bardstown, including the community’s favorite java joint, Days Espresso, and Lilly’s, where you can sample such contemporary regional American specialties as catfish spring rolls with Asian dipping sauce, and locally farmed pork confit and braised shoulder.

One of Louisville’s most distinctive emerging neighborhoods is East Market, a relatively compact stretch of cafes, galleries and funky shops just a short drive east of downtown. Here be sure to check out Bodega at Felice, a trendy market, deli, and coffee bar all in one, and Toast on Market, which serves tantalizingly tasty breakfast and lunch fare, including a memorable Monte Cristo.

Other dining standouts include downtown’s modern take on down-home cooking, Hillbilly Tea (try the “road kill stew” of venison, chicken and mountain vegetables) and a handful of spots along lively Frankfort Avenue.

Louisville’s gay bars are spread around the city, with a few standouts downtown, including the legendary Connection Louisville, an immense nightclub with several distinct spaces, from a drag show bar to leather lounge (Boots, with its own entrance) to an area with male erotic dancers — there’s something for all tastes here. Around the corner, Tryangles is locals-oriented cruise bar with male strippers on weekends.

At the other end of downtown, in the Cultural District, Starbase Q is a handsomely decorated bar with a welcoming staff, fun theme nights (C&W line dancing, cabaret, karaoke), and a great mix of guys. Gay neighborhood spots south of downtown include Teddy Bears, Marty’s Tavern, and the mostly lesbian Tink’s Pub. Also of note is the famed Magnolia Bar & Grill (aka Mag Bar), an Old Louisville institution with a mixed gay-straight crowd and a fantastic jukebox.

Downtown’s Cultural District is home to one of the most fascinating accommodations in the country, the 21c Museum Hotel This luxe property with 90 sleekly designed rooms has been crafted out of a row of warehouses that once held bourbon and tobacco producers. The multilevel public areas comprise a dramatic, 9,000-square-foot contemporary art museum, and the hotel also contains a chic spa, a full fitness center and one of the hottest restaurants in the region, Proof on Main, which fuses mod Italian and Southern culinary traditions.

Stylistically, Louisville’s grand Brown Hotel is the polar opposite of 21c, but this regal 1923 property is every bit as cushy, its nearly 300 rooms outfitted with classic Old-English-inspired dark-wood furnishings and baths with Spanish marble. Make every effort to dine in the hotel’s formal English Grill, and plan a breakfast or lunch in the more casual but renowned J. Graham’s Cafe, which is famous as the home of the “Hot Brown” sandwich, a local take on a Welsh rarebit.

The city’s historic Old Louisville neighborhood has several gay-friendly B&Bs, all of them set in stately old homes with ornately appointed rooms: Austin’s Inn Place, Culbertson Mansion and Columbine B&B.

About 75 miles away, gentile, attractive Lexington (population 296,000) is surrounded by picturesque countryside graced with lovely old horse farms. Although the city has just one gay bar, the presence of the University of Kentucky has given the city a more progressive bent than much of the region, and in 2010 the city elected openly gay Jim Gray as mayor.

(If you’re headed to Lexington from Louisville, go by way of U.S. 60, stopping for a look at the historic downtown of the state capital, Frankfort, and passing through the quaint town of Versailles, which is home to one the respected single-batch bourbon makers, Woodford Reserve.)

The residential neighborhoods around the university comprise one road after another of gracious brick and limestone homes with neatly tended gardens and broad green lawns. A highlight is Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate.

Excellent dining options in Lexington include Metropole, the cozy French bistro Le Deauville, Alfalfa (which specializes in healthful veggie-oriented fare) and the legendary breakfast joint, Doodles (beware — there’s always a long wait for brunch on weekends).

The Bar Complex is the city’s most popular gay nightspot — it’s always packed at happy hour and well into the evening. Also worth a look is the loveably gruff neighborhood joint Al’s Bar, an eclectic but gay-friendly spot, great burgers, live bluegrass and stiff drinks. The upscale dance club Soundbar also has something of a gay following, especially with students from university.

Lexington has a nice mix of hotels and inns, with the upscale Gratz Park Inn, a three-story 1906 hotel with 41 pleasantly furnished rooms and a fine restaurant, Jonathan’s. The seven-room, gay-friendly Lyndon House B&B is perhaps the most romantic and luxurious inn in Lexington.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 8, 2011.