LOUISVILLE, Ky. — First came the art galleries. Then the boutiques. Then the food and drink (craft and farm-to-table, thank you very much). Then the — record store and trendy barbershop?
Yes, yes, yes and yes, and that equation, spread across four rapidly developing blocks east of Louisville’s downtown, has brought sudden vigor to a corner of Kentucky best known for its horses, bourbon and baseball bats.
Here they call it NuLu. While the world might not need another precious urban nickname, Louisville dearly needed NuLu — or New Louisville, if you prefer — for an infusion of the delicious, the trendy and the novel. Across this stretch of East Market Street, as it is properly known, about 30 locally owned businesses have sprouted, many during the last year, without a chain in sight.
It makes visiting East Market Street a necessity during any trip to Louisville and an easy, rewarding way to spend a day.
“It’s been fun to watch,” said Joyce Garner, 64, whose art gallery has been on the NuLu strip since long before it was called NuLu. “Now I can get some soup for lunch.”
When Garner moved to East Market Street eight years ago, it was a largely stagnant path of boarded brick buildings with a few art galleries and a homeless shelter. It was a place locals hurried past on their way home from downtown. Then things started to change in a hurry.
Not long after the homeless shelter closed, restaurant after restaurant started opening — fine dining, casual dining, farm-to-table dining, a taco place, a pizza place in an old garage — along with the quirky wrinkles that make any neighborhood shine. Among the recent entries have been Please and Thank You, a coffee shop that doubles as a vinyl record store, the handsome wood-and-brick Market Street Barbers, and Louisville Beer Store, which is both a world-class bottle shop and a bar with eight hard-to-find craft beers on tap.
“Louisville was already blowing up, but then our generation got involved,” said Daniel van Dijk, 28, a bartender at Louisville Beer Store. “It’s not just 50-year-olds opening things; it’s people in their 20s opening things.”
During the run-up to the May 5 Kentucky Derby, the daily whir of construction continued as two more additions were coming together: Decca, a “soulful, contemporary” restaurant already generating massive buzz, and a bistro called La Coop. East Market Street residents, such as Nico Domingo, 25, a medical student, suddenly need to hunt for parking spaces on weekend nights. Not that Domingo minds.
“This what I love about Louisville,” he said at the bar of Taste Fine Wine and Spirits, a whiskey and wine shop that is one of NuLu’s recent additions. “People are invested, and they love being here.”
By most accounts, Louisville’s renaissance started in 2004 with Fourth Street Live!, a collection of neon and chain restaurants aimed at convention traffic that is as subtle as the exclamation mark might make you suspect. The next major landmark was the 2010 opening of a downtown arena for the University of Louisville basketball team (runner-up to Catholicism for the city’s most popular religion). It also gave performers such as Elton John and Lady Gaga a reason to add Louisville to their tours.
NuLu is a short walk from both spots as well as downtown’s more traditional highlights, such as the Louisville Slugger and Muhammad Ali museums. It gave a local and artisan touch to the city’s growth and a podium for the city’s talented, tattooed young professionals. (Good things extend beyond NuLu, however; check out the Meat cocktail bar and The Silver Dollar honky-tonk.)
If NuLu’s resurgence — or creation, really — can be described in two words, it would be these: exposed brick. Almost regardless of whether it’s a restaurant, bar or boutique, NuLu spaces are handsome, comfortable and carefully retain decades-old charm. Garner laughed that Garage Bar, a pizza-and-cocktail restaurant in a former garage across from her gallery, worked painstakingly to paint a sign on its exterior that appeared properly weathered.
The movement caught the eye of well-established businesses, such as Market Street Barbers, which was on the University of Louisville campus for seven years before moving to NuLu.
“People tout it as the new hipster spot, but I liked that it’s professional and local,” said heavily tattooed Market Street Barbers manager Jay White, 31. “But it is also the new thing.”
In October, Taste Fine Wine and Spirits also moved to the neighborhood. Though eager to be part of NuLu’s growth, it isn’t sacrificing the principles that make it distinctly Louisville.
“What we do here is give you a pour of bourbon for $5,” owner Paul Meyer, 63, told me on the night I arrived in town. “We serve it with ice, water or water and ice. If you want something with soda pop in it, I got nothing for you.”
IF YOU GO:
EATING: Dining is one of the primary reasons to spend time in NuLu. Must-visits for dinner include James Beard Award semifinalist Harvest (624 E. Market St.; 502-384-9090; harvestlouisville.com), Mayan Cafe (813 E. Market St.; 502-566-0651; themayancafe.com) and Wiltshire on Market (636 E. Market St.; 502-589-5224; wiltshirepantry.com). For breakfast and lunch try Toast on Market (620 E. Market St.; 502-569-4099; toastonmarket.com). Garage Bar (700 E. Market St.; 502-749-7100; garageonmarket.com) offers wood-fired pizza and a thorough beer and cocktail menu, while Rye (900 E. Market St.; 502-749-6200; ryeonmarket.com) is a cocktail bar doubling as an ace restaurant.
WHAT TO DO: Browse the boutiques and art galleries (there are about a dozen), lounge with a coffee and check the vinyl stacks at Please and Thank You (800 E. Market St., 502-235-2372; pleaseandthankyoulouisville.com). Have a beer at Louisville Beer Store (746 E. Market St.; 502-569-2337; louisvillebeerstore.com) which has a top-notch bottle and tap selection, and Taste Fine Wine and Spirits (634 E. Market St.; 502-409-4646; tastefinewinesandbourbons.com) where you can sample plenty of Kentucky bourbon.
STAYING: The legendary spots in town are just blocks from NuLu, such as the 21c Museum Hotel (700 W. Main St.; 502-217-6300; 21chotel.com), The Brown Hotel (335 W. Broadway; 888-888-5252; brownhotel.com) and The Seelbach Hilton (500 S. Fourth Street, 502-585-3200). Downtown also has major chains.