Dig in at Kentucky’s Best Soul Food Restaurants
Kentucky’s diverse culinary influences are well-known, but a growing number of popular soul food restaurants celebrate authentic flavors and dishes rooted in African American culture.
And we’re not talking about traditional Southern dishes here – as good as they are – but authentic African American-influenced recipes that are steeped in tradition and oh, so satisfying to boot.
Dig into age-old favorites and modern takes on fried catfish, collard greens, stewed okra, sweet potato pie and more on this tour of soul food hotspots that cuts through the center of the state.
Soul Food Restaurants in Louisville
Not surprisingly, the state’s largest and most diverse city has the highest concentration of soul food restaurants in Kentucky, so you should definitely start your culinary journey here.
And you might as well start with the grandmother of them all – Shirley Mae’s Café and Bar, which has been dishing up “slow food before slow food was cool” for more than 30 years. It’s a no-frills kind of place (nothing shiny or fancy here) but you’ll enjoy an incredibly authentic experience and some of the state’s best soul food.
Even better, that hot-water cornbread and other specialties you enjoy will likely be made by Shirley Mae herself – right in front of you – as she works her magic in the open kitchen, giving every order she takes (and every guest she meets) her undivided attention.
“The way I cook takes some time,” she once told a local restaurant critic, “but cooking is a waste of time if you don’t do it right.”
Amen, Shirley Mae! The wait is well worth it when the reward is a mouthwatering menu of historically significant dishes that truly resonate with the African American community – and anyone ready to sit down for a mind-blowing meal.
Chicken wings and cornmeal-crusted fish? Fried to order. Pork chops? Smothered in gravy. Meatloaf? Bathed in tangy tomato sauce. Fall-off-the-bone ribs? Hickory-smoked on the sidewalk grill that morning. Shirley Mae’s Famous Hot Water Cornbread? Life-changing. Chitterlings, ham hocks and pigs feet? Where else can you even FIND these soul-food delicacies?
Not to mention savory sides like fresh turnip greens, pinto beans, fried corn on the cob, country cornbread dressing, sweet potatoes and cabbage.
And for dessert? B’nana Puddin’ (apostrophes TOTALLY required) plus fruit cobblers, pecan pie, jam cake and sweet potato pie, oh my!
Ready for love at first bite? Check out Lucretia’s Kitchen in Louisville for a bounty of soul food and Southern specials including jumbo wings, fried catfish, salmon croquettes, rib tips and all the fixings. Rotating desserts are plentiful, but let’s not kid ourselves. You’re getting the banana pudding here, too.
Before leaving town, be sure to hit up Southern Express (where all sides are just $1) or Dasha Barbour’s Southern Bistro, where the “hot” pork chop with a side of mac ‘n’ cheese is not to be missed.
Lexington-Area Soul Food Restaurants
From Louisville, take the easy 80-minute drive east on I-64 (or scenic backroads!) to Lexington, where another tasty selection of soul-food favorites awaits.
For large portions and big smiles, make your first stop Mimi’s Southern Style Cooking, where you’ll find a bounty of homecooked favorites like fried catfish, roast chicken, barbecue ribs, meatloaf and all sorts of other gravy-smothered goodness. Not sure what to order? Check out the restaurant’s Facebook page, where food videos (not just photos) are posted almost daily!
Across town at Sav’s Restaurant & Gourmet Ice Cream, let chef Mamadou “Sav” Savené dazzle you with cooking skills he learned from his mother and sisters growing up on the west coast of Africa in Guinea. When he met a Kentucky girl and moved here, he realized a lifelong dream of starting his own restaurant – then opened a gourmet ice cream shop across the street four years later.
Both locations eventually merged into one on Main Street, where folks fawn over Sav’s Fabulous Bowls featuring peanut chicken, goat and various beef and vegan options with your choice of white or brown rice, housemade tofu and fried plantains. Or a Famous Salad featuring couscous made with the root vegetable cassava. Or try a hearty platter of savory lamb ragout potatoes, marinated tilapia with plantains, Cornish hen with couscous salad, Kankan flat-iron steak with fries, and chicken or beef kabobs with roasted peppers and onions.
But don’t fill up too much – you’ll want to leave room for something cool and sweet. Twenty flavors of gourmet ice cream made on site include all your favorites, plus exotic creations like bourbon ball, hot banana (with housemade habanero sauce!), Kentucky coffee bourbon espresso, lavender and Spanish peanut butter.
Just a little further east on I-64 in Winchester, the nautical-themed Blue Isle Home-Style Restaurant and Bar offers a massive menu of Caribbean and soul-food favorites that draws fans from throughout the region.
In addition to chicken, pork, steak, seafood and other options (whole fried frog legs, anyone?) a host of dinner platters include chicken and waffles, roast turkey and dressing, BBQ ribs, catfish, fried chicken and shrimp – all served with your sides and bread of choice.