Destination: Downtown

By | March 01, 2011
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the brown hotel bar

An amazing family getaway may be closer than you think

Even if you’re not one of the unlucky souls regularly logging air miles in cramped jetliners, news crews have so thoroughly detailed the headaches of airport security checks and weathercanceled flights, the idea of a hometown vacation surely is gaining new appeal. And there’s no better time than spring to stay in Louisville.

It’s time to consider grabbing some R&R in a swanky downtown Louisville inn like the Brown Hotel, the 21c Museum Hotel or the Seelbach Hilton Hotel.

That’s right, the town’s priciest beds. But before you scream “sticker shock,” consider that one night in most of their luxurious rooms can be had for about the price of an airplane ticket for one. From that angle, the fee doesn’t sound as steep, especially for a family of four. Factor in no car rental and the likelihood that you’ll burn almost no gas, since downtown Louisville is so “walkable,” and the expense of a luxury staycation compares nicely to an out-of-towner.

You say you don’t want to walk much or at all? You’re in luck, because all three hotels are not only steps from an abundance of fun destinations, each hotel is loaded with amenities that make holing up a desirable possibility. All three include awardwinning restaurants and ritzy bars providing rich ambiance and fantastic people watching, said Larry Johnson, concierge and staff historian at the Seelbach Hilton. He recommends sipping cocktails in the anteroom outside The Oakroom restaurant as a terrific way to pass the time.

“It’s not a full-blown lounge, but there are sofas, chairs and a big-screen TV, and the windows look out onto Oak Street,” said Johnson, a Seelbach employee for 29 years. “In the old days, that’s where bookies came to take bets on billiards and horses.

From the time it opened in 2006, 21c’s bar inside its restaurant, Proof on Main, has been one of the town’s top places to see and be seen. Amid walls covered in eclectic art and the clatter of skilled bartenders crafting cocktails, the room always is a great place to lounge and look.

“If you spend any length of time at the bar here, you’re bound to meet architects, writers, businessmen — just a really diverse group of people,” said William Morrow, the museum director for 21c. “It’s one of those places where everyone has a story to tell, and you never know quite what to expect. It’s never boring, that’s for sure.” Prefer a more subdued experience? The Brown’s lobby lounge offers loads of plush public perches and a languorous pace.

The soaring space reduces the bar chatter to background noise, and you’re just close enough to the aroma wafting from the AAA Four Diamond–rated English Grill restaurant to be lulled into dreamy hunger. But there’s no need to rush to the table, said assistant general manager Guy Genoud. The lobby lounge is his favorite spot at the Brown to sip bourbon and nosh on appetizers.

“What’s unique about the lobby bar is it’s one of the few bars that are part of the Urban Bourbon Trail,” said Genoud. “We also have several rare bourbons here that you probably won’t find at the other places.” Want it even quieter? Genoud said that’s where the hotel’s club lounge level becomes a worthwhile — even economical — investment. Here guests enjoy complimentary wine, beer and hors d’oeuvres, plus the opportunity to mingle with other club guests.

“It’s a cool privilege to sit there and relax in what’s like a living room area with other people,” Genoud said. “It’s also a nice place to bring children if they’re staying with you.”Which brings to mind the question: Are such posh palaces good places to take kids? Absolutely, said all three. Not only is each hotel near kid-friendly entertainment, all have adjoining rooms that provide for parental privacy and kid secrecy.

“My children are grown now, but if I was taking them here, the first thing I would do is get them their own room!” said Genoud, laughing. “If they’re staying in the club level, it’s easy for the kids to go to the lounge to grab a soda or some fruit; they don’t have to go out.”

Morrow said 21c has three corner rooms with adjacent, family-friendly connecting rooms that include a large seating area. “We also have two balcony rooms that, in the spring, would be great to have for the view.”

Staying at the Seelbach? Make sure to tours given most Saturdays. “That’s part of the historical tour, where I also talk about the Seelbach brothers who built the hotel, and about the U.S. presidents and movie stars who’ve stayed here,” he said.

At 21c, there’s never a shortage of entertainment due to the hotel’s extensive art collection exhibited throughout the building. Some exhibits are interactive and ideal for kids, while others are static. Guests also can enjoy more exhibits from the comfort of their rooms.

“We stream video all day long of our art collection to wide-screen TVs in guest rooms,” said Morrow. “We also have original art in each hotel room.”

Whether the kids join Mom and Dad for dinner at the critically acclaimed restaurants at these hotels is another matter.

What’s good to know is each hotel offers in-room dining, and the Brown and the Seelbach have casual cafés serving more affordable grub. Proof’s bar menu is less expensive than its dining room’s, but not exactly geared toward kids. Bottom line: In hotels like these, dining in style is simply a decadent must-do.

By themselves, the historic spaces of The Oakroom and the English Grill are sights to behold. Over the years, their lavish appointments have been painstakingly restored to their original forms to provide a glimpse into the gilded age of hotel dining.

Their menus, however, are anything but dated. The contemporary creations of chefs Jim Gerhardt and Bobby Benjamin (The Oakroom) and Laurent Geroli (The English Grill) draw inspiration from seasonal ingredients raised and cultivated locally, and they’ve garnered raves from food writers from around the world.

The urbane sophistication of Proof on Main is an equally classy, but very different story. Serving as another showcase for 21c’s art collection, the wide-open space offers views into the bustling kitchen where rustic Italian flavors combine with Southern U.S. preparations. Since moving to Louisville in 2005, chef Michael Paley has been a quick study in local meats and produce, and that work led Proof to be named one of the country’s best new restaurants in 2006. “I’m not a room service guy, I like to be where the action is in the restaurant,” said Morrow, implying that not dining in an inhouse restaurant diminishes the uniqueness of a luxury hotel experience. “Doing this is so much more than going to a place where you stay the night. It’s an indulgence that few people enjoy very often.”


325 W. Broadway
Louisville, KY 40202

Average daily rate:
$249 to $319, higher for suites

Check website for specials and room

Concierge/club level: Yes

If you go to the Brown: “You must try the Hot Brown if you never have, because it’s our signature dish,” said Genoud. “At the English Grill, the pork chop is my favorite.”


700 W. Main St.
Louisville, KY 40202

Avg. daily rate: $155 to $615

Check website for specials and room

Concierge/club level: No

If you go to 21c: “If you’re talking local, the bison burger is my go-to,” said Morrow. “But if you want to know my favorite, it’s the octopus bagna cauda.”


500 Fourth St.
Louisville, KY 40202

Average daily rate: $179 to $270,
higher for suites

Check website for specials and room

Concierge/club level: Yes

If you go to the Seelbach: “I love the spoonfish caviar, something I never thought I would,” said Johnson. (Spoonfish eggs are harvested in Kentucky.) “We’re close to the Palace Theater, so always check ahead to see who’s performing. It makes or a great night to go there and stay here.” 

Steve Coomes is a former chef and Louisville-based food writer.

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