Many New Orleanians customarily spend Kentucky Derby day at the track, though with no race in sight.
The biggest day in American horse racing usually coincides with the second Saturday of Jazz Fest, with the Fair Grounds Race Course transformed from a track into New Orleans’ biggest music venue. While plenty of locals keep tabs on the Derby every year, it’s far from the main act in New Orleans when Jazz Fest is in full swing.
But this year, all bets are off. An earlier-than-usual Jazz Fest means Derby Day has its own space on the New Orleans calendar this Saturday (May 7). This year too, one of New Orleans’ most prominent citizens, Tom Benson, has two horses in the race.
Around town, there’s new attention to Derby Day with more restaurants and bars getting in on the act. And, naturally, there’s now a Derby-themed festival and block party in the mix too.
Many are encouraging derby style fashions, with light spring colors and fancy hats.
But wherever you go, expect to see lots of brown…for bourbon, that is. It’s a byword for Kentucky culture, and it also happens to be trending hard in the restaurant world, with bourbon getting the same kind of attention as wine lists in some establishments.
Below are details on Derby Day parties and specials, and some places to sample great bourbon selections before the race, or maybe to celebrate after if the horses go your way.
Remember, all events are in the run-up to post time, which is 5:34 p.m. CST. The race begins shortly after
Where: Fulton Street at Poydras Street
When: from 1 p.m.
The potential was just too ripe to ignore, said event promoter Ray Sutherlin. There are historic connections between Louisiana and Kentucky horse racing culture, right down to the many Louisiana-born jockeys who have made their mark on Derby history. And then there’s the local predilection to turn a festive gathering into a festival at the drop of a hat.
So last year, he helped organize an outdoor derby party with a few businesses along downtown’s Fulton Street pedestrian mall, and it was off to the races.
Derby on Fulton is back this year and it’s set to be much bigger. The outdoor party is presented by the champagne bar Apres Lounge, the Ernst Café, the combination bowling alley/bar/eatery Fulton Alley, the super-sized sports bar Manning’s and Harrah’s casino.
Fulton Street itself will be lined with artificial turf (friendlier on ladies’ heels than the usual paving stones), and vendors lining the block will sell food and drink along with cigars, men’s and women’s fashion and that Derby Day essential: hats. The prominent Royal Street milliner Fleur de Paris will be there with a large selection.
Another sponsor this year is the Fair Grounds Race Course, which is owned by the same company that runs the famous Kentucky Derby venue Churchill Downs.
Bands perform outside, alongside games like stick pony races. When it’s time for the actual Derby, the action moves inside where the sponsor bars and restaurants will show the race.
Admission is free, and a portion of proceeds from sales around the event will benefit Ride of Brotherhood, a nonprofit that supports military veterans in need.
Where: 5757 Magazine St., 504-891-1177
When: 3-6 p.m.
This restaurant’s name relates to its bourbon fixation and a deep-running Kentucky connection. Kenton’s is named after Simon Kenton, a frontiersman and a founder of Maysville, Kentucky. This riverfront town became an early hub for bourbon production, and New Orleans was a leading destination for it.
This is the first Derby Day for Kenton’s, which was opened last fall by Sean Josephs and Mani Dawes, and they’re keeping it casual.
“A Derby party is all about the celebration leading up to the race,” said Josephs. “It’s a little day drinking, just a fun gathering, and we’re hoping this turns into a tradition.”
From 3-6 p.m., between regular meal times, Kenton’s will serve a smaller menu of barbecue and snacks (deviled eggs, fried grits with country ham, fried oysters).
At the bar, order a mint julep or brown derby cocktail and you get a ticket with one of the Derby horse’s names on it. If your horse wins, Kenton’s will give you a bottle of Buffalo Trace bourbon.
Kenton’s bar is well equipped for bourbon fans, and some are selections from Josephs’ own label, Pinhook.
1732 St. Charles Ave., 504-586-9243
When: 2 p.m. through race time
New Orleans’ best bar for beer aficionados is also a contender for the city’s best bourbon selection. For Derby day, look for $10 tasting flights from the bar’s own single barrel collection, which are custom-made bourbons served only at the Avenue Pub.
Avenue Pub proprietress Polly Watts is a self-confessed “hat nut,” and that fondness has inspired some of her regulars to don jaunty chapeaus on occasion in solidarity. During its first ever Derby party, the bar has a contest for best women’s hat (win a bottle of Woodford Reserve and an Avenue Pub gift certificate). There’s an angle for everyone here too: women in hats and men wearing seersucker, linen or bow ties get $2 off mint juleps, served up in specialty julep cups.
Bonus: the bar menu, designed these days by Boucherie chef Nathanial Zimet, has burgers and sausage, cheese and charcuterie plates and a surprisingly strong selection of vegetarian options.
Where: 215 Bourbon St., 504-335-3932
When: noon-10 p.m.
This lounge and steakhouse attached to the historic Galatoire’s Restaurant inaugurated its own indoor Kentucky Derby party last year, with a sharp-dressed crowd and the race shown in the lounge’s wide-screen TVs. The event returns this weekend with a new menu of “race day cocktails” (like classic mint juleps, the “big hat” with gin, cassis and curacao, and the Louisville 75, a twist on the French 75 champagne cocktail), plus complimentary tea sandwiches during the party.
3000 S. Carrollton Ave., 504-861-1700
When: 4-7 p.m.
This combination music hall/bowling alley begins a Triple Crown series of horse race watch parties this weekend, with the Kentucky Derby kicking off a run with events for the Preakness (May 21) and Belmont Stakes (June 11) to follow.
For the Kentucky Derby party, Rock ‘n’ Bowl will have contests for best hat, best bow tie and best outfit (win gift cards and Derby-themed merch). Look for Bulleit Bourbon mint juleps and Kentucky-inspired food specials from the kitchen. Admission is free.
144 Bourbon St., 504-522-0111
When: happy hour 4-6 p.m. both May 6 & 7
Dickie Brennan’s seafood house and oyster bar is on Bourbon Street, but that wasn’t the only inspiration for its name. Bourbon House is also home to a majestic bourbon selection, and it’s the headquarters of the New Orleans Bourbon Society, which brings in guest distillers and specilaty bottlings for tasting events.
Happy hour is 4-6 p.m. at the bar and oyster bar here, which coincides nicely with the run-up to Kentucky Derby post time. During those hours on both Friday (May 6) and Saturday (May 7), the bar will add mint juleps to its happy hour menu for $6 each.
Where: 718 St. Peter St., 504-525-4823
Begun five years ago, the Derby party is a fairly new tradition at a French Quarter destination with plenty of old ones. But this year, with Jazz Fest out of the picture, it looks to be a landmark edition. Fancy dress is encouraged, especially ladies’ hats, and in the main bar the mint juleps are half price from noon until post time to get you in the spirit.
1201 Magazine St., 504-299-1888
When: all day
If you’re looking for a bastion of bourbon before the Kentucky Derby but don’t want all the hats and hoopla and such, Barrel Proof is your spot. This Lower Garden District bar has a world-tour whiskey selection that’s long on bourbon and available in shorter pours for wider sampling. The race will be on TV, but otherwise the entertainment value here is on the drink list and menu. The kitchen in back, Little Bird, has casual Southern-inspired bar food from chefs Kristin Essig and Michael Stoltzfus of Coquette.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.