Red Carpet Roll Out
“Roll out the red carpet” is a phrase commonly used when formally welcoming VIPs, celebrities, or royalty. The Bluegrass Travelers are far from VIP status, but that didn’t stop us from getting the royal treatment and a red carpet welcome at Matt Winn’s Steakhouse at Churchill Downs, located at 750 Central Avenue in Louisville, KY.
It was a bit of a thrill walking arm in arm down the red carpet with my handsome husband as the racetrack staff smiled with one hand out, leading us towards our destination of Matt Winn’s Steakhouse at Churchill Downs. It’s likely that many of you have been on the same red carpet during your adventures at Churchill Downs during race time, but with the hustle and bustle of the crowd and so much to distract, it’s easy to miss even something as grand as the red carpet. For us, this experience was different.
Matt Winn’s Churchill Downs History
The restaurant is named after Colonel Martin “Matt” J. Winn, who was a prominent figure in thoroughbred horse racing. He attended the first-ever Kentucky Derby with his father in 1875 at the age of 14. A traveling salesman and tailor by trade, Winn was approached by a friend in 1902 with news that the track was struggling financially and could be purchased for $40,000. Winn joined a partnership that bought the track, and he eventually became Churchill Downs’ vice president and general manager. Inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 2017 as a “Pillar of the Turf,” he is said to have transformed the track into what it is today, including coming up with the $2 bet and making “My Old Kentucky Home” a Derby tradition.
The Restaurant Tour
Surrounded by its rich horse racing history and tradition, Ted and I took our time taking in the beauty and magic of Churchill Downs. July is considered “the off season” at the track, meaning it is in between the spring and fall meets, so it’s absent of the typical crowds. It was almost surreal to feel like we had Churchill Downs all to ourselves. Jockey statues greeted us every 10 feet as we made our way down the red carpet, through the glass doors, and into the elevator.
As the elevator doors opened, we entered a parlor area with a rich interior of browns and reds. To the right hangs an Andy Warhol-like trio of paintings of Matt Winn himself. To the left is the entrance to the restaurant, with a curio cabinet of their vast wine selection on one side, and on the other a display of every mint julep cup from every Derby intertwined with select bourbon bottles.
As you walk into the restaurant, there is a beautiful open bar on the right with seating all around and a more private, yet semi-open dining room to the left. The lighting feels elegant, with beautiful crystal chandeliers filling the space. In the dining area, there are stained glass windows with vibrant detail of colorful jockey silks. The back of the restaurant is a wall of windows that lead to a terrace overlooking the track.
We were blessed to be there during both daylight and nighttime. The track’s turf had been removed as it was being replaced, which was rather historic in itself. The original turf was installed 36 years ago, in 1985. We happened to be seated by beautiful chalk and pastel drawings of past Derby-winning horses done by artist Kathleen Wheeler, who lived on a ranch in Canada and was commissioned to sculpt and paint Derby winners in the 1920s-1930s. The drawings were so magnificent and life-like that I thought they were photographs.
Amazing Cocktails and Unparalleled Service
The customer service was outstanding, from our waiter Will, to Jimmy the busboy, to Logan the dessert cart showman. By far the best, though, was the impeccable service from restaurant supervisor Michael Unclebach. Michael was kind enough to not only make amazing recommendations, but he was also excited to share his knowledge and expertise of everything from the food and spirits, to the history and art. He is a fine young man with infallible manners and taste.
For drinks, I went with Michael’s recommendation of Imagery Sauvignon Blanc while Ted chose the Matt Winn Flight. My wine was crisp with a subtle hint of honeysuckle and citrus notes of lemon-lime and grapefruit. Ted’s “Matt Winn” bourbon flight offered him tastings of barrel-proof Barton 1792, Old Forester, and Woodford Reserve. Matt Winn’s has the largest wine selection in the state, and very rare flights of bourbon not found anywhere else. It is the only operating restaurant in the world that has all four of the Corti Brothers VanWinkle Special Reserve, which boasts bourbon from barrels from the late 60’s and early 70’s. It is some of the rarest bourbons in the world.
For an appetizer, we ordered the Black Hawk Farm Meatballs with country ham pomodoro, mozzarella, and focaccia toast. We could have eaten these as our whole meal. They were slightly crusted on the outside and moist and tender on the inside. The country ham pomodoro was perfectly salted, which gave it a delicious flavor, topped off with mozzarella and parmesan cheese. The focaccia bread was served warm and perfectly crusted.
For dinner, we both had the caesar salad. Ted ordered the medium rare 10 oz filet, cooked to melt-in-your-mouth perfection that didn’t even require a knife to cut. I went with the 6 oz steak well done (I know, you steak lovers are cringing) topped with roasted garlic and compound butter. It was also cooked just right. For sides, we shared the brussel sprouts and marbled potatoes. The brussel sprouts were crispy with romesco aioli, pistachio, and Kenny’s Farmhouse Kentucky Rose Cheese. The loaded marbled potatoes with broadbent bacon, Kenny’s Reserve White Cheddar, crème fraiche had a hint of lime.
Our dessert expert, Logan, treated us to his dessert monologue and beautiful cart display. After seeing the many choices the cart had to offer, I went with the brownie, which was fudgy and served with homemade vanilla ice cream and decadent hot fudge. Ted went with the pineapple creme, which was smooth and creamy with just a hint of pineapple. They were both so yummy. If you enjoy your food served on wheels, during live meets they also offer a raw bar cart and a charcuterie cart.
Our Noah Tradition
The Kentucky Derby has been a Noah family institution since 1992, when Ted and my brother Guy watched the races from the backside at Churchill Downs, and a big part of our Derby tradition has always been enjoying the amazing food and spirits that Louisville has to offer. Boxed seats on Oaks Day are always followed by a delicious steak dinner at a local restaurant. After experiencing Matt Winn’s, I’m thrilled to announce that a new Noah family Derby tradition has been born.
The best part of Derby has been handing it down to the next generation, our son Mitchell and daughter Christine. Christine has always enjoyed the rich history, tradition, and grandeur of Derby. She appreciates the ceremony of it all. She also loves getting all dressed up and always looks stunning. As a writer, director, and actor, we think she has a red carpet in her future some day.
Our tradition also includes inviting someone new each year, which we like to call “the rookie,” and putting them through a series of fun challenges. One year, this included taking a neighbor to the track with us-but not just any neighbor. Mitchell and his friends brought neighbor, Smarty Gnome, a cute but wizened little garden gnome, with them to the infield. Smarty was quite a hit with the ladies. When Smarty returned, he shared pictures and a poem detailing his adventures with his Mom and Dad (our neighbors.) Smarty loved his adventure!
A Paddock Proposal
Since my brother Guy has been a part of the tradition and with us from the beginning, it was fitting for him and his beautiful wife Jill to bring their daughter Lindsay and her boyfriend Conner down on her 21st birthday. To make it even more of a celebration, Connor proposed to Lindsay right by the paddock at Churchill Downs. (She said yes.).
Churchill Downs has always been a special place for our family, and Matt Winn’s makes it even more special, so if you are looking to make your own family tradition, including a walk down the red carpet, make it Matt Winn’s Steakhouse at Churchill Downs. It’s a great place to go for a delicious meal, good wine, rare bourbon, and outstanding customer service. When you go, be sure to ask Michael for his wine and spirit recommendations and tell him the Bluegrass Travelers sent you.