Matt Winn’s Steakhouse — The First Restaurant Open Year-round at Churchill Downs in 145 Years.
Take a tour of Matt Winn’s Steakhouse
To Celebrate Derby Day, we are taking another look inside Churchill Downs’ newest restaurant.
By Marty Rosen | Photos by Dan Dry
In my experience, the first question posed by out-of-town visitors arriving in Louisville for the first time is, “Can we go to Churchill Downs?” Many of those visitors have never seen live horse racing, or bought a pari-mutuel ticket, but it doesn’t matter. The mystique and romance of the world’s most storied race track has a global magnetic pull.
And of course it’s always possible to “go” to Churchill Downs, to see the imposing structure from the outside, to visit the Kentucky Derby Museum, which has been a tourism draw since 1985 (and which offers excellent tours of the facility).
But except during the racing dates, it’s always been hard for visitors (or locals) to just settle into the romanticized spirit of the track.
That has changed with the recent opening of a new flagship restaurant (with adjoining speakeasy) that pretty much instantly joins the ranks of Louisville’s flagship dining venues: Matt Winn’s Steakhouse.
Matt Winn is a name to conjure with — it should be a household name in Louisville. But since it isn’t, a few words about the man before we discuss his namesake.
One single fact is cited to explain Winn’s legacy: he saw the very first Kentucky Derby in 1875 — and then kept going without fail until 1949, when he presided over the 75th installment of the classic race. He died later that year.
That may be a record for longevity, but it pales next to his accomplishments.
In 1902, Churchill Downs was a respected track, and the Kentucky Derby, 27 years of age, was already a venerable institution. But the track was under financial duress, and the competition among race tracks was brutal. The Kentucky Derby purse was a respectable $6,000. But that same year Chicago’s Washington Park track slated a race called the American Derby — with an eye-catching purse of $25,000. The American Derby drew the best horses in the country. The Kentucky Derby attracted a field of four horses.
Over the next three years, Winn, Churchill Downs, and a handful of other race tracks fought a pitched battle (one newspaper described it as a “turf war of extermination”) with the powerful metropolitan tracks that ruled the Western Jockey Club, which regulated racing dates and was systematically starving out many of the tracks in the Midwest and South.
Winn and company eventually won that war after adroitly maneuvering with eight other tracks that in 1905 formed an independent upstart organization called the American Turf Association. Winn became its first President that year. That same year he moved up from Vice President of Churchill Downs to President.
And over the next four decades, Winn would continue to build Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby into international fixtures in the world of sport.
Winn’s legacy is formidable, and Matt Winn’s Steakhouse lives up to it. Everything about it — location, design, menu, execution, and thoughtful intelligent service even in the midst of a pandemic — signals a commitment to creating a dining experience that fuses Kentucky traditions and the exciting flavors of a global palate.
It’s pretty evident that Matt Winn was the right person in the right place at the right time.
And for a variety of reasons. Matt Winn’s is the right restaurant at the right place at the right time.
These days, “service” standards are more complicated than ever. All the usual expectations — grace, efficiency, knowledge, awareness — are still important. But the first thing on any diner’s mind is safety.
My friend Wayne and I visited Matt Winn’s during its extended soft opening in mid-August. We drove separately, but sat together. Wayne is a physician, cautious, and knowledgeable about Covid. For both of us, it was our first time being seated in a restaurant since March. Prior to going, we had agreed that if either of us felt unsafe at any time, we would leave.
In fact, Matt Winn’s front-of-house operation is extraordinarily insightful, creative, and meticulous. When our reservation was confirmed, we were directed to a dedicated Matt Winn’s parking lot. Upon arrival, we were checked in at an outdoor tent, then given the option of walking or riding a cart to a dedicated elevator where an operator whisked us to the appropriate floor, and a waiting greeter escorted us to our table in one of the most prestigious sections of Churchill Downs, the sixth floor area adjacent to the Mansion long known as “Millionaire’s Row.”
Throughout this process Wayne and I were basically isolated in a bubble of two, and everyone we met was masked.
The dining room was rich in shades of wood and bronze and dashes of crimson. And at first we were surprised to see glittering settings on nearly all the tables. But that, it turned out, was artifice. Most of the tables are used to create generous spaces between the tables where diners are seated. If you look closely at a photo of the empty dining room you’ll see that some of the tables have not been dressed. Those are the actual guest tables — and they are not set up until guests check in upon arrival. The other tables create a kind of negative space — but also convey an optimistic, cheerful look.
I didn’t measure, but by now I have a sense of what six feet looks like (and it never looks far enough to me). My impression was that all the occupied tables were very generously spaced — far more than six feet apart, and seated parties were configured in ways that enhanced both the appearance and the reality of distance. In fact, as currently configured, Matt Winn’s may have the advantage of offering one of the quietest dining experiences in the city — a fine thing for those of us who actually enjoy being able to hear one another at the table.
In terms of safety, service — both communication and the serving of food — was meticulous. And my impression was that servers had been assigned only a limited number of tables, which seems also a reasonable precaution at this time.
It takes both extraordinary resources and visionary planning to pull this off, and Matt Winn’s benefits from both. The restaurant is operated by Levy Restaurants, a global behemoth that operates everything from stadium food programs to luxurious Michelin-starred restaurants. Levy, in fact, operates all of Churchill’s dining services.
But notwithstanding its grandeur and ambitions, Matt Winn’s feels like a locally owned indie restaurant. That’s largely because of charismatic Executive Chef David Danielson, and Vice President for Hospitality Richard Sutton. The former is a gregarious tattooed wizard who is about as far from being a buttoned-down corporate chef as you can imagine. The latter has brought together a crackerjack staff. And talking to either of them you get the sense that Matt Winn’s is a passion project that they’ve been imagining for a long time. Everybody we encountered during our visit conveyed the sense of personal pride, ownership, and confident knowledge that I would expect to find during a soft opening in any well run locally-owned bistro. If you’ve spent a lot of time in Louisville’s indie restaurants, you may be delighted to recognize some members of the front-of-house staff.
General Manager Jamie West is directly in charge of front-of-house operations. And it was clear that everyone who interacted with diners were committed to learning and transparency. Every question we asked — whether about the menu or about the all-important safety protocols — elicited either a ready answer or a quick investigation and a thorough response. I’ve been covering restaurants for a couple of decades, and I’ve never encountered a staff that exhibited such a clear and urgent responsiveness to any and all questions.
And every detail — simple matters like refilling glasses and removing plates — seemed to be under close scrutiny. The attention to detail was at once comforting and an eerie and useful reminder that although we were having a good time and an entertaining conversation over an array of fine food, things are not normal and attention must be paid to the details.
Before turning to the food, it’s worth noting the staggering breadth of the beverage program at Matt Winn’s (and The Speakeasy, a very alluring bar area that wasn’t operating during our visit). No doubt the headline news about beverages will be the flights and pours of rare spirits that will cost more than a flight to Europe (at some point in the future, that is). For me, it might be enough just to actually see the label of a 1967 bottling of Old Grandad ($200 for a half-ounce; $600 for two-ounces), and I could make do with just a quick whiff from the nozzle of one of the 150 bottles ever produced of the 1977 Dumbarton Single Grain Scotch. Whiffs, alas, aren’t available — but the 2 ounce pour runs $990.
Those beverages won’t be on my menu. But neither will I ever own an original canvas by Jacob Lawrence. Even so, I take some pleasure in knowing that such wonders exist. They’re probably as much fun to contemplate as to consume. And besides, the fact is that the beverage program at Matt Winn’s is extensive enough and varied enough in price to meet the needs of anyone who frequents steakhouses and wants a cocktail, a bottle of wine, or a beer.
But it’s the kitchen at Matt Winn’s Steakhouse that excites me most.
It’s an honest name, and it is an honest steakhouse, with all that “steakhouse” implies: filets, strips, ribeye, porterhouse. And of course luxurious adornments and accompaniments abound.
If you want your filet bedecked with butter-poached lobster tail and black truffle compound butter, go for it. Or if you’d like your bone-in ribeye served with our local favorite, Henry Bain’s sauce, you can do that. Or, you can dress it up with an inventive charred scallion chimichurri. There is a daily assortment of raw bar offerings — oysters on the half shell, tiger shrimp, king crab, and the chef’s daily offering of fish and seafood tartare, ceviche, or crudo. And of course there is an assortment of appetizers — crab cake with a spring onion remoulade, quail egg, and roasted garlic relish; roasted bone marrow spiced up with the classic heat of Calabrian Nduja, and more — and an assortment of salads. If you’re avoiding red meat, offerings include cedar plank salmon, heritage roasted chicken breast, and ricotta gnocchi.
On our visit, the kitchen’s execution was impeccable. Roasted asparagus is sauced with a lemony hollandaise. Pommes frites are amped up with the aroma of rosemary and smoked salt. Pickle-fried cauliflower is both familiar and eccentric, accented with goat cheese, brown butter vinaigrette and hazelnut. Harissa-spiced carrots with pistachio Romesco and feta is a fine riff on classic Tunisian cuisine.
What’s cool about Matt Winn’s kitchen, though, is the way it melds traditional steakhouse staples with global touches that reflect Churchill’s international appeal, and also makes use of both regional culinary ideas and locally-sourced ingredients.
It turns out that both Executive Chef Danielson and Chef de Cuisine Jeff Dailey are knowledgeable and passionate advocates not only of vernacular cookery but of sourcing as many many regional farm-to-table ingredients as they can.
If you’re familiar with Louisville’s indie restaurant scene, you’ll recognize that Chef Dailey is a veteran of two important kitchens: the late Dean Corbett’s flagship restaurant, Corbett’s – An American Place; and Harvest, which was arguably the city’s preeminent farm-to-table restaurant until its recent closure.
It wasn’t that many years ago that major restaurants dared not feature farm-to-table cuisine because of inconsistent and unreliable supply chains. So the fact that Matt Winn’s has made a major commitment to using regional ingredients on its opening menu seems like a watershed moment. And in a phone interview, Chef Dailey suggested that once all the opening wrinkles have smoothed out he expects to start rotating in special seasonal offerings from local crops as opportunities arise.
The opening menu, though, already highlights some regional classics.
Highlights of the starting menu include meatballs made from Wagyu beef raised at Princeton, Kentucky’s Black Hawk Farm and served with ham bone tomato gravy, crispy shallots and mozzarella. And there is a wonderful Kung Pao-style calamari starter with peanut, celery, lime and, in an unusual Kentucky touch, sorghum-chili sauce. A baby beet salad uses Capriole Farm’s Old Kentucky Tomme. French onion soup is amped up with Copper & Kings Brandy. Even the wedge salad goes regional, with candied Broadbent bacon.
Shelby County’s Freedom Run Farm supplies heritage Katahdin lamb for Chef Dailey’s dramatically perched Lamb Rack en Persillade, served with a crushed pea salad. A potato gratin is enriched with bacon from Broadbent Farm and Kenny’s Reserve White Cheddar. And a Bourbon-smoked, dry-aged pork chop is served with Weisenberger grits and country ham au jus.
The coffee, after-dinner drinks, dessert wines, and dessert offerings are about as indulgent as you can imagine, and maybe beyond — unless you’ve already imagined Red Eye S’more crafted from an espresso marshmallow, Rye whiskey chocolate cremeux, a country ham crumble, and, of course, a Graham cracker. Baked Kentucky promises to be a favorite — sweet corn sponge cake, peach ice cream, Copper & Kings Brandy, and blackberry.
But perhaps the best closing feature during an evening visit is to take advantage of the location. Matt Winn’s sits high, overlooking the Clubhouse Turn. On our visit, we stood on the balcony at dusk, watching as shadows fell over the legendary track and the quiet barns. If you were entertaining visitors from out of town who wanted to experience the track, that might be the scene you’d want to share. I can imagine it on a moonlit winter night when snow is falling on the ground, or on a crisp fall or spring evening. Or really, pretty much any time.
If you are apprehensive about finding your way or giving others directions, take comfort in knowing the folks at Matt Winn’s have thought of everything, and are way ahead of you on that problem. They’ve even given the restaurant parking lot its own distinct street address — 750 Central Avenue. Put that into your GPS and you are good to go. F&D