In the early 20th century, the South Fourth Street corridor, also known as SoFo, was home of the central shopping district for the city of Louisville. If you wanted a new frock, to see a movie or nosh on a burger, you came down to Fourth Street, likely by cable car. Department stores abounded up and down the lively street.
Starting in 1973, the area became a pedestrian-only zone for shopping in an attempt to revitalize the neglected area. In the 1980s, the Louisville Galleria was built, an unsuccessful shopping mall where Fourth Street Live now sits. Over the years, vehicle traffic was slowly introduced to the pedestrian zone, and now Fourth Street is open to traffic everywhere except Fourth Street Live.
The SoFo neighborhood includes Fourth Street from the Seelbach Hilton, at Fourth and Muhammad Ali Boulevard, to the Brown Hotel, at Fourth and Broadway. The area is rich in theaters, shops and restaurants, and it is currently bustling with the construction of Edge on 4, a luxury apartment building that’s expected to open around Thanksgiving. The mixed use development will also house retail space, so there are more vibrant establishments joining this emerging district.
“There has been constant construction, but there wouldn’t be progress without construction,” said Mary Levinsky, owner of Block Party Handmade Boutique, a collaborative boutique that features handmade works from local and regional artists. Block Party has been on Fourth Street for five and a half years, and Mary loves the foot traffic that the local hotels and offices bring to her store.
Louisville’s SoFo neighborhood, like most of Louisville, is undergoing a renaissance. Boutiques, music venues, restaurants, apartments, hotels and more are moving in, making this one of Louisville’s most unique and vibrant areas.
For a uniquely Louisville experience, you can’t beat the Hot Brown in its natural habitat — The Brown Hotel. The Hot Brown is a delicious open-faced sandwich made of roasted turkey breast on toast points, mornay sauce, Pecorino Romano cheese, tomatoes and bacon. Yes, it’s as delicious as it sounds, and it was invented by Fred K. Schmidt in 1926 at the Brown Hotel, which has two restaurants: the more formal English Grill and the more casual J. Graham’s Cafe, which is open for breakfast and lunch.
Right across the street, you can find the new Bluegrass Brewing Company. If it seems familiar, it’s because the restaurant had been there years before but closed when Kindred Hospitals rebuilt the area, including tearing out the historic Theater Square. The popular lunch spot is now back where it belongs. You can come in for typical American fare with a local craft beer.
Another lunch hot spot is Safier Mediterranean Deli, which just underwent its own remodel. The restaurant is so popular that it often has a line out the door during lunch. It serves typical Mediterranean food, with some Indian treats thrown in. The Athenian Broiled Chicken will turn any garlic lover into a drooling mess, and the hummus is terrific.
Sicilian Pizza & Pasta offers delicious, hand-tossed pies. You can scoot down to Mi Cocina on 4th for authentic Mexican dishes, or for seafood lovers, there’s Brendan’s Catch 23 on the first floor of the Embassy Suites at the corner of Fourth and Muhammad Ali.
For a historic meal, check out Gatsby’s on Fourth at the Seelbach Hilton Hotel. The bar at the Seelbach is reported to have been a favorite of F. Scott Fitzgerald when he was stationed at Camp Zachary Taylor. If you don’t want a formal meal, try ordering a drink at the Old Seelbach Bar, an early 1900s-era bar that is featured along the renowned Urban Bourbon Trail.
If you’re craving chocolate, you have two excellent possibilities. Art Eatables offers chocolate with bourbon flavors and pairings. “It’s the world’s only bourbon-certified chocolatier,” says owner Kelly Ramsey. “That means we know a lot about bourbon, and chocolate is just the way we get it to people.”
The store is lined with beautiful antique bourbon bottles and gorgeous chocolates. The store doesn’t actually sell bourbon, but it displays the bottles for reference. The center of the store is a table she calls the “no-fun zone,” which is chocolate that either has no alcohol in it or the alcohol has been cooked out of it.
Kelly’s store has been in SoFo for about six years. “We get to meet some really interesting people,” she says. “People come in here for the bourbon, and obviously bourbon brings people together. So we have people that come in from all over the world to see us. I live in the East End; it’s much more interesting than the East End.”
Another delightful chocolatier is just a couple of doors down at Cellar Door Chocolates in the lobby of the Hilton Garden Inn at the corner of Fourth and Chestnut. Cellar Door is the brainchild of Erika Chavez-Graziano who creates beautiful chocolates, handmade bourbon balls and a plethora of truffles. Cellar Door Manager Maggie Delatorre likes that it’s such a historic area, adding, “This was such a vibrant area back in the day — it’s time to bring it back.”
The SoFo neighborhood is a destination for live music. The Mercury Ballroom is a newer venue that opened in 2014 and offers an open floor plan with a premier sound and light system for premium artists like Megan Trainor, as well as emerging artists, fun themed events and fundraisers.
A few doors down, the historic Louisville Palace has been wowing visitors for decades. The Palace is one of the most beautiful theaters you’ll ever see, with a Spanish Baroque motif with arcades, balconies, grottos and turrets. The historic theater attracts top-tier artists like Brian Wilson, Jim James and Lord Huron, among others; Broadway shows; comedians; fundraisers and more.
If you’re feeling clever, check out Locked In, a new escape game venue. Get locked in a museum, laboratory, classroom, warehouse or a battleship, and then it’s up to you to find your way out.
Shopping is one of the best ways to spend your time in SoFo. Wig shops have lined the Fourth Street corridor for decades, and they aren’t going anywhere any time soon. If you’re in the market for a wig, SoFo is definitely your go-to.
Craft(s) Gallery & Mercantile has the look of a historic English pub on the outside and a funky art-gallery-meets-boutique on the inside. The mercantile side of the store sells everything from local crafts to jewelry to soaps to trinkets. It’s a mixture of old and new. The gallery side has a rotating exhibit each month, with art for sale.
Owners Karen Welch and David McGuire had been friends for years, working at galleries and museums, doing a little bit of everything. They decided to start working for themselves and opened Craft(s). “Being situated between the Seelbach and the Brown, business has been very good,” says Karen.
Being near the Louisville Palace and the Mercury Ballroom has its perks, too. “We get a lot of rock stars,” she says. “The Cheap Trick bass player is a good customer. The lead singer for Def Leppard is a good client. The drummer for Stevie Nicks is a faithful customer. So we get a lot of neat things.”
One of the most unique stores in SoFo is The Mysterious Rack, a millinery-meets-vintage shop. Olivia Griffin chose to open her hattery in Louisville for one obvious reason — the Kentucky Derby. Griffin had been a hatter’s apprentice at a store called Paul’s Hats in San Francisco for many years, and when it closed, she was able to get her hands on some of their old-fashioned hatter’s tools.
“The store gets in basic hat forms that they then tailor to the customer’s needs,” says apprentice Adrienne Nixon. The handmade hats are shaped and trimmed by hand, making a one-of-a-kind topper in about two weeks. Don’t forget to look around for some fun vintage clothing while you’re there. Shop owner Olivia got her start selling vintage clothes out of her home in San Francisco, so she’s got the eye for great vintage duds.
And coming soon to the retail mix in SoFo is a fabulous boutique that takes shopping to the next level. In addition to offering an exciting blend of American made and international designers and contemporary women’s apparel, jewelry, footwear, accessories and home goods, Messie Shop will also offer curated events, featuring all sorts of exciting themes and guests. Follow them on Facebook to catch the announcement of their grand opening, slated for November 2018.
Now, head on over to fun and funky SoFo for a day of eating, drinking, playing and shopping!
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