Proof Positive

The Sherman Minton double-deck arch bridge spanning the Ohio River via Interstate 64 still is closed, making travel to Louisville a bit taxing during peak drive times. Arrange for some time off at the world-renowned 21c Museum Hotel, just 99 miles down the road from Evansville, and you’ll be rewarded for your patience.

Named by Condé Nast Traveler as a Top 10 Hotel in the World for three years running, the 90-room property houses a $10 million collection of paintings, sculptures, photos, and video installations by living artists (hence the hotel’s name, 21c). Most of the art comes from the personal collection of owner and philanthropist Steve Wilson and his wife, Laura Lee Brown.

“We are honored to earn this distinction three years running,” says Stephanie Greene, communications manager for 21c. “We’re thrilled that people continue to be as excited and invigorated by the 21c experience as we are. This year, we were one of only two U.S. hotels to earn this distinction, and 21c Museum Hotel was in the company of brands such as Ritz Carlton, Four Seasons, and Mandarin Oriental.”

I first wandered in 21c Museum Hotel, opened in 2006 and located on Main Street in a stretch Louisville now bills as Museum Row, while visiting the nearby Frazier History Museum. I’ve since been back numerous times, to browse the galleries, dine at the restaurant Proof on Main, and stay overnight.

Founder Wilson says, “My wife Laura Lee Brown and I had the desire to bring contemporary art to the mainstream of our community and to contribute to our mayor’s master plan to revitalize Louisville’s downtown, which at the time had a lot of empty buildings. We purchased five old bourbon and tobacco warehouses to create 21c Museum Hotel and Proof on Main. The buildings themselves are certainly reminiscent of Kentucky’s heritage.”

Designed by New York architect Deborah Berke & Partners, the 19th-century brick buildings comprising 21c showcase a spare yet polished style of exposed-brick walls and bead-board ceilings – a stunning stage for galleries. Berke’s firm also is designing 21c hotels opening in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Bentonville, Ark.

While Louisville offers a seemingly disproportionate number of great dining experiences for a city its size, you’ll want to experience Proof on Main. Nearly any day of the week it is the place to be seen. Still, in keeping with the owner’s tone of imparting accessible contemporary art, you’ll feel welcomed and comfortable. Nearly all the excellent wait staff is from the area, and they work in their own attire — free to express their personal style.

Proof has collected plenty of accolades of its own, beginning with its naming to prestigious Best New Restaurants list published annually by Esquire.

“The restaurant,” Wilson says, “features over 50 Kentucky bourbons, and our chef Michael Paley works with local and regional farmers and producers when creating his menus, including produce and bison from our own Woodland Farm located in Goshen, Ky.”

I dined at Proof for lunch during my stay and ordered the pan-roasted trout, which I knew from a prior visit to be irresistible. Later in the day, seated at the bar, I ventured into bourbon tasting with a $20 proof flight (quite a deal) of Pappy Van Winkle 15-year bourbon batches. The bartender was very helpful in explaining the nuances of Kentucky bourbon.

Michael Simon, executive vice president of Publishers Press, a printer for magazine publishers located just south of Louisville in Shepherdsville, Ky., frequently entertains clients at 21c and Proof.

“What Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson are able to provide the Louisville hotel and dining scene with Proof and 21c is irreplaceable,” Simon says. “We enjoy bringing clients to Proof not only for the fabulously prepared local fare, but it’s such an eclectic environment — a great blend of the historical aspects of our city and the possibilities of its arts and culture. The service and hospitality are also top rate. It’s a very distinct experience.”

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