Louisvillians are as passionate about their neighborhood boundaries as they are about their high schools, basketball teams and weather reports. If you say NuLu but actually mean Phoenix Hill, you’ll hear about it. If you say the Germantown Lofts are “in Germantown,” prepare to hand over your firstborn. (They’re actually in Schnitzelburg.)
So when I decided my next neighborhood night out would involve the Upper Highlands, I had to look up what that meant. Turns out I actually went to a few ’hoods between four bars.
Depending on which hall monitor you consult, my crew and I blew through Belknap, Strathmoor Village and Kingsley — and just to be safe, I better mention Bowman and Gardiner Lane.
Have I forgotten anyone? I’m sure I’ll hear about it.
These four little taverns have been around decades, and while the night life landscape ebbs and flows with trendy new bars, these establishments have remained the same, offering cold drinks to thirsty patrons year after year, generation after generation.
We also encountered two uncanny coincidences at each of our four stops. The first involved hearing The Guess Who’s “No Sugar Tonight/New Mother Nature” at every place, and the second was meeting friendly regulars who filled us in on the history of the bar as well as the location.
This column is best read with the aforementioned song playing, so cue it up below and let’s go to …
Air Devil’s Inn — 2802 Taylorsville Road
Air Devil’s Inn, or ADI as the regulars say, has held court across from Bowman Field since 1933! The little dive bar is known for live music, friendly patrons and cheap, stiff drinks, and when the three of us ladies entered, we were quickly offered to share a high-top table by a nice regular who helped fill us in on the history of the place.
He also had a better seat to watch the basketball game, as it was the night before Easter and the men’s Final Four was being whittled down to two. There are many TVs scattered around ADI, but thankfully the sounds of classic rock still permeated the room instead of squeaky tennis shoes and shrieking Michigan fans.
Between the encyclopedic knowledge of our new friend and the info from our bartender, we found out ADI was first built in 1876 as a schoolhouse.
During Prohibition, it became a speakeasy for the sneaky Bowman Field pilots and Strathmoor Village neighbors. And finally, in 1933, it became Air Devil’s Inn as a nod to the then-thriving airplane activity at the airport across the street.
Airplanes are a theme at ADI, and you’ll find them hanging from the ceiling, painted on walls and documented throughout the bar in old photos. It’s also open 365 days a year from 10 a.m.-4 a.m. (1 p.m.-4 a.m. on Sundays), so there’s that.
Our beers were cold and cheap, the company was great and the women’s bathroom had recently been renovated, so it was hard to move on, but duty called, and our next stop was …
Bambi Bar — 2701 Bardstown Road
We headed back toward Bardstown Road to the beloved Bambi Bar, which has served up famous burgers and beers since 1963. The place was hoppin’ — a typical Saturday night, one regular told us — and for good reason. Although Bambi Bar is small, it is mighty — in friendliness, food, beer selection and a kick-ass jukebox.
My friend Erika had been talking all night about devouring a Bambi Burger, and she knew exactly how she wanted it — with grilled onions, tomatoes, lettuce and skinny fries. Elizabeth and I had already eaten, sadly, but that didn’t stop us from ordering mozzarella cheese sticks and vowing we (well, me — because she’s vegetarian) would return for the burger. (They also serve a veggie burger, FYI.)
A courteous bartender named Paul took our order and ran behind the bar to grab our drinks, and we soon found out he and his wife, Beth, are the owners. Paul filled us in that the bar’s longtime owner, Witt Wisman, died unexpectedly just a few weeks ago, and as co-owners, the couple has vowed to continue on Wisman’s traditions.
One of those traditions is the Bambi Walk, a Bardstown Road/Baxter Avenue pub crawl that either starts or ends (depending on who you ask) at the Bambi Bar. It has been a ritual for many Louisvillians since 1976.
The food quickly arrived, and Erika’s burger looked incredible — an edible piece of art. It’s the kind of old-school flavors and sizzling beef you don’t get through a drive-thru.
We cheered when a nice man played our requested song — go ahead and replay “No Sugar Tonight” — and then he offered to buy me a Vegas Bomb when I went to order a Jagerbomb (it had been a long day). Of course, I said yes — my momma raised me right, after all — and I returned to the table with the prized drink.
It was decent — made with Crown Royal, Peach Schnapps and Red Bull — but I kinda missed my familiar Jager. Alas, there would be time for that later, as we were soon off to …
Kern’s Korner — 2600 Bardstown Road
We absolutely loved this little neighborhood nugget, and although there weren’t too many people perched at the bar or hovered around tables, bartender Grant told us it is very rare and explained that most of the regulars were probably on spring break.
One regular who wasn’t out-of-town filled us in on the bar’s history. He explained it first opened in the Portland neighborhood and then moved to its current spot, which was occupied by a tavern called Godfrey’s, more than 40 years ago.
Also, just remember that Kern’s is CASH ONLY, but luckily there’s an ATM near the door. I also found some of the best prices on certain bourbons — prices so good, I’m not going to even put it in print because I don’t want it to be all gone next time I stop in.
As we were enjoying our beers and bourbon that shall remain nameless, a priest walked into the bar. We looked at each other in disbelief and waited for a punchline. He noticed everyone staring, threw his hands up and said, “This isn’t a joke!”
Since it was the eve of Easter, we decided it couldn’t hurt to buy him a drink — he was having a Yuengling in case you’re wondering — and maybe score some points with the man upstairs.
As Grant was loading up the music queue (and yes, we made our request), he mentioned that Kern’s serves a full menu — cheeseburgers, chili, sandwiches, etc. — and almost always has a horserace on one of the many TVs. Also, the bar honors local football star Paul Hornung, who comes in from time to time, with many photos and a jersey.
I wanted to stay for more wonderfully priced bourbon, but we had one more stop, and that took us to …
Left Field Lounge — 2282 Bardstown Road
Just a few blocks up Bardstown Road, in the Belknap neighborhood, is this quaint dive bar that, from asking around town, has probably been around since at least the late ’60s. Like the other three establishments, Left Field offers pool, great prices and a welcoming atmosphere.
It’s also home of The Devil Shot, which is nothing to blink an eye at. In fact, if you blink too long, you may catch yourself on fire, because before you take it, it is lit on fire. You actually have to suck it down with a straw. I’d recommend it once.
Call it an occupational hazard, but typically on these neighborhood roundups, the last bar we visit has the least notes. Such is the case for Left Field, but I do recall tequila being involved, and Elizabeth missing her predetermined bedtime.
I also hogged the jukebox and fed it with all the $1 bills I had in my pocket. Of course, I played our song, and then brought things into the ’80s with a little hair metal by Poison and Def Leppard.
I’ve been to Left Field many times throughout the years, and it’s always a great spot to relax and let go of judgment. It doesn’t matter what kind of shoes you wear here, as long as you’re wearing them.
That was kind of the motto at all four places — unwind, be yourself, enjoy a cheap, cold beverage and chill.
In other words: Lonely feelin’ deep inside, find a corner where I can hide, silent footsteps crowdin’ me, sudden darkness but I can see / No sugar tonight in my coffee, no sugar tonight in my tea, no sugar to stand beside me, no sugar to run with me …
Here are some more photos from our night on the edge of the Highlands: