Why you should care
Because here and there, yesteryear is now.
On the first Saturday in May, before they file into Churchill Downs for the most important horse race of the year, men in seersucker and women with modern art perched on their heads settle in at Wagner’s. Directly across the street from the racetrack, the 94-year-old greasy spoon has become a mainstay of Kentucky Derby to-do lists. Part of that is the location. The breakfast servings, enough for a Thoroughbred, deserve credit too. But most of the draw is the authenticity of the place.
It’s a quality best observed not on Derby Day, but rather on a slow morning when a steady stream of locals trickles into the shotgun-style building. That’s when you see horsemen sharing coffee, and compulsive gamblers loading up on biscuits before the betting begins across the street. When the photos of Derby winners past — all 142 of them — are actually visible. And when the food comes out fast and hot. ”People typically only see the glamorous side of horse racing, but there are a lot of really good people over there who aren’t owners or trainers,” says Lee Wagner, owner of Wagner’s. ”Without those people, you wouldn’t have all the pageantry of what you see on Saturdays. We owners are here eating next to the groom from another barn, having a great conversation.” During the off-season, Wagner says clientele consists of about 70 percent regulars, with the rest being out-of-towners or curious locals. The vast majority of the regulars, he says, take their week off from coming to Wagner’s during Derby week. The one thing everyone has in common? ”They’re good people wanting to get a good meal,” says Wagner.
My last visit to Wagner’s was on a quiet Thursday in August. There were no races at Churchill Downs, but $3 would get anyone jonesing for some action inside the track to watch horses on little TVs. My two kids and I sat down a few feet from a group of retirees. They had arranged three tables into a U so they could share their meal, and their thoughts on Olympic volleyball attire, more easily.
“Now, that’s one sport I could watch all day,” one of the old guys says to the other old guys.
Our waitress arrived with enough plastic containers of Country Crock and Smucker’s that, for the first time in my life, I regretted not carrying a purse.
Behind us, a group of baseball players from the nearby University of Louisville gathered for breakfast. A middle-aged man was holding court at their table, peppering his language with the kind of profanities that endear you to 19-year-olds. As my two kids sated their hunger with the free Saltines on the table, men and women who looked similar to their grandparents walked by and waved.
“How old?” one asked. “A year,” I said.
“Is he walking yet?”
“He’s about as close to walking as you can be without taking a step.”
“Ohhh, boy. Here comes trouble.”
Our waitress, another grandmotherly type, soon arrived with our breakfast — two biscuits, a pancake, two sausage patties, a blob of scrambled eggs, a pile of fried potatoes and enough plastic containers of Country Crock and Smucker’s that, for the first time in my life, I regretted not carrying a purse. If serving mass-produced condiments alongside a homemade breakfast sounds chintzy, that’s because it is. But one does not go to Wagner’s for the yuppie brunch experience. There is no hollandaise on this menu. This is greasy food with no edge. It’s cheap and filling and quick — everything you need before going to work with the most powerful athletes in the world, or taking care of two toddlers.
As I paid for my breakfast on the way out, the cashier asked how the kids liked their meals.
“They loved it. It was their first time,” I said.
“Well, I hope ya’ll come back,” she answered.