Shirley Mae's Café & Bar: The Gem of Smoketown & A Local Louisville Legend
Updated: Feb 17, 2021
Shirley Mae's Café & Bar is a loved and treasured establishment in the heart of Smoketown in Louisville, Kentucky. It's located in a 3-story clay-brick building on the corner of Clay and Lampton Street; you can't miss the nostalgic old-school signs out front. Not only does it offer cheap and authentic Soul food, there is important history behind the story of this place that influenced the culture of the neighborhood and the city of Louisville.
The historic neighborhood of Smoketown has long been one of Louisville's most culturally rich neighborhoods. It was one of the first African-American communities to emerge following the Civil War in 1865 (155 years ago!), growing to be a thriving hub for Black Business built on the backs of generations of working families.
In the heart of Smoketown there is a 3-story clay-brick building dating all the way back to the 1800s. Over the years, this building has played a monumental role by serving the community food, drink, groceries, and dry goods.
The J & H Food Bar became one of the premier bars for minorities in Louisville… attracting celebrities and sports figures like Redd Foxx, Della Reese, Quincy Jones, Cassius Clay and Joe Louis.
In 1988, a woman by the name of Shirley Beard purchased the building, becoming the first black owner and changing the name to the famous "Shirley Mae's Café". The restaurant opened its doors to the public on New Year's Eve, 1988. 32 years later, the restaurant is a jewel highly treasured by the community. It's safe to say that if you don't know Shirley Mae's, you don't know Smoketown.
The very next year of 1989, Shirley founded the "Salute to the Black Jockeys Who Pioneered the Kentucky Derby" annual event, which aimed to educate the Black community about their rich roots in the Kentucky Derby, as well has have an event to celebrate those roots.
Shirley Mae sought to cut through the apathy that lassoed the community and inspire the youth in the nearby housing projects to aspire to finish their education and to avoid early teenage pregnancy/parenthood and criminal pursuits.
Shirley's oldest daughter, Chef Theresa, went on to become the coordinator of the week-long carnival-like event. An affair such as this was unprecedented at the time - Ferris Wheels, Tilt-A-Whirls, petting zoos, pony rides, music, fun, and games could all be found nestled in an inner-city housing project. To keep the event accessible to the community, the budget was funded by Shirley Mae and family members, as well as sponsorships from celebrities and businesses to cover costs and pay for tickets which were handed out the residents. All the logistics and accommodations were also handled in-house by family members.
The first of many celebrities to attend this event over the years was Whoopie Goldberg, who came to the inaugural event in 1989, with other big names such as B.B. King, Morgan Freeman, Tramaine Hawkins, and many more coming out in the following years. The event has been also supported by other stars such as Oprah Winfrey and Al Green who weren't able to attend in person,.
Unlike the celebrities who attended the Kentucky Derby Festival gala-like events, the celebrities who attended the Salute to Black Jockeys event came to reach and encourage the young people and other residents of the inner city housing projects… to inspire them to rise above their circumstances and succeed. And while many attempts were made by the Kentucky Derby Festival and representatives of the local government to move the Salute to Black Jockeys event to a more mainstream location, Shirley Mae resisted those attempts and stayed true to the children of the inner city.
Essentially, without Shirley Beard and her family, the community would have no connection or even knowledge of their roots and the history of who really got the Kentucky Derby started. This is why Shirley Mae's should be a household name throughout the state Kentucky.
Shirley Mae's is a safe haven for southern soul food; you can't get more authentic than this. Each meal is made fresh to order, so you can enjoy the savory aroma of your food wafting in from the cozy open kitchen while you wait. No matter what's cooking, from Fried Fish and Chicken Wings to sautéed BBQ Ribs, you can count on enjoying a delicious and piping hot meal to warm your soul.
Looking over the menu, I immediately see some classic southern dinners: Fried Fish, Chicken Wings, BBQ Ribs, Chitterlings, Ham Hock, Meatloaf, Pork Chop, and even Pig Foot, aka "Trotters"! Each meal is made-to-order and comes with two freshly-prepared sides along with an order of Shirley Mae's Famous Hot Water Cornbread.
As far as sides, we have a solid selection including Turnip Greens, Green Beans, Fried Corn-Off-The-Cob, Potato Salad, Mac-n-Cheese, Mashed Potatoes, and Coleslaw. All of these foods are listed as either "fresh" or "real". The menu clearly states that no frozen or canned food is served here.
All of Shirley Mae’s orders are FRESH! In fact, if it’s not picked, peeled, snapped, shucked, mashed, grated, soaked or cut… you simply didn’t get it at Shirley Mae’s Café.
-from the menu
Last, but certainly not least, we have come to my favorite part of any menu: the desserts. All the desserts at Shirley Mae's are made in-house by her daughter, Chef Theresa, and are served in large two-person portions. You can choose from the likes of Banana Pudding, Peach or Blackberry Cobbler, Chess Pie, Lemon Meringue Pie, Sweet Potato Pie, Pecan Pie, Derby Pie, Apple Pie, and Jam Cake.
For those like me who are balling on a budget: worry not! You won't find more authentic soul food for cheaper anywhere else in Louisville. We're talking $5 or $6 entrees, $3 sides, and $10 for full-course meals! The most expensive item I could find was the Chitterlings dinner for $15, but it comes with two sides AND cornbread. With unbeatable prices like these, you best be tipping GOOD.
Walking into Shirley Mae's truly feels like walking into a friendly Thanksgiving feast. From the mouth-watering aroma to the homely and welcoming atmosphere, you'll quickly feel right at home. However, while the food might be the obvious appeal, delicious meals aren't the only thing that makes Shirley Mae's Café a unique and valuable asset to our community.
Please support Shirley Mae's Cafe & Bar during these tough times. Their address is listed as 802 South Clay Street Louisville KY 40203. Remember that they are CASH ONLY, so you better hit the ATM on the way. If you have any questions or want to place a take-out order, you can call them during their business hours on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, or Sunday at (502) 589-5295.
Check out my food review of Shirley Mae's Cafe! Spoiler alert: It was the best meal I've had all year hands down, no exaggeration!
Shirley Mae's Cafe: Beargrass Thunder Food Review (Smoketown - Louisville, KY)
Stay tuned on Beargrass Thunder for more articles and videos on Shirley Mae's Café, the history of Smoketown, and other Black-owned business and restaurants in the area. Don't forget to subscribe to our website be entering your email at the bottom of the page.