In 1922 Leo Wagner bought Hagen’s Pharmacy on the corner of 4th St. and Central Ave. He had worked there since age 14 and wanted to continue the legacy to the community. When another pharmacy opened a little too close by for comfort, Leo had an idea to turn Wagner’s Pharmacy into something more…a go to spot for the workers of neighboring Churchill Downs to grab a cup of coffee, cigarettes and all their other essential quick stop goods. The reality exceeded his vision in his namesake restaurant and today it is a community treasure.
Wagner’s has endured a move across the street, a shift to full food service plus souvenir shop, and nearly 100 years in business. It is now THE go-to place for lunch for most track employees, regular attendees, and anyone else who’s ever stopped in to give it a try.
I stumbled into Wagner’s just after an interview at Churchill Down’s Backside Learning Center. At least five people this week had told me that when I was over that direction I needed to stop there for lunch. More than one recommended the fried bologna sandwich, and I’m pretty sure at least one of them was actively drooling at the time.
From the moment I walked in the door I knew this was the kind of place that held great stories, even better friendships, and that southern comfort quality that made people feel at home. Most of the customers were on a first name basis with each other and the restaurant manager, Mrs. Pam. I never got her last name, but I don’t think she needs one with the way she commands the room.
I sat down next to a man named Charles who could sense I was new and quickly stepped in to tell me the history of the place, that I was there for the best daily special of the week (roast beef with REAL mashed potatoes and peas), and that he’d been coming for over 30 years, since it was across the street at its original location. He went on to say that he now lives out in the South End, but he drives to Wagner’s at least once a week for a meal by himself at his favorite counter, and he always brings the wife something to go.
On the other side of me sat Rick who applauded my order and told me, “Rumor has it, Wagner’s invented the fried bologna sandwich.” While I can imagine there are some Southern grandmothers who would disagree, I do think they perfected it in Louisville. Mine had pepper jack cheese oozing from between two layers of the thickest bologna I’d ever seen, all hugged by two slices of lightly buttered toast. It was simple & heavenly.
The spirit of horse racing pulses through the place, and the walls are lined with photos of Winner’s Circle moments featuring many men and women who warmed a seat at Wagner’s while their horses were in the backside stables at the Downs. The former pharmacy space, closed when Mr. Wagner passed away, is now a precious souvenir spot filled with all kinds of Kentucky goodness. They also sell racehorse liniment, turf goods, & custom jockey silks. A keychain caught my eye and at their very reasonable prices I had to bring it home.
You never know who you will see in Wagner’s. From NBC Sports News teams to local celebrities, they are on high on everyone’s lunch destination list. While paying for my meal, I turned around and saw none other than legendary basketball coach Denny Crum! Obviously, I had to snag a selfie.
The diner has even been a film set for major motion pictures including Elizabethtown (2005) and one of my personal favorites, Secretariat (2010), as well as many television features including the Los Angeles Times and Southern Living. Needless to say, everyone who experiences Wagner’s wants to tell someone else to go have a taste.
Wagner’s is open Monday – Thursday from 7AM-3PM, Friday from 6AM-3PM, & Saturday from 6AM-3PM. I highly recommend you grab a friend (or so solo and make one) and enjoy the diner of champions, quintessential Kentucky horse racing history stop, Wagner’s Pharmacy. Say hello to Pam and tip well, they’re good people who deserve a little extra love for keeping Louisville so well-fed and smiling for 97 years.