Local Landmark Relocates
For some reason its a little unsettling, driving by the new downtown location of Alfalfa Restaurant. Even knowing that the food and people are the same, something seems odd about the whole move. Its probably due to that strange sentimentality people have about place. Alfalfa has been in the same little hole for over thirty years. Its grown into an unofficial home for hippies and suits alike. Birkenstocks and Blahniks, bohemians and bankers co-exist amicably among the patronageand theres something to be said for a restaurant that has built a sort of diverse enclave that transcends just about every existing boundary in Lexington (rich and poor; black and white; downtowners and suburbanites)a restaurant that has lasted 31 years in a town where most are lucky to survive one. Almost everybody in Lexington has an Alfalfa memory.
Opened in the 70s, when Moosewood (and its subsequent cookbooks) was becoming a phenomenon for diners looking for healthy, regional fare that was both seasonal and simple, Alfalfa has gone on to prevail and expand far beyond its granola and dirndl rootslong since outlasting trends and fads.
When you look at it from the outside, lets say, Sunday brunch, you wonder, Why the hell are people lining up outside that rugged little joint? The immediate assumption is that they probably have great food, which is true, but so do a lot of places.
There has to be something else that charms people into waiting in linerain or shine, fire or icefor pancakes. (The restaurant won the best pancake honors in Aces Best of Lex readers poll so often that the category has been retired.)
Cathy Martin, a longtime employee who, along with her husband, is considered the backbone of the restaurant is happy to have an opportunity to discuss the character of Alfalfa.
Although she seemed terribly busy with the move, she benevolently answered questions between phone calls.
Asked what attracts people to the restaurant, she answered, The bohemian decor, its comfortable and cozy, people just feel comfortable here. And its true.
Maybe its the mismatched art on the walls, (paintings next to photographs and childrens drawings), or maybe its the potted plants dangling from macramé, juxtaposed against the 60s era wood paneling, but theres no doubt the restaurant is saturated with the familiar.
Its more like visiting a relative than dining out.
Martin explains, Regular customers come to see each other, and theres a lot of visiting from table to table. Its not just a restaurant, its a social gathering place too, adding, Its like a family. [Its] a really fun place to work, and a wonderful group of customers.
Asked for a few names of longtime customers who might be willing to share a memory or two, this became patently obvious. Out came her daily planner stuffed with names and numbersculled to a list of at least twenty people that she felt really know the place. (It includes musicians who perform there; artists who exhibit there; authors whove read there; and many more.)
Even the dishwasher could be working on their dissertation. Thats like the glue here for us because we can bounce ideas off each other.
Of course youd expect that kind of environment with the restaurant being so close to the university. Either eating or working, students, grad-students, and professors all seem to have spent their fair share of lunches in Alfalfa.
This then begs the question if the environment will change along with the location. Asked about the move, Glasscock stated, Its difficult. You walk in and a flood of memories comes through. So many people come to see the place and the familiar. They want to buy the planks and stuff. He said, pointing to the wood lining the walls. Thats how ingrained we are in the peoples experience.
And the old Alfalfa is filled with experiences, from brushes with celebrity to infamous FBI investigations.
Glasscock began recalling stories with Martin laughing, knowing the endings before they were finished.
Tell her the one about the cat. Martin said. Glasscock grinned wide and laughed, The day the cat went through the ceiling during lunch? It shows people what weve been dealing with for years. Sometimes I would wonder if the ceiling was going to be there when I got there in the morning, he said, speaking of the structural problems of the restaurant and its leaky ceiling.
One day a cat was doing what cats do, and fell through. It didnt quite hit anyone, but landed about here. He said pointing to a place not too far from our table. (For those concerned about the cat, its believed to be in better health than the ceiling.)
Looking at the inside of the old Alfalfa, the walls are crooked and the ceiling curves and dips of its own accord. This produces a whimsical effect, as if the restaurant is defiantly standing up without any appearance of sound support. It seems the entire building is either tired or intoxicated. Although the informal structure parallels the informal dining of the restaurant, the problems have evolved from endearing characteristics to fullblown character flaws.
Really, who wants a cat in their salad niçoise?
When asked about giving up the old building, Glasscock is sanguine, What are our choices? I think it is going to be a good flip. I have a lot of customers that are excited about the new location because now they can walk there.
Nobody seems more excited about the move than kitchen manager Paul Nowacki. You cant blame him. Everyone who passes the rickety screen door to the kitchen on their way to the restaurant entry has to keep their eyes on the sidewalk to maintain their appetite. (Ace editor Rhonda Reeves proclaimed emphatically, To their credit, I have never gotten sick there. I just avert my eyes and fall back on my immune system.)
So its with caution that one approaches Nowackis lair. For such a crowded space, there were a lot of knives and things on fire. It was also melt-your-tennis-shoes hot.
The kitchen, in fact, was never intended to be a kitchen at all. Artie Howard, one of the original owners, explained that it used to be a barbershop, but they bought the space as the restaurant expanded. For an old barbershop, it has seen its fair share of cooking. When asked, Nowacki stated, Ill never miss the kitchen space. Its a third world kitchen.
His fellow cook Tom Owens chimed in, Its a coffin turned into a sauna with the flames of hell burned in.
For a third world kitchen, Alfalfa has come a long way with their food.
Howard says they opened with a limited (to say the least) menu. Originally their were two items on the menu, the special and the basic.
Howard explained that philosophy of the founding group was quality of food over anything else. This philosophy has turned into tradition.
When asked about the food Nowacki stated, We use whole foods. Locally grown as much as we can get it. Although they have kept some of the original recipes like the Hoppin John, the menu at Alfalfa has grown far beyond the special and the basic. Nowacki explains, Expansion into international foods keeps it exciting for the cooks and maintains your clientele. [It] keeps them interested, keeps them coming back. There seemed to be consensus among everyone at Alfalfa that the menu is what has changed the most over the past 30 years.
By keeping favorite recipes like the cabbage salad and the bread, the chefs are allowed to be creative about whatever else they cook. Well, as creative you can get in a kitchen where you cant turn on the griddle and the convection oven at the same time. Nowacki said, The food will improve dramatically with the space. Youll be amazed with what we can produce with both a stove and an oven.
By capturing both the familiar and exotic, the menu continues to draw regular customers with open minds. A group that grows larger every year as you can see in their annual reunion photographs.
Looking back, asked to speculate as to why Alfalfa has been so successful for so long, Howard simply said, Alfalfa is a restaurant for the people, thats what it has always been.
The overall beauty of Alfalfa is that it has developed a community that grows beyond the walls of the building on Limestone. It reaches both into the past and future at the same time, like any family.
Sometimes its sad when things change, but its time to move on. A building is just a buildingthe people are what really matters. So suck it up, and go down to the new spot. If you still feel like crying about it, go ahead, at least youll be with friends. n
By Kristen Hoffman
Alfalfa was started by a group of people who wanted to be involved in the community and who cared about good, fresh food. Vanessa Oliver, the general manager of Alfalfa, intends to use this guiding principle to lead Alfalfa into the future. Throughout the restaurants 31-year history, Alfalfa has carried out this vision with many community events such as musical performances, poetry readings and art openings. The restaurant also has an ongoing relationship with the Farmers Market to support the local fresh food economy. These events and partnerships will continue and strengthen with Alfalfas move to the Downtown Arts Center.
At first thought, it is a wonder why Alfalfa would move downtown since much of the restaurants appeal seems to rest in its atmosphere and its location across from UKs campus. But this move is really about sustainability of a restaurant Lexingtonians know and love. Alfalfa rented the location on Limestone and after fending off water leaks and other structural problems, moving became a necessity.
Vanessa Oliver says that Alfalfas loyal customers understand these issues and are primarily concerned with the restaurants prosperity in the future. In addition, Oliver cites that this is another opportunity for Alfalfa to exhibit its commitment to the Lexington community. Lately, attention has been focused on revitalizing Lexingtons downtown and Alfalfas move is one way to improve the Town-Gown relationship and continue connecting UKs campus with the downtown area.
While the downtown location is brand new, Alfalfa will still maintain much of its familiar charm.
The restaurant will bring over many elements of its Limestone location, including color schemes, plants and pictures. The local artwork on the walls, some painted by employees, will also make its way to the new location. Alfalfa will still carry the same menu items it always has, with a few additions. The restaurant will also be adding counter service during lunch and pre-wrapped to-go meals made fresh that day. These features are aimed to satisfy the new downtown corporate customers that will be heading their way. Also, Saturday and Sunday brunch will now be extended, beginning at 9am.
Alfalfas cannot transplant the memories that were made over the past 31 years to its new location. But what the restaurant can do is ensure that there will be more memories for generations to come.
Alfalfas new location will bring it closer to other cultural centers in Lexington, such as the Farmers Market and the Downtown Arts Center.
Alfalfa hopes to strengthen its relationship with the Farmers Market and is optimistic about collaborating with the Downtown Arts Center when appropriate. Vanessa Oliver is the first to say that Alfalfa will truly miss being located across the street from the University, but she quickly follows this by acknowledging that change is good.
No matter where Alfalfa moves, it will bring what is most central to its success: a unique vision and people who truly believe in it. n
The Alfalfa story is truly amazingI had lunch there the first week it opened (spring,73), when the only other places to eat were the Tolly-Ho and the god-awful student unionit was a huge relief to escape those mystery burgers at last, but I sure never dreamed the place would still be there 31 years later.