Rest in Peace
Local diners mourn recent losses
‘Conscientious consumers’ will buy unpretentious items associated with the proletariat-except that they’ll buy pretentious versions of these items, which actual members of the proletariat would find preposterous. For example, they’ll go shopping for a basic food like potatoes, but they won’t buy an Idaho spud. They’ll select one of those miniature potatoes of distinction that grow only in certain soils of northern France. They will buy these items in boutique grocery stores whose inventory says ‘a Year in Provence,’ even as their prices say ‘Ten Years out of medical school.’
-David Brooks, in The New Yorker
This year’s holiday season was tinged with sadness for many food proprietors and consumers in Lexington. (Notwithstanding the usual crew of local vultures who – of course-cheerily feast on the misfortune of others, every chance they get. Mercifully, they seem to be in the minority.)
Roy’s East High Diner opened to much fanfare, and recently closed with barely a whimper.
The former Cosmo’s is now one more tentacle in the Starbucks empire.
Reviewing history, the late Bistro (around the corner) is long gone. The old neighborhood haunt at High and South Ashland, the Cape Codder, is now an investment firm. The Saratoga reigned for many, many years, before its era passed (or maybe its market was just supplanted by the ubiquitous meat-and-three empire, Ramsey’s).
Still, Charlie Brown’s has managed to see several generations of college kids through burgers and beers. Rincon is usually well-populated, as are the neighborhood’s small, but diverse, ethnic groceries.
Perino’s and Cosmo’s-though always packed-never truly found the right market or business model for high-end carryout. It’s not that there isn’t a customer base in Lexington who can afford to pay $783.00 for a pint of mashed potatoes or 14 sprigs of asparagus-it’s more that nobody wants to be a sucker for long. There’s the brink of foolishness, and then there is the abyss.
In larger southern cities, like Nashville, Atlanta, or the triangle of Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, popular boutique groceries and gourmet carry-away establishments still thrive. There’s practically one on every corner. Despite the “downturn.” (Southern Seasons is a good example of an emporium that took the Dean and DeLuca concept and successfully adapted it in the heart of Dixie.)
There’s no real reason similar establishments can’t succeed in Lexington, a mid-sized, largely white-collar college town.
Still, both locations of Phil’s Cookshop (on Romany and Todds Road) closed in December, to great lamentation among many.
The recent front page Herald-Leader account of the demise cited many reasons, predominantly economic-also noting that the fate of 431 (on Old Vine) may be called into question, as it served as collateral for the Cookshop on Romany property.
Will this be the end of gourmet-to-go in Lexington, as some predict?
The Mouse Trap still does a booming trade in Lansdowne.
Scarborough Fare (across the street from the former Phil’s Cookshop) continues to thrive-as home to Bleu Ribbon Catering; a Café (which will begin hosting jazz nights later this month); a busy lunch trade; and a deli case with upscale gourmet-to-go. A smoothie bar is also under construction (where you’ll be able to get the exact Purple Hank that you used to live on at Everybody’s). After a busy holiday season, proprietor Kate Savage did close her establishment on the Cookshop’s last day, as a gesture of deference and good taste within the neighborhood.
Meanwhile, on the southwest side of town, Annette’s Catering also offers deli fare in addition to catering services.
The market hasn’t gone anywhere. If anything, it’s expanding. It’s just harder to get at-consumers are elusive and exclusive in a downturn.
In the 80s and 90s, everybody thrived. And that was mostly the rooster taking credit for the sun coming up. Success makes everybody seem like a genius in a boom market.
But veteran diners know that Lexington’s culinary scene has always been one of regular flux. The only constant has always been change. The goal among many seems to be, “don’t get too attached.”
How many current residents remember Amato’s when it was a cozy anchor on the first floor of the Jefferson Center? Then it relocated to the trendier corner of High and Euclid (more or less in the area now occupied by WDKY).
And the string of culinary casualties that came and went so quickly in that locale can barely be remembered, let alone counted.
Although it may seem like there’s an Applebee’s on every corner (actually, there might be), Lexington’s dining scene-while as viciously competitive as it has always been-shows admirable signs of life.
Lucie Slone’s empire continues to expand with the opening of Phoenix in Victorian Square. Emmett’s is about to stretch its suburban magic and fine cuisine into new, uncharted waters.
Limestone hasn’t quite turned into Louisville’s Bardstown Road but we are developing corridors for cuisine. Slowly.
The culinary world is just as dog-eat-dog as the rest of the economy is (one hopes not literally)-but then, it always has been-always suffering the highest failure rate of nearly any business sector.
But our appetites for incredible food and doting service are here to stay. If you build it, we’ll come.