Reprinted from Ace, June 2010
Columbia’s was voted Best Veteran Restaurant in the 2010 Ace Best of Lexington Readers’ Poll.
Profile, BY TOM YATES
Dancin’ at church, Long Island jazzie parties
Waiter, bring us some more Bacardi
We’ll order now what they ordered then
‘Cause everything old is new again.
Columbia Steakhouse has been in operation at its downtown historic location since 1948. Not a lot has changed over the years. Although the famed Nighthawk Special is always on the menu, a few times a year it is specially priced and heavily advertised. It is usually during those times that we venture down to savor it. Lately, we have been dining there more frequently. Columbia’s is always good, the staff is super friendly, and the atmosphere is so old school steakhouse.
When I first moved to Lexington from NYC in the mid-eighties, Columbia’s was where everyone went after Johnny Angel’s Disco Bar closed in preparation for the after hours scene. Either you went into the back parking lot to continue the party, or you went to Columbia Steakhouse for munchies and rejuvenation. The smoky restaurant would be filled with happily intoxicated dance revelers and tired drag queens eating Diego salads, fried banana peppers, and loaded baked potatoes. At the appropriate hour, everyone would stumble back to the bar for the after hours party. That was my introduction to Columbia Steakhouse.
We have been going back there ever since those halcyon disco days to drink great Old Fashioneds and enjoy the steaks, appetizers, salads, and other offerings.
They have added a few new items over years. Fresh grilled salmon is popular today, but I’m pretty sure it didn’t grace the steakhouse menu during the rowdy olden days. Steakhouses were steakhouses. Salmon would have been sacrilege. Today’s modern menu features a Grilled Salmon Entree Salad along with Grilled Salmon Fillet, either blackened, pan-seared, or broiled wth homemade dill sauce. They also offer Fried Walleye Pike, Fried or Broiled Tilapia, Chicken Monterey, and delicious Southern Fried Catfish Fillets.
It’s the stalwart standards that keep people coming back. Their Famous Signature Lamb Fries, breaded and fried, are a rarity in town. Talk about old school. Their Fried Banana Peppers are what banana peppers should be, crisp fried and hot with cocktail sauce as a dipper. Very simple and straightforward.
The Nighthawk Special is definitely the signature item at Columbia’s. Named for the famous deejay Tom Kindall, the king of midnight radio in the 1960s, the garlic butter-laden steak is a craving on a plate. I always get mine with grilled onions, Diego Salad, and a baked potato dripping with butter and sour cream. Occasionally, I’ll add on the fabulously fantastic corn pudding. The portions are huge and I usually lose the clean plate battle. I actually enjoy losing that battle because carryout boxes exist for a reason. Leftovers!
Last night, Flo, the 23 year veteran and long time General Manager, greeted us at the door with her usual big smile. I’ve known Flo for years and she always makes us feel at home in her second home. The restaurant is simple and dark with a lot of booths. Cozy.
We were tempted to start off with the lamb fries, but knew we would kick ourselves had we passed up the banana peppers, so we chowed on those until the Diego Salads arrived. I love that salad. Sliced lettuce tossed in their special seasoned vinaigrette with radishes and cucumbers. The dressing almost wilts the salad in a very pleasant southern way. With a side of our favorite blue cheese in town, it was wonderful. We toyed with ordering the Nighthawk, but after recently devouring it during one of the promotions, we went with prime rib and fried catfish.
The prime rib was cooked perfectly medium rare with a robust and deep au jus to the side. The catfish was sweet, crisp, and butter-soft. It was so good, I could not be bothered with using a fork. I ate it with my fingers, pulling it apart and dipping it into tart sweet tarter sauce. Uh huh. No apologies. We both had corn pudding and Flo’s Signature Sweet Potato Casserole. The casserole was outrageous with a brown sugar nut crust topping covering whipped sweet potatoes mixed with coconut and raisins. Crazy good.
What a great old school and well meaning steakhouse. No pretense. No glitz. Just good food with good people taking care of the customers. That’s why they’ve been around for 62 years.
On the way out, we passed a patio table of new generation Columbia Steakhouse patrons.
The beat goes on.
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