BY ATANAS GOLEV
Hope you’re hungry.
Lexington Restaurant Week᷾™ is set for July 21 – July 30. During the ten days, 40+ Lexington restaurants will be offering prix fixe menus for $26, a fraction of the typical tab. Some establishments are even offering two dine for $26 options.
Why the odd price? One dollar of every ticket goes to LexArts this year.
“We think it’s a great match as culinary art, performance art and works of art all enhance our lives and serve to create a stronger ‘sense of place’ for us here in the Bluegrass,” says organizer Connie Jo Miller. She is the one who brought Restaurant Week to Lexington in 2013, modeling it after similar events in other cities.
And four years is a long time for a city whose culinary landscape is constantly changing and evolving.
“I’d love to do an online trivia contest,” says Miller, “just think about in Chevy Chase alone how many restaurants you could name… remember The Cape Codder, Chevy’s and Bugatti’s… The Little Inn, Levas’, Oriental Inn, Nellie’s… Cole’s location brings to mind The Stirrup Cup, Acajou, Furlongs.”
The only constant in Lexington’s restaurant scene is change. Miller says that her very first favorite restaurant meal in Lexington was the Bing Cherry Chicken at the Coach House. You might not be familiar with Stanley Demos’s fine dining legend if you’re new to the area: it closed in 2001 (after more than three decades in business). But Lexington natives still mourned when the building at 855 South Broadway was torn down in 2013.
And the pace of the change is accelerating.
Just last year saw the closings of longterm restaurant vets like Bellini’s, Billy’s BBQ, Natasha’s, Atomic Cafe, and a la lucie. But Lucie is moving on to her next venture, Lucie’s Red Light, which will extend the burgeoning north Limestone culinary corridor. The Dish closed in Chevy Chase (replaced by culinary vet John Foster’s Sage Rabbit), but Trish will be opening Minglewood in the former a la lucie’s location. Coba Cocina recently closed its doors, but Greer Co. has partnered on the new Willie’s on Southland Drive.
And there’s no shortage of new and successful ventures in town, including food trucks that have added successful brick and mortars — like Athenian (with two locations, and a third planned at the Summit), Middle Fork, Crank & Boom, Han Cook In.. Lockbox at 21c has added an anchor at Upper and Main (with Lexington Diner thriving at Upper and Short, just one corner to the north). Gastro Gnomes and Paris’s Rooster Brew are teaming up for a new brick-and-mortar venture in the Distillery District.
“When I started my agency in 1987 I gravitated towards restaurants they were my friends and clients…..and it was the 80s (one big party),” says Miller. “I worked with Robin and Keith at Cheapside, Debbie at Dudley’s on Mill, Logan’s Roadhouse, Sandy at The Bistro and other blasts from the past….Coach House, Levas’, Café Max, Scores, Mesa Bar and Grill. I know the restaurant business and it is no easy venture. I admire those hardworking folks. Plus, I’m good at joining media and local businesses in united marketing efforts – I did ‘dining downtown’ before the Downtown Lexington Corp was even formed. Creating synergy and unions is powerful. Together we can do so much more.”
This synergy is the driving force behind Restaurant Week.
Keith Clark (who started Cheapside, and later created the Grey Goose), says, “After 30 years in the restaurant business, this promotion had by far the biggest impact of anything we’ve ever seen.”
“We do this to increase awareness of all our great local restaurants,” says Miller. “Boosting their business, adding new patrons for the long run and keeping locally-owned restaurants thriving is what this event is all about. Locally-owned restaurants are a key ingredient in Lexington’s brand. These innovative entrepreneurs help define us here in the Bluegrass. A lively restaurant scene attracts new businesses and visitors to our area. They enhance our economy and the quality of our lives. Every dollar we spend at an independent restaurant returns three times as much to our local economy as one spent at a chain. Statistically we have more than our share of independent restaurants. They need our support.”
Local restaurants have supported each other as well. There has been an especially symbiotic relationship between craft breweries and food trucks. And many of those food trucks, including Bradford BBQ, Han Cook In, J. Render’s, Rolling Oven, and Athenian Grill have added brick-and-mortar restaurants, as will the Gastro Gnomes soon — in partnership with Rooster Brew’s Ralph Quillin.
“The days in our pop-up set up outside West Sixth Brewing, Country Boy Brewing and Beerworks have by far been my favorite moments with Athenian Grill,” said owner Ilias Pappas, whose Athenian Grill will be participating in Lexington Restaurant Week this year. He’s encountered support at every turn. “While our Chevy Chase location was under construction, customers and neighbors were stopping by daily bringing us water or coffee, checking in to see the progress, and excited about us opening, talking about menu recipes, etc. ”
And what does Pappas think that the Lexington food scene has to look forward to? Perhaps, he speculates, paradoxically, we may be going back to the past..
“The last few years, restaurateurs drive the trends forward with innovative concepts, but my opinion as I listen and serve hundreds of customers daily is that the consumers want us to go backwards. What I mean with that is that the customers want freshly cooked, simple home style recipes on a budget and fast. What they used to have on their grandmothers’ table many years ago cooked with the same passion but a lot more often than every couple of months. That, I believe, would be the next trend and will be here to stay.”
The inspiration behind Athenian was to bring authentic Greek cuisine to Lexington, and “having my friends and customers try the dishes I had growing up in Greece,” says Pappas.
Expectations are being met.
“Best thing I’ve eaten elsewhere in Lexington: moussaka and salad combo at Athenian Grill. Love that stuff,” says Drew Carpenter, one of Magee’s Bakery’s senior bakers. Also sous chef. Also front end assistant manager. The hats and titles change daily, he says.
Magee’s is another one of the local businesses participating in Restaurant Week.
“We’ve taken a bakery a step farther,” Carpenter says. “All of our sandwiches come on pastries made in-house. We don’t buy roast meats for our line. We roast them. We don’t buy gravy mix, chicken salad, or cheat on our products. At Magee’s we don’t go to all the effort to create a beautifully layered croissant, and then put an unworthy ingredient on top of it. We love this too much.”
Elevator pitches from other restaurants who want you to visit during Restaurant Week?
Distilled at Gratz Park Inn’s Mark Wombles says, “Casual elegance with a menu that speaks to you in aesthetics and in taste.”
“We want people to get an idea of what our food is like at Holly Hill inn,” says Ouita Michel, the chefpreneur behind Holly Hill Inn, Windy Corner, Smithtown Seafood, Wallace Station, Midway Bakery, an upcoming venture planned at the Summit, and another in the old Courthouse on Cheapside Square. “We want them to see what our brand of hospitality is really like. We’re a small place and it’s a beautiful time of year to come and see all the gardens out in the countryside. We try to make the best, most beautiful food we can.”
The Holly Hill Inn menu during Restaurant Week will feature all Kentucky Proud ingredients, including pork chops from Stone Cross Farm and rotating local vegetables.
Dave Fuller, owner of Charlie Brown’s at Chevy Chase, has another strategy to lure diners: “Get more bang for your dollar.”
He says that besides the nice portions, everything being made from scratch, and the unique ambience, the in-restaurant library is also a treasure trove: a patron once found a $100 in one of the books he was perusing during his meal.
“With so many options, This is your chance to venture out try new restaurants or reacquaint yourself with an old favorite while they are all ‘strutting their stuff,’ “ says Miller. “Today, the Lexington Restaurant Scene is progressive and sophisticated – second to none. We have some extremely talented chefs in our midst.”
Wombles, who’s behind Midway’s Heirloom and Mezzo, along with Distilled at Gratz Park, agrees, “I think we have made improvements in Lexington’s dining scene just from the variety of locally-owned restaurants that have opened recently.”
Michel is also optimistic about recent developments in the Lexington culinary scene, especially how many young people are going into the business.
“I feel like there’s a lot of opportunity for young cooks and a lot of personal expression, and I think that there are people that are putting their personalities into their businesses.”
She mentions Middle Fork, County Club, Blue Door, National Provisions, Crank & Boom, Sorella Gelateria, and Athenian Grill.
Connie Miller adds, “Lexingtonians are known to be educated and creative, innovative and spirited. Perhaps that’s why we are home to more than our share of really great creative restaurants. We go out — we party —we like our Maker’s Mark. We embrace and support a vibrant restaurant community.”
And what does the future have in store?
“Ask Ouita,” quips Miller.
Looking into Michel’s crystal ball, we might be seeing some great news for local food, including more artisanal food and vegan options.
“I actually think that we’re going to see less growth in the fast food section… more and more independent and small chains are gonna take more and more of the market share, so there won’t be an expansion of those chains. That’s happening now and it might accelerate, because on a national scale that’s happening. They want local food and local businesses.”
Cheers to that.
This article also appears on page 6-7 of the July 2016 printed issue of Ace.
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