On North Limestone across from Lexington’s courthouse plaza, stands the brainchild of two food truck owners and a brewer.
Stenciled on the glass is “Oscar Diggs,” the new gastropub collaborative effort from Ralph Quillin’s Rooster Brewing and Gastro Gnomes food truckers Andrew Suthers and Kyle Klatka (who traded in their wheels for brick and mortar).
Oscar Diggs was the man behind the curtain pretending to be the great and powerful wizard and movie fans will note the subtle design hat tip of the emerald green backsplashes. “We went through a lot of incarnations of names and tried every attempt to combine a rooster and a gnome and none of them made sense,” Suthers said. After one late night talk, he says, “Ralph called me up about four in the morning and was like, ‘What do you think of Oscar Diggs?’ I loved it but was like, ‘Who the hell is Oscar Diggs?’ I personally loved it because my dad’s name is Oscar but he tells me it’s from the Wizard of Oz, and then it just made sense.”
Before finding his home as a gastro gnome, Suthers was an executive chef in Minneapolis and the original chef at The Village Idiot, which is what brought him to Lexington. He would later open Palmer’s, where he and Klatka met.
Suthers and Klatka, a Hurricane Sandy transplant, were discussing their next job prospects over a case of beer one night when Suthers asked, “What if we just do our own thing?” Suthers was 30 and Klatka was 25, and neither had any credit to open a restaurant, so they settled on a food truck, which found considerable success over the next five years.
Quillin’s Rooster Brewing in Paris was part of the Gastro Gnomes’ regular rotation, and wanted to get a stronger foothold in Lexington by opening up a taproom. At first, they considered contracting it out and providing influence in the kitchen while still doing the truck. But over time, it developed into a full commitment to the restaurant.
Suthers and Klatka still kept the Gastro Gnomes vibe with a rotating menu changing every five days, staying Bourbon County burger-centric (hormone free), and providing vegetarian options to their base in their transition from wheels to brick and mortar.
Oscar Diggs is the latest in Lexington’s urban culinary design explosion.
Rebecca Burnworth, a hyphenate architect-designer-realtor, whose resume includes Buddha Lounge, Crank and Boom, Ethereal Brewing, Goodfellas, and Middle Fork, was a natural for the project.
“I try to honor the structures, the architecture that is there — preserve the best while installing the client’s brand,” Burnworth said. “I always think — what experience are we presenting? What do we want to see? I think innately, that my ‘style’ then is just a response to the existing architecture and the client’s brand and tolerance to the honesty in historic materials.”
It took two years for Burnworth and the Oscar Diggs team to find the perfect place. After initially announcing a prospective home in the Distillery District, the timelines just didn’t match up. The tenth time was the charm, when Burnworth took them to the Merit Furniture building across from the courthouses. The prospect of being downtown excited everyone.
Burnworth focused on the open kitchen idea.
“I’ve designed some open kitchens the past couple of years and when we first sat down and [talked] this out, it was pretty instant we knew we wanted to expose Andrew, almost like that food truck window-type way [where we] watch them put everything together,” Burnworth said. “That’s one of my favorite things here; the exposure of, ‘Hey, there’s Ralph. Hey, there’s Andrew.’”
The exposed brick warehouse feel of the interiors goes with open space and accessibility, and it allowed Burnworth to help capture the comfortable classic that Quillin had envisioned, using Wizard of Oz as a jumping off point for inspiration.
“For Ralph, he was really excited about this theme for Oscar Diggs and I’m just not a theme-type person,” Burnworth said. “I let it guide me as far as a mood I was trying to achieve, trying to do Windsor chairs. I think the Wizard of Oz has this interesting contrast between an Art Deco 1920s-look at the future and maybe a 19-teens black and white stagecoach, old time versus modern — I kind of had fun with that and the modern pieces and more linear features. I was really inspired by the stagecoach type thing and visuals from that area.”
Burnworth counts her clients among her friends and says her nickname in the industry is as the “mom architect” — her professional style lending itself to the way she’s able to shepherd the design and coding details while tying together the vision.
But for her, space planning and choosing materials takes a backseat to focusing on the experience she wants the guests to feel when they come into the establishment. She describes Mark Jensen’s Middle Fork Kitchen and Bar (in the Distillery District) as a prime example of what happens when you walk right into the door and see him and his staff on stage.
“We say, ‘kitchen is theater’ because it’s him presenting himself cooking and you can see the bar. I was also so happy with how Goodfellas turned out. With the materials, I’m non-traditional but I really appreciate very architectural materials. I think my style in the distillery district where I’m basically popping out the architecture as an interior finish. I’ve been having a blast with that so I kind of seek that out in other projects. Whatever we can find here to keep architecturally that’s strong as a feature for the interior design, that’s my favorite way to go.”
Firmly planted in Lexington’s iconic Limestone corridor, the block is currently anchored by Jonathan Lundy’s project, Corto Lima, which just celebrated its first birthday (and next door to the former a la lucie, now occupied by Minglewood).
For idealistic entrepreneurs, interest in areas like downtown, the Distillery District, North Lime, and the Jefferson Street corridor began as a a cheap alternative to outlying spaces in the suburbs. But Burnworth also sees the tremendous value in the unique spaces and rich history that Lexington has to offer.
“I think the next generation of Lexingtonians contains many fantastic visionaries and entrepreneurs. This includes people, who — for the last 20 years — have been questioning why downtown hasn’t been bustling with urban activity, and are wanting to create that,” Burnworth said. “These areas are now coming together as sophisticated food and beverage centers — and prices are rising. We still have some ways to go and I think we should not be afraid to look at places like the Summit, the Pearl, the Banks, river walks in general, successful downtown centers, etc. to see what we can do to further the wonderful food, beverage and overall experiences in our downtown.”
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