2019 was yet another busy year for food, liquor and restaurant news in Lexington.
New restaurants opened with hopes of clawing their way to the top while others surrendered to the competition of Lexington’s ever-changing food realm. Our favorite iconic chefs and long-time staples took on new endeavors and challenges meanwhile we welcomed outside brands–some with more open arms than others–into town and watched as new local brands focused their concepts on community.
Amidst our constantly changing food scene, Lexington foodies stayed busy with the return of Lexington Restaurant Week, Lockbox’s new cocktail class series, the 2nd annual Castle and Key cocktail competition, and the 39th annual Taste of Bluegrass.
New Year, New Me
Nothing screams the start of a new year like the motto new year, new me, but that seemed to be the motto for the entirety of 2019. Many longtime staples and beloved Lexington businesses revamped or expanded their brands.
Martine’s Pastries started this trend when they launched their drink and bottle service in January. Last year, the bakery left its original location on Industry Road for a larger space on East Third Street. This year, Martine’s obtained its liquor license and added new items to the menu.
Around that same time, Graze announced their closure on South Limestone with plans to start over from scratch. The hope was to bring the best of the previous Graze restaurants (the S. Limestone and Winchester locations) into this new one. A couple months later, the revamped Graze opened inside The Woodlands.
Great minds must think alike because Shakespeare & Co. ended the year with the closure of their Hamburg location so that the owner, Edward Saad, could focus his efforts on the original downtown Shakespeare & Co location. We quickly learned that meant launching a new bar and nightclub inside the downtown restaurant.
But this year’s award for most revamped might have to go to Great Bagel & Bakery. After opening a second location and expanding to the south side of Lexington, the longtime bagel-staple introduced their in-house grain milling process. Yes, they’re still the same bagels you’ve known and loved since 2011, but with their new process of milling comes a new take on their original recipe.
Which reminds us, Lexington said “let’s get this bread” while hosting the 2019 Southeastern Grain Gathering at The UK Horticulture Research Farm in September. Typically held at the Bread Lab at Washington State University, this two-day event made its way to Lexington to support the work being done by the UK Department of Agriculture. So yes, it was a pretty big deal.
As Seen On Television
Earlier this year, we watched the Lyle’s BBQ family on CNBC’s show The Profit. More specifically, we watched Chandler Lyles interview for his dream job on national television without any of us realizing it was an interview the entire time.
We thought that would be the highlight of the year for the Lyle’s family until they opened Nash’s Southern Table and Bar in May. Unfortunately, the new restaurant, which opened in the former Willie’s Locally Known on Southland Drive, didn’t have any more luck in that location than other businesses and closed several months later. Yet another year goes by and most of us are still convinced the former Willie’s location is forever cursed.
If you missed the Lyle’s family on television, it was probably because you were too busy watching Top Chef: Kentucky. Most of the scenes were filmed in 2018, but the winner wasn’t announced until the season finale in March. Although Kentucky native, Sara Bradley, finished the competition as runner-up, her recipe for matzo ball soup that took her to the season finale won big at Lexington’s Jewish Food Festival this year.
Bradley’s celebrity status didn’t fade after Top Chef: Kentucky. She was seen a few months later leading cooking demonstrations at Lexington’s inaugural Railbird Festival among other local iconic chefs like Ouita Michel, Master Chef alumnus Dan Wu, Toa Green of Crank and Boom, Keeneland’s Marc Therrien, and two of our Fridges of Fayette County chefs, Mark Richardson and Cole Arimes.
Food Trucks vs Farmers’ Markets
In 2012, the prominent food news was Lexington’s need for food trucks. In 2016, the prominent food news was those same food trucks transitioning to stable locations. Skip ahead three years to now and Lexington still loves our food trucks, but it seems like the farmers’ markets might be as good of a bet for growing a business and forming great relationships with the community.
Southland Bagel proved that to us this year (all within nine months) when the three owners came up with the idea to quit their jobs to make bagels, sell the bagels at the farmers’ markets, and eventually open a brick and mortar location on Southland Drive.
Another great way to build relationships is through coffee and experience, which is what McLeod’s Coffee House offers on Southland Drive. The coffee house opened not only to give special needs employees the opportunity for more jobs, but also to provide the local community with an authentic experience.
If you haven’t noticed yet, the Southland area is up and coming. The LaRosa’s empire continued to take over the Lexington food scene in 2019 with the opening of their first location on Richmond Road in May while construction began soon after on the second LaRosa’s location inside the former Hunan Chinese restaurant. LaRosa’s celebrated the opening of this new delivery/carry-out location with an official ribbon cutting in December.
Apollo Pizza never intended to open a location in Lexington until the owners discovered a big strip of property reasonably priced on Leestown Road. The EKU staple now brings not only pizza topped with Ale-8 salsa, but also a giant mural of John Prine’s face to the Lexington food scene.
Unlike the owners of Apollo Pizza, Jeff Ruby was determined to bring his steakhouse to Lexington for the past eight years. This year he made it happen with the opening of the fifth Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse in the country in downtown Lexington.
While Jeff Ruby’s was one of the first two businesses to open in the City Center, it’s certainly not the last. This year, Chef Jonathan Lundy and Certified Sommelier TJ Cox–the dynamic duo who brought you Corto Lima–announced their plans to open Italx, an avant-garde Italian restaurant inside the City Center development.
Cooking for Community
Not too far down the street on East Main, East End Tap and Table opened. The new international gastropub is inspired by Asian themes and Miami cuisine, but more importantly, it settled the most controversial debate of 2019: who has the ultimate chicken sandwich.
We didn’t realize this part of East Main Street needed a one stop convenient spot for coffee, sandwiches, and beer until Gather on Main opened in the former spot of The Casual Pint. Rather than being a craft beer store like its predecessor, Gather on Main focuses on giving this side of East Main a sense of community.
This year, community also looked a lot like a former 1927 Texaco gas station repair shop turned neighborhood bar. The Garage opened on Leestown Road near Masterson Station with the goal to give that area of town a place to form camaraderie and a sense of community.
The Future is Female
With 2019 coming to a close, we look forward to all that’s to come with the Lexington food scene in 2020. If this past year gave us hope for anything, it’s the future face of Kentucky cuisine. Spoiler alert: it looks very much female.
Mentioned first in The Year in Food in Lexington: 2014, the Lexington Women Chef series returned in 2019 for two dinners. We also met the five females from the 2019 class of LEE Initiative Mentees and caught a glimpse of Sam Fore’s recipe on the cover of Food and Wine Magazine.
For an additional listing of restaurants which opened and closed in Lexington in 2019: Births, Resurrections, Obits, and Transitions, click here.
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