As much as I travel, I feel like I know the South. But every now and then, I come across a city, like Lexington, Kentucky, that makes me stop in my tracks. I arrived with visions of horse races and aged bourbon dancing in my head; I left with a new understanding of this quaint and humble city. There’s a profound pride of place-a vibrant love of all things local. Here’s a quick dash through the places and people that made me love Lexington.
Lexington has a fantastically walkable downtown, and we started at The Village Idiot, a gastropub on Short Street with a terrific patio that allows for a great evening of sipping, snacking, and people watching. Stop here for good pub food like Pomme Frites (served with four dipping sauces).
At the other end of the culinary spectrum lies Distilled at Gratz Park, a distinguished choice in the oldest boutique hotel in Lexington. Food here is as local as it gets-their honey even comes from a beehive on the roof. Don’t miss their Vanilla Old Fashioned; it’s smooth and sweet, and a delight even if you’re not usually a bourbon drinker.
There’s something about a white tablecloth that sets the scene for elegance, and the refined atmosphere of Dudley’s on Short did not disappoint. The gorgeous interiors of this renovated bank building are complemented by entrées like Duck Breast & Confit served with pickled strawberries, and impressive yet approachable appetizers, like their Dudley Eggs. Dress up or dress down; you’ll feel at home either way.
At Lexington Diner, co-owners Ranada and Karin West-Riley are dedicated to local ingredients, and you can taste the difference in their farm-fresh burgers. They made a deep-fried Taste of the South burger with bacon just for us, but you can’t go wrong with anything on the menu, from the KY Bourbon Burger to the Southern Charm, made with house-made pimiento cheese and fried green tomato. Come here for breakfast, brunch, or lunch-you won’t leave hungry!
On the outskirts of downtown, we found doughnut heaven: North Lime Donuts. You know I must have my coffee and pastry, so I had a real crush on this place! They have a few classics like Chocolate Iced and Cinnamon Sugar every day, but the real fun begins with their inventive daily specials. Past choices include Hummingbird Cake (pineapple cake with banana buttercream and pecans), Strawberry Yeast with Nutella Drizzle, and Grandma Pearl’s Blackberry Jam. Yum!
For a taste of Paris in the middle of Lexington, step into National Provisions. Through one door you’ll find Boulangerie, a gorgeous, industrial-inspired space with buttercream-colored floors, cherry-red benches, and trays stacked with fresh-baked breads. Choose door number two, and you’re in the Beer Hall, a space filled with fantastic craft beers ready for tasting. Light pours through the windows and filters through the bottles, turning them into works of art for a look that’s oh-so-sophisticated yet utterly approachable.
Next door, Blue Door Smokehouse does classic barbecue and does it right. They have unbelievable brisket, pulled pork, pulled chicken, and smoked sausage. You can even try a bit of everything with a plate called “All the Meats!” Sides are collard greens, potato salad, ranch beans, and two kinds of slaw. The hours of operation include the caveat “until the meet sells out,” just as any good Southern barbecue joint should.
Kentucky has bourbon flowing through its veins, and the revival of Lexington’s old distillery district at Pepper Campus, the former home of James E. Pepper Whiskey, is a prime example. Anchoring the district is Middle Fork Kitchen Bar. Chef Mark Jensen is a master of wood-fired cuisine; he’s often found manning the wood oven all night long, and you can taste that dedication in his food. Start with a tasting plate of pickles or cheese, and move on to house specials like The Daily Bowl, filled with whatever’s freshest that day. Next door, you’ll find the perfect dessert: delightful ice cream from Crank + Boom. Owner Toa Green is a first-generation American, and she’s inspired by her Thai heritage (her recipes are based on the coconut ice cream sold by street vendors in Thailand) but her ingredients are all Kentucky. Flavors run the gamut from Coffee Stout to Maple Bacon to Strawberry Sorbet.
Not all the great Lexington restaurants are downtown; the city’s perimeter has a few standouts, too. AZUR Restaurant & Patio does comfort food with a wonderful Southern twist. Chef Jeremy Ashby takes local sourcing seriously, and it shows in dishes like his decadent take on classic fried chicken and his spicy braised pork belly. And for a great taste of old Kentucky bourbon, head to OBC Kitchen (it stands for Old Bourbon Country). Their menu includes comfort food favorites like baked mac and cheese and chicken and waffles, and snackables like candied bacon and pimiento cheese. They’re open late, so no need to rush-try it all!
Trust me: Don’t make a trip to Lexington without scheduling a visit to Midway. On the 20-minute trip from downtown Lexington, you’ll wind past gorgeous rolling hills and farms, and when you arrive, it feels like you’re in a different world. First, grab a picnic lunch at Wallace Station. This classic lunch counter and diner is one of Chef Ouita Michel’s restaurants, and her dedication to fresh ingredients ensures excellent plates every time. Choose from mouthwatering sandwiches like the Inside Out Hot Brown. Better yet, visit on a Monday night for the Fried Chicken Dinner, or on a Friday for the Fish Fry-everyone fills their plates and heads for picnic tables outside.
Heirloom is another of Midway’s standouts. Chef Mark Wombles started this restaurant with his father, and the menu changes with the seasons. Make no mistake, this is refined Southern fair, but you’ll find whimsical twists, like the bed of zucchini spirals that or superb shrimp was served on.
Be sure to save room for Chef Ouita’s other Midway gem, Holly Hill Inn. When you walk in, you’ll feel like you’re in a historical novel. The inn, built in 1845, feels homespun, yet elegant. Imagine creaky floors and chandeliers-it’s no wonder it’s rumored this place is haunted! But the cuisine is very much alive with incredible flavors born of the Kentucky soil, because Chef Ouita cooks straight from the garden. Try the Kentucky Smorgasbord, packed with local treats, including Stilton pimiento cheese, onion walnut muffins, bourbon bacon-wrapped pate, and dressed eggs.
In Lexington, there’s a lot of passion for food, but there’s almost no ego; chefs support each other and sing each other’s praises. In this city of bluegrass and rolling hills, plates are filled with simple ingredients and secret recipes that have stood the test of times. All are welcome, all leave satisfied, and all enjoy the spirit of hospitality and community that defines the Kentucky table.