Taking Bites Out of Lexington
Hot brown, beer, and burgers in the horse capital of the world
Dining in Lexington
When I’m dining in Lexington, Kentucky, I tend to graze. Instead of three meals a day, I might aim for five, noshing through various menus and sampling a dish or two before moving on.
Lexingtonians are a chatty and generous bunch when it comes to food and restaurants, which are a pastime in these parts. Asking for dining advice is an excellent icebreaker: Everyone has favorites and is happy to spill the beans, adding helpful tips on when to go and what to order.
There are more than 100 independent restaurants in Lexington, which keeps quality and creativity high. Chefs here come from a deep culinary heritage and have access to a bounty of locally-sourced foods, and it shows. They are also cutting-edge, willing to abdicate tradition with playful takes on recipes you might find in century-old cookbooks. Like a hot brown that swaps classic turkey for sea scallops. It’s those kinds of surprises that keep diners coming back.
The Hot Kentucky Brown, which was invented at Louisville’s The Brown Hotel, is something you should not miss. If only every sandwich were this exquisite: open-faced toast layered with turkey, bacon, and tomato, then smothered in a blanket of rich cream sauce, and broiled until bubbly, golden brown. Forget picking it up; you need a fork and knife for this plate of flavor. Ramsey’s Diner has an excellent version.
Beyond bourbon, there’s beer
I’m a bourbon loyalist but love a pun, and the Brewgrass Trail is a clever riff on Bluegrass. Where better to brush up on my beer proficiency than at a craft brewery or two?
The Jefferson Street Corridor has exploded as a dining destination, and West Sixth Brewing Company is partly why. Housed in a former Rainbow Bread factory and aromatic with the scent of hops, the taproom has a rotating selection of seasonal beers.
After a tour of the facility on a recent visit to Lexington, I hung out in the sun-dappled beer garden sipping an amber, identifying rye and biscuit notes, and struck up a conversation with a local couple.
Nearby, the newly opened Ethereal Brewing, located in the Historic Distillery District, focuses on “funky Belgian farmhouse brewing” (their words, not mine). The place has a cozy charm, and the enthusiastic staff recommends their favorites. There, I opted for the Wanderlust IPA, which went down smooth.
There’s nothing like a burger to accompany beer, so on a tip from the couple I’d met at West Sixth, I head over to Side Bar Grill. The place was packed, but I found a seat at the bar. I was flanked by patrons who recommended their favorites—the barbecue pork sandwich and sweet potato fries from one, and a burger with a fried egg from the other. I went with my initial target of the burger. The bartender gives a thumbs-up. It was delicious!
Taking Lexington dining home
One way to sample offerings from some of the city’s best eateries while learning a bit of history and burning off calories is to join a Bleu Plate Tour. The tour lasts three hours and focuses on the ever-changing downtown dining scene.
When I took it, a fellow diner declared it, “The best eating I’ve done while standing!”
When I travel to places that have a distinctive cuisine, I often take a cooking class. If I only walk away with one recipe I can replicate, it’s enough to share with friends and family and awaken dining memories.
“Cooking With Bourbon” is a four-course, two-hour class at Wild Thyme Cooking School. Who knew you could work the state’s spirit into a vinaigrette, pimento cheese, steak au poivre, and bread pudding.
Before leaving Lexington, I often stop at North Lime Coffee and Donuts. This place has plain glazed and chocolate-iced donuts, but the olykoek has my heart.