The founders of Winchell's are alumni of the Culinary Institute of America — our nation's high academy of culinary excellence — but its menu is as distant from haute cuisine as croquet is from the Super Bowl.
Lexington's beloved intergenerational restaurant and sports bar, whose motto is "better food, more televisions," specializes in mid-American comfort fare, with a touch of the South thrown in — a hybrid that epitomizes Kentucky's foodways.
With these values as a starting point, gourmet instincts and perfectionism are left by the wayside. This place is meant to be fun, not stuffy, so hardly anyone minds if the sweet and friendly service becomes chaotic — the approximately 18 televisions usually provide distraction — or that "Kentucky Proud" sometimes gets replaced with country ham from Tennessee rather than from Newsom's in Princeton, or grits are inexplicably sourced from large-scale distributors rather than the magnificent, sixth-generation Weisenberger Mill just down the road.
So I, like myriad other fans, place my attention on the big picture, literally and figuratively, and go from there.
Winchell's opens at 8 in the morning with a diverse but small menu. Choices run from protein-rich pork chops and omelets to dessertlike breakfasts, such as fluffy blueberry pancakes with white chocolate chips.
Selections expand at lunch and dinner.
"Chef's favorites" include the best white bean soup in town, made with a mirepoix base and ham hocks. I also love the delicate trout amandine, perfectly filleted, with a hint of orange; get the kale, slightly sweet with salty bits of ham, and the generously studded pecan rice to accompany it. In the realm of really comfortable "favorites" and at the menu's opposite end is bread pudding, whose best moments come from its decadent bourbon sauce.
Sandwiches are popular here, and the options take up a whole menu page. Were it not for an aesthetically unpleasing overdose of gravy, the piping hot open-faced brisket sandwich — pulled beef on top of mashed potatoes on top of toast — would be splendid.
A more interesting choice is "the Brothers," an interpretation of Pittsburgh's Primanti Brothers' invention, which itself is an extremely amped-up American version of an English "chip butty." Winchell's uses corned beef rather than ham, and Swiss cheese replaces provolone, but like the original, there are toppings of coleslaw and french fries. Yes, fries on a sandwich: Don't knock it until you've tried it.
Winchell's hot Brown is heavy on the Mornay sauce and cheese topping, giving its reputation as "the South's richest sandwich" — as declared by the January-February 2005 issue of Saveur magazine — not only validity but exaggeration. When Fred Schmidt invented the hot Brown in 1923 in Louisville, these ratios served about eight. Order accordingly.
Venturing beyond the favorites, you could omit the emulsified sherry vinaigrette from the portobello salad with arugula and blue cheese, and its meaty mushrooms would still make it delicious. The rich tomato soup needed salt, but many people appreciate the do-it-yourself approach in this area. The jalapeño cheese grits, however, needed absolutely nothing — they were spicy with just a bit of cheese.
Come Sunday's Super Bowl, though, only the Steelers and Packers on the big screens will be moving faster than the appetizers. The pork quesadilla — a merger of Mexico, pepper jack cheese and good barbecue — is great finger food. The banana peppers are worth a try for their fantastic, horseradish-laced cocktail sauce. And word on the street is that the nachos are rockin', messy and ideal for sports dining.
Winchell's atmosphere is lively any time, but when there's a game, the energy is over the top. This Sunday is a chance to experience the rush with some great pub grub.
Wendy Miller is a Lexington-based food and spirits writer and critic.