WINCHESTER — DJ's sits in a parking lot off the chain restaurant- laden bypass road in Winchester. Among all the garish and invasive signage of that big-box highway, the unadorned exterior is almost a welcome sight. You feel as if you have pulled into a friendly community watering hole after a long and tedious drive.
But DJ's is not just a bar. Once inside, you notice two rooms as different from each other as night and day. One is indeed a dimly lit bar with a friendly vibe, the other is a bare-bones yet wholesome dining room for families. The wholesome side has quiet televisions and a view of the horizon through large windows that, if you get one of those exceptional, fiery fall sunsets, makes you feel privileged to have a front-row seat.
There are two things that give this local favorite bragging rights to business awards a few times over in The Winchester Sun and make the 30- minute trip from Lexington worthwhile: beer cheese and barbecue.
Certain "niceties" of dining out are not priorities here. Presentation is spartan, and some appetizers are served with styrofoam plates. Imitation butter is offered instead of the real thing. And most vegetables get short shrift, like the dry pre-cut carrots on the relish tray, the tough-crusted deep-fried banana peppers that were mostly batter, and the crinkly french fries that somehow never taste real.
The better veggies — such as the fresh and tender cauliflower florets on the relish tray and the fluffy baked potato that is a great alternative to fries — escaped shortcuts. If you like coleslaw on the sweet side, DJ's does a decent job of that as well.
But the restaurant's strengths are the two Kentucky classics that I mentioned.
The beer cheese could and should be brought to spreadable softness before arriving at the table, but its flavor is outstanding. There's a kick of mustard, the sharpness of cheddar and that subtle hint of beer. The portion on the relish tray is large enough to ensure that you will be taking some home. That's a two-fer for you.
Anything grilled is the other strong suit. I was told that the grill used was handmade — an obvious act of love of outdoor cooking. Home-built or store-bought, the 'cuemaster knows how to work it.
With all that effort, I wish the barbecue sauce were local, or at least something other than Cattlemen's, an easy-to-get bottled product. Nevertheless, even that didn't interfere with the smoky deliciousness of the end result.
On a Friday or Saturday, there are specials. I recommend sampling more than one item by getting the half-chicken, moist throughout, along with a side of baby-back ribs that are pink and porky and demand nibbling as much off each bone as possible. This huge plate of food could serve two at least and is just $14.95.
But a tipster advised (correctly) that the best thing on the menu was the filet mignon. This choice cut of beef was handled perfectly: It was ordered medium and came exactly that way. There is nothing better than meat that is almost buttery but not mushy. The "petite" is more than enough for one person, and a bargain at $13.95.
Although Lexington has good, and on a good day, great steakhouses, DJ's filet alone justifies an out-of-town foray to Winchester, if for no other reason than this delicious steak finds the sweet spot where quality and value intersect.
Wendy Miller is a Lexington-based food and spirits writer and critic.