This review, if you can call it that, focuses not on white tablecloths or the sultry temptations of ethnic dining, but rather on Formica — or its latter-day equivalent — and video games, Kentucky blue logos and artificial ferns, griddles and a touch of the greasy spoon.
Tolly-Ho, longtime burger joint of the college set due to its proximity to the university, moved last year to South Broadway from Limestone, its home of about 25 years. Its new digs are walking distance from hardly anywhere, yet that could not be less of a deterrent to its many loyal fans who would rather starve than imagine a Lexington without "Ho Burgers."
For the uninitiated, a Ho Burger is a hamburger patty on a sesame bun with lettuce and onion — cheese is optional — made special by a "secret" sauce that has a base of mayonnaise and, one might guess, something like honey mustard and chopped pickles. The menu does reveal that there is a taste of tartar sauce about it.
A side of fries with this is a must. Even though these crinkle cuts are from the freezer, you have to admit that, factoring in improvements in frozen vegetables and their handling after the fact, they might be good — and they are.
The same goes for the hash browns, crisp-edged yet moist.
Tolly-Ho's chili is made on site. There is nothing spectacular about this con carne with small red beans, but it's perfectly acceptable. A bowl of this might be considered quintessential stoner food. I can imagine it being a favorite of the after-hours club crowd, a restorative before sleeping off a night of partying. And since the place is open 24/7, you can get the chili, and everything else, whenever you want it.
Depending on the definition of "after-hours," however, there's always breakfast.
On a Saturday morning, things couldn't be more wholesome, packed with intergenerational families; the patrons at any given table seem to range from 8 months old to 80-plus years.
You can get special pancakes with chocolate chips, but eggs are the better option. For less than $7, order an omelet the size of a paperback novel with the works, meaning vegetables, sausage, bacon and cheese. The toast on the side is brushed with salty melted butter. It's quite rich and better for it.
In addition to the nostalgia of hearty short-order food, Tolly-Ho fills a few other niches.
First, a locally owned eatery that never closes is welcome. Sure, you can go to a chain, but why?
Second, believe it or not, there is great music. The choices from the inconspicuous jukebox on the wall range from jazz guitar great Grant Green to George Michael and Wham!'s Careless Whisper to smoother listening. Who would not prefer this to canned noise?
Last, in a similarly inconspicuous way, there is convenience-store upselling. I don't think about combining shopping for a T-shirt or six-pack with my meal, but there is probably an audience for this.
There is a time and a place for every kind of dining. High-end spots can be great, but they often have far to fall, whereas at places like Tolly-Ho, everything is exactly as expected: easygoing, affordable, a blast from the past and a local institution.
Wendy Miller is a Lexington-based food and spirits writer and critic.