"We were local before local was cool."
That single sentence on Alfalfa's Web site says it all.
Since 1973, Alfalfa has been a mecca in Lexington for everyone interested in the community experience, from hippies to mainstreamers and everyone in between and outside of those parameters. Yes, Alfalfa serves food, but the restaurant is equally known as a gathering place.
The current Alfalfa is its second location. It went from an off-campus site on South Limestone to downtown in 2004, and the move to Main Street hasn't hurt it one bit.
No matter what, everyone loves Alfalfa.
Service, as natural as the food, resists unctuousness, obsequiousness or any pretense whatsoever. The fare is sometimes organic, often sustainable, Kentucky Proud whenever possible. That's why you're there. And everything is informal, from plastic plates to packaged bread slices with a foil-wrapped pat of butter.
In short, this is democratic dining at its best.
There are sentimental favorites that, because they are wonderful, will be on the menu forever: basic but delicious red beans and rice; Hoppin' John with black-eyed peas, brown rice, chopped green peppers, scallions and tomatoes; and, of course, the grilled cheese avocado sandwich: rich, creamy and irresistible.
Tradition remains, but the menu has evolved and become somewhat more sophisticated in the past couple of years. Execution has improved, and the operation, while laid back, is more efficient, making it a much improved experience overall.
If there are two of you, get entrees so one of you can order soup, the other, salad, and you can pass them back and forth. I like the crunchy shredded cabbage, tossed in a sweet, slightly sharp honey mustard. There's not much more to it than that, but that's all that's needed.
Additional care and effort are taken with the tomato bisque, and it shows. This buttery thick soup is sweet and tart with tomato flavor. It's ramped-up comfort food.
Alfalfa remains a vegetarian's dream. Besides the standards I mentioned, another fine option is the coconut black beans, where Indonesia meets the Southwest. Huge wedges of corn bread made from Weisenberger meal are slathered with seasoned black beans, sweet coconut milk and sprinkled with toasted shredded coconut, scallions and tomatoes. Give it a few additional shakes of hot sauce, and it's filling and fine.
Yet my favorite dish was the meatloaf made from Stone Cross Farm ground beef. This is what natural and delicious meat tastes like: virtually no filler, light and crumbly but holding together and melting in your mouth. And the superb "ketchup" — an understatement if ever there was one — is spicy with chipotle and tangy with Dijon mustard. I took half of my meatloaf home, partly because it was an enormous portion and partly because I had visions of the sandwich it could become. It includes a side of mashed potatoes or broccoli. I chose the broccoli, which was crunchy and emerald green but was served lackluster in a little white dish. Come on, guys, even "casual" can have a bit more inspired presentation.
The only dish that lost me, however, was the chocolate Guinness cake. I know that sounds heavenly, but to me it was heavy, with super-sweet, thick white icing and chocolate sauce that might well have been canned. Get the cookies instead.
But whatever you order, from appetizers to desserts, it will be served in Alfalfa's enduring style: with "the cool" that has been on the menu for almost 40 years.
Wendy Miller is a Lexington-based food and spirits writer and critic.