I dressed wrong. Never have my Ecco flats seemed so out of place. Instead of black leather, I should have worn saddle shoes and bobby socks, and perhaps a poodle skirt and button-down shirt. At least that was how it felt standing in the entryway — more like a small dance floor — of The Lunch Box.
Add to that impression a multi colored "scoreboard" twinkling "The Lunch Box," dozens of collectible lunch boxes on the walls, sensibly spaced tables and booths, nods from the 1950s to the '80s, and you have Lexington's latest, and perhaps most convincing, retro dining establishment.
It hasn't been open long, just a few months, but the word has spread. The parking lot is full at lunch, which is a good sign, and each time I've visited I've bumped into at least two people I know who had been there before, suggesting that, while the décor is clever and fun, it is the food — a happy blend of Southern plus classic and contemporary American — that makes folks return.
For example, three people can split a "napoleon" of three thick fried green tomatoes constructed with a filling of ham-studded cream cheese. It's just the right appetizer to share before a full dinner that includes a salad.
I usually think salads in diner environments are a waste of time, but not these. The Caesar is scented with anchovies; the simple iceberg lettuce comes with thick blue cheese dressing with large lumps of cheese; and the tangy cabbage slaw tasted like it had been fermented in a barrel in the Old Country. They were all just wonderful.
If you're there at lunch, which only makes sense, you can't get much healthier than the filet of flaky grilled whitefish. It's served with crunchy hush puppies — OK, that might not be so healthy, but along with tartar sauce it's just the right accompaniment.
"Crunchy" also describes the broccoli in the buttery mixed vegetable medley (it could have been blanched for easier cutting) and also the crust on the fried chicken, a favorite among Lunch Box habitues who will tell you, and I agree, to order the light and crisp french fries with it.
When it came to entrees, however, my hands-down winner was a surprise: the breaded pork tenderloin and fluffy butternut squash napped in a sweet vanilla-laced sauce. I expected to hate all that sugar but ended up adoring it. To balance the sweet was a bright green handful of perfectly salted sautéed spinach.
Most vegetarians would want to find a squash, hummus and avocado sandwich in their lunch boxes. It's filling, and fresh with lettuce and tomatoes. I would have preferred more hummus, though, and a little more avocado and salt.
Save room for dessert. I am not sure why you get three chocolate chip cookies for 99 cents, but who's complaining? And while the Key lime pie's tall graham cracker crust might be crunchy (yes, that word again), just break off pieces like candy to scoop up the even taller topping of whipped cream, and fall in love with the filling, tart enough to make you pucker in pleasure.
Whether they are slammed at lunch or winding down at dinner, service is ideal: always friendly and accommodating without being pushy or intrusive.
The Lunch Box has hit on a great formula: a theme that doesn't cross the line into fake or cute, a location overdue for a casual dining venue, and food that is honest and good.
Wendy Miller is a Lexington-based food and spirits writer and critic.