JDI Grille and Tavern has risen from the ashes of the Jefferson Davis Inn, a once-popular watering hole that shut its doors in 1996. Sentimental favorites die hard, so perhaps it's no surprise that this local institution has been resurrected.
Although the location is new (the original was near the corner of West High Street and Limestone) and the interior is updated — there are three stories with casually elegant bars — the enthusiasm for, and quick popularity of, this latest incarnation suggest that Lexington never quite forgot about JDI.
There is definitely continuity in theme — you can't have a bar here without serious attention paid to bourbon — and the updated menu aspires to the cosmopolitan sensibility of the modern gastropub, combining the regional and handmade with more generic American standards.
The kitchen shines brightest in the artisanal arena, but it also has winners inspired by good old pub grub.
Among my favorites is anything involving the pulled pork, which is smoked in-house. Reliably tender and tangy, it's just as delicious on a brioche bun or tucked in a quesadilla with melted cheese.
A small scoop of excellent, freshly made guacamole with bits of jalapeño comes with the quesadilla, but a larger cup is available as an appetizer, served with either corn tortilla chips or tender grilled pita wedges. An equally pleasing starter is the hot three-cheese artichoke and spinach dip, ubiquitous but here more complex.
Most of the meaty entrees are grilled — including the juicy filet mignon (at $26.99 for an 8-ounce cut, it's JDI's priciest item) or slightly charred salmon with hints of sesame oil — but, predictably, several are deep-fried. Perhaps, not surprisingly, the deep fryer has the edge. The crisp batter on both the cod and the chicken tenders would make me order both again.
I wasn't as wild, however, about the fries that came with the fish. They smelled of reused doughnut oil (maybe from the funnel cakes offered for dessert?). Nor did the soggy Belgian waffles that accompanied the chicken do it for me. I also would have liked some real maple syrup on the side; the cheap taste of the fake stuff just ruins everything it touches.
Leaving aside those fries, it would be easy, smart and worthwhile to make a dinner of sides. The smashed potatoes were lightly cheesy, the coleslaw bright and crisp, the asparagus spears were fat and grilled al dente, and best of all, the broccoli was cooked perfectly. Perhaps it's silly to make a federal case about that, but overcooked broccoli can be stinky and mushy; undercooked, it's rabbit food. So bravo.
Other than sides or salads, pasta is the vegetarian's main option. I liked seeing linguine tossed in a coating (rather than bathing in a pool) of sauce. "Pink vodka cream," though, is fancy menu-speak; the actual sauce is red and the vodka undetectable. Nevertheless, the simplicity of the mushroom medley with portobello slices and bits of asparagus made for fine modern comfort food. Bourbon allegiances notwithstanding, a nice dry martini makes a great match.
The takeaway message for me, after four visits to JDI — day and night, slow and slammed — is that tavern experiences always constitute more than the sum of their parts. Having driven by often, I was not prepared to think of JDI as much more than just another crowded bar.
Service here is uniformly good; unfortunately, that is not the norm in most restaurants. The best of the menu, the fun vibe and the multiple environments make this a place for repeat visits. Evidently, many, many people have been subliminally anticipating this rebirth and are now celebrating that reality.
JDI Grille and Tavern
Address: 319 Cedar St.
Phone: (859) 246-0202
Hours: 11 a.m.-2 a.m. daily
Other: Parking lot. Full bar. Draft beer available. Appetizers, $5.99-$12.99; soups and salads, $3.99-$11.99; entrees, $8.99-$26.99; sides, $2.49-$3.49.
Wendy Miller is a Lexington-based food and spirits writer and critic.