Uncommonwealth: Book tells tales of the timeless Chevy Chase Inn

ctruman@herald-leader.comJuly 28, 2013 

  • IF YOU GO

    Book signings

    Author Sarah Razor will sign Chevy Chase Inn: Tall Tales and Cold Ales From Lexington's Oldest Bar at the farmers market in Cheapside at the Morris Book Shop "Locally Grown Authors" table on Saturday and at Joseph Beth at 2 p.m. Aug. 18. Available for purchase at both book stores and at Chevychaser.com.

  • EXCERPT

    Chevy Chase Inn: Tall Tales and Cold Ales From Lexington's Oldest Bar

    by Sarah Razor as told by Roger Bondurant:

    "In the mid-1990s, a big, big rain set in one night, but that didn't stop people from coming out to the bar. The water was draining down from the back parking lot, and about three or four inches of water flowed in through the back door. So, we just opened the back door, and it flowed through the stage, down the stairs and out the front door. They (the patrons) were all just sitting there, with their feet up on the stools. And I played on stage like nothing was out of sorts with a river running by. Then a giant opossum washed out, and he floated through the bar like a lazy river. I just kept on playing."

The Chevy Chase Inn is not a place for your picky little trends — candy-colored drinks, plush seating, bright lights, scoured floors.

No, Chevy Chase Inn at 833 East Euclid Avenue, revels in being a dive bar in a posh neighborhood, where the youth of the University of Kentucky intersect with Chevy Chase gentility. Horses have occasionally been welcome, as has the accidental opossum.

The ceiling is dark — allegedly from decades of smokers puffing. The seating is no-frills vinyl. The pinball machine works; the cigarette machine nearby is the remnant of an earlier era.

This 80-year-old bar is not the Ritz. It is safe to say that a bottle of Febreze has never crossed the threshold of Chevy Chase Inn, which smells like a pack of cigarettes extinguished in a bucket of beer, glazed with bourbon, and allowed to stew for several weeks.

Sarah Razor has written a book about the bar, Chevy Chase Inn: Tall Tales and Cold Ales From Lexington's Oldest Bar (Smiley Pete Publishing, $24.95).

"I came here when I turned 21, and I just never stopped," Razor, married and the mother of two young children, said while having a beer at the bar recently.

"It's just very endearing. ... Once you start going here, you don't age out, like you do with a club."

It's also where old Lexington comes to drink classic drinks like bourbon, rather than new drinks like appletinis. The snack stand in the corner holds a jar of neon pink pickled eggs, Lay's potato chips and Slim Jims — hardly the bruschetta and small plates of a new generation.

Chevy Chase Inn, also known as CCI, has been a Euclid Avenue fixture for 80 years. Originally opened in 1932 just as Prohibition ended, the place was called the Blue Goose. It served beer to Lexington's clamoring masses and later served as the bar for the Saratoga, a nearby restaurant that's now closed.

The Chevy Chase neighborhood was new then. The name was later changed to the Cardinal Inn, and then to the Chevy Chase Inn. In 1959, CCI sold so much Budweiser beer that the company sent its Clydesdales to Euclid Avenue to celebrate.

In 1960, CCI received a liquor license, so it was able to expand its alcohol reach, and customers glided between it and the Saratoga.

When the Bistro, a French restaurant, opened next door in the 1970s, drinks were passed through a small window until the restaurant got its own liquor license. The book notes that the bar's small selection of wines — one red, one white — did not serve to educate the CCI bartenders on the proper wines for French food.

In 2003, the bar underwent an existential crisis: The Fayette County anti-smoking ordinance went into effect. For a place so thick with smoke that performers occasionally could not see for the tobacco cloud, that was a turning point.

You can still smell the tobacco at CCI, the ghostly nicotine of hundreds of thousands of cigarettes. And you can certainly see it. One patron claims that the ceiling, now a deep chocolate brown, was originally white.

Razor writes in her book: "The Chevy Chase Inn has an unusual authenticity. There is no gimmick. Through the years, patrons have developed a loyalty to the bar and to each other."

You can catch a cold brew for $2.50 a bottle, $2 during happy hours. On Saturdays, there's a $2 special on Bloody Marys.

"A lot of people come in here for a pre-drink before dinner, or come in and have a post-dinner cocktail," Razor said.

One, Clark Cramer, 93, has his own mini-plaque on the bar, in celebration of his 75 years of patronage.

Some of the area's businesses — such as Oram Florist and Farmer's Jewelry — have grown up in the area with CCI.

"There's this little pocket here of businesses that have really made it, and people are loyal to that," Razor said.

Razor's book affectionately describes the bar as being built in a somewhat shotgun-house style of architecture — in which a shotgun blast fired through the front door would exit the back.

The original bar still stands, although the counter was replaced in the 1990s.

Why do other bars that strive for the tattered panache of CCI not remain in business?

Because CCI is like the beloved Tolly-Ho restaurant near the UK campus: It serves a plain product, cheap, in a charmed location, and it doesn't change just because it's fashionable. If you want a vast old-fashioned breakfast after a bad night, you go to Tolly-Ho; if you want to get over whatever gave you that bad night in the first place, you head to CCI.

Russell Salyer, who has worked at the bar for 30 years, said vodka is popular during the summer, bourbon during the winter.

Asked why CCI never appears to change, Salyer says: "It's not supposed to. It's a neighborhood bar. It's supposed to stay the same, as best it can."


Excerpt from Chevy Chase Inn: Tall Tales and Cold Ales From Lexington's Oldest Bar by Sarah Razor

"As told by Roger Bondurant: 'In the mid-1990s, a big, big rain set in one night, but that didn't stop people from coming out to the bar. The water was draining down from the back parking lot, and about three or four inches of water flowed in through the back door. So, we just opened the back door, and it flowed through the stage, down the stairs and out the front door. They (the patrons) were all just sitting there, with their feet up on the stools. And I played on stage like nothing was out of sorts with a river running by. Then a giant opossum washed out, and he floated through the bar like a lazy river. I just kept on playing.'"


If you go

Book signings

Author Sarah Razor will sign Chevy Chase Inn: Tall Tales and Cold Ales From Lexington's Oldest Bar at the farmers market in Cheapside at the Morris Book Shop "Locally Grown Authors" table on Saturday and at Joseph Beth at 2 p.m. Aug. 18. Available for purchase at both book stores and at Chevychaser.com.

Cheryl Truman: (859) 231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman.

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