DeSha's served its final rib-eye steaks and hot Browns on Saturday and then closed its doors for good, ending 28 years at the corner of Main Street and North Broadway in the heart of Lexington.
"We're upset. We're like, 'Where are we going to go now?'" Charlotte Duncan said while waiting for a table with her husband, Donnie.
The Duncans, like hundreds of others who packed the place Saturday, wore blue and white and planned to attend the University of Kentucky-University of Louisville basketball game across the street at Rupp Arena after they finished lunch. The Duncans said deSha's has been their favorite place to eat before UK basketball games since the 1980s.
There are no immediate plans to reopen at another location, although "we're not going to give up on the idea," said Nick Sanders, chief executive of Cincinnati-based Tavern Restaurant Group, which owns deSha's. Sanders opened deSha's in 1985 and named it for his father, deSha Sanders, who was himself the owner of a downtown restaurant in the 1950s.
"There's a long history here that we hate to see come to an end," Nick Sanders said. "We want to go out proudly with our heads held high and continue to wish downtown Lexington well."
The restaurant closed at 4 p.m. — the scheduled tip-off time for the game — so the roughly 50 remaining employees could hold a private farewell event for themselves.
DeSha's tried to fight eviction from its highly visible corner this year after the new owners of Victorian Square said they would not renew the restaurant's lease, which ends Tuesday. Fayette Circuit Judge Thomas Clark sided with the landlords in July.
In 2012, The Webb Companies of Lexington and Jeffrey R. Anderson Real Estate Inc. of Cincinnati spent $1.7 million buying Victorian Square, a block of restored 19th-century buildings intended to be a mix of stores, restaurants and offices. On Saturday, much of the indoor mall space looked empty, marked by vacant glass storefronts and a chipped, gum-spattered tile floor.
There will be announcements in mid-January about new tenants for the deSha's spot and the rest of Victorian Square, most of them businesses not presently in Lexington, said Mark Fallon, vice president of Jeffrey R. Anderson Real Estate. The retail portion of the buildings is 85 percent to 90 percent pre-leased or committed, Fallon said.
Fallon said he wants to create more street exposure for businesses in the buildings, "turning it inside out," because few pedestrians venture inside — particularly to the upper two floors — to explore.
"The idea that you need to go in just to find out what's in there is so antithetical to what we want downtown to be," Fallon said. "We're trying to bring back a basic downtown, the walkability of it."
Waiting for lunch Saturday, Kaye Huffer of Bowling Green and Linda Short of Louisville said they're sorry deSha's won't be part of downtown's future. The friends said they started to eat there before UK games in the 1990s after a friend recommended the coconut shrimp, which was as good as advertised.
"I think it's neat that this place has been here as long as it has," Short said. "It seems a shame it can't find some other place downtown."
John Cheves: (859) 231-3266. Twitter: @BGPolitics. Blog: bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com