Tom Eblen: Collection of historic Lexington restaurant menus sparks dining memories

Herald-Leader ColumnistMarch 4, 2014 

Some of the old Lexington menus Betty Hoopes donated to the Blue Grass Trust's annual Antiques & Garden Show fundraising auction.

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Lexington antiques dealer Betty Hoopes loves her work, which she says is about preserving history and memories. It is not just what we furnished our homes with, but where we went and what we ate.

Over the years, Hoopes has collected mid-20th century restaurant menus, mostly from Lexington but also from New Orleans, Atlanta, New York and other cities she and her clients have visited.

Her first Lexington menu was from Canary Cottage, a popular Main Street restaurant and bar in the 1930s and 1940s. It was literally one of the coolest places in town, at least after the owners installed one of Lexington's first air conditioners. Hoopes has that menu framed in her home.

Hoopes has donated several dozen menus to the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation, which will be selling them in the silent auction at its annual Antiques & Garden Show at the Kentucky Horse Park's Alltech Arena, March 7-9.

"I just collected them because I love the history of Lexington," Hoopes said. "I want somebody to get them who will keep them."

My wife, Becky, was organizing items for the auction and brought home the box of menus, which I started looking through. They were an interesting snapshot of what once passed for the high life in Lexington. And, oh, the prices!

The first menus that caught my eye were from La Flame on Winchester Road, which Kilbern A. Cormney opened in 1959. He later owned the Campbell House Inn, and at one time he had so many local clubs that he held 27 liquor licenses, according to his obituary. He died in 2009 at age 93.

La Flame was Lexington's "first real nightclub," recalled retired Herald-Leader columnist Don Edwards. In a 2005 column, he wrote that La Flame's entertainers included "Frank Sinatra Jr., mind readers, magicians, stand-up comics and, yes, classic strip-tease artists."

The strippers didn't go on until late at night "so the mayor's wife wouldn't get upset — that's what I promised her," Cormney told Edwards.

These La Flame menus appear to be from the early 1960s. The cover illustration shows the kind of shapely young woman in a tight skirt that "Mad Man" Don Draper would have been quick to chase. Most La Flame cocktails were 75 cents or 90 cents then, although a Zombi would set you back $1.95. The most expensive entree was the La Flame Sirloin strip steak, at $6. Lobster tails were $3.95 and lamb fries with gravy were $2.95.

The Little Inn at 1144 Winchester Road opened in 1930 as a Prohibition road house just beyond the city limits, which were then at Liberty Road.

"It grew into a crowded, popular place with a free-flowing bar and a jovial reputation," Edwards wrote in a 1990 column when the building was demolished.

"By 1945, it had a back room filled with nickel slot machines and was known for great steaks and the best blue cheese salad dressing around," he wrote. "Lots of people would have dinner there, then go dance to Big Band music at the Springhurst Club or Joyland Park."

Judging by prices on these two menus and three wine lists, they are from the 1970s, when a "man size" prime rib cost $11.95 and a bottle of French wine went for $8.75. The Little Inn moved to Chevy Chase in 1989, but closed a few months later.

There are a couple of menus and a wine list from Levas' restaurant. For most of its time (1956-1988), this Lexington institution was housed in an 1880s building at Limestone and Vine streets, which was demolished in 2008 for CentrePointe.

These menus appear to be from the 1960s, when a plate of fried oysters or sea scallops cost $6 and filet mignon was $8.95. The Levas family started with a hotdog stand in 1920. They were Greek, so customers could always count on the Grecian salad ($1.75) or lamb souvlaki ($7.50).

Other menus include Stanley Demos' Coach House, the Imperial House Motel's restaurant, the Lafayette Club, Old Towne Inn, Bagatelle, Merrick Inn and Bravo Pitino.

Then-Wildcat basketball Coach Rick Pitino opened Bravo Pitino in 1990, but two years later cut his investment and removed his name. It became Bravo's and closed in 1998, long before Pitino became a Cardinal.

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com

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