I have a confession: I really, really like restaurants that could be described as dives. When I lived in New Orleans, with its myriad celebrated eateries, I was always drawn to places where the jukebox was warm, the beer cold and the locals outnumbered tourists.
I’m not talking about dives in the sense that you go armed with mace in one hand and bug killer in the other, but rather the kind of place where substance triumphs over style; a place where a table might have only three legs and the heating is nonexistent, but the tea is always sweet and the hot Brown is a work of art.
So, imagine my delight when a friend suggested we meet at the Thoroughbred restaurant for a post-Christmas lunch. She had only recently discovered it, and I’m ashamed to say I never had, even though it has been a Lexington fixture for five decades.
It immediately put me in mind of those Crescent City places I loved. A bar takes up one whole wall (and always seems to be packed with drinkers right out of a Damon Runyon short story). Vintage black-and-white photos of Lexington’s racing history line the walls, and tables are so close together that strangers are friends by the end of the meal.
Never miss a local story.
Service is casual and cordial in the extreme. If your server feels like stopping and chatting awhile, that person at the next table impatiently waving his water glass can just hold his horses.
But even with all its quirky charm, it’s the food that keeps regulars coming back. You can order off the menu, with its requisite burgers, sandwiches, soups and salads, but my suggestion is to check the daily specials board at both lunch and dinner.
They have six to eight options at lunch and nine or 10 at dinner, with the highest-priced item being the dinner ribeye at $22.95. I ordered the meat loaf, and I expected it to be good, but I didn’t expect it to be the best meat loaf I can honestly say I’ve ever eaten.
Some restaurants put the sauce — whether tomato or brown gravy — on too thick, thus effectively drowning the meat loaf. Here, the sauce is a rich tomato and perfectly layered so it complements, rather than detracts from, the taste of the dish. For my two sides, I ordered fried potatoes and green beans — both cooked just the way my mother did (in case you’re wondering, that’s a compliment).
I was so anxious to try that meat loaf again that I went back a few nights later for dinner, and I insisted that my two sisters join me. We started with three appetizers: beer cheese ($6.75), fried banana peppers ($5.25) and fried mushrooms ($5.25). All were excellent (the beer cheese had a spicy kick to it), but the standout was the mushrooms, generous enough for three to share.
I waited anxiously for the evening specials on the chalkboard to see if the meatloaf was there (it was). When the server came around to take our order, I hadn’t even opened my mouth before I saw it being erased from the board. That quick: gone!
A warning: Once you make up your mind, place your order immediately, because many of the most popular dishes go fast. Trying to quell my disappointment, I went for the grilled grouper ($10.95 for one piece, $12.95 for two).
It might have been my disappointment, but the grouper tasted bland and unexciting — nothing wrong with it, but nothing exceptional either. Maybe grilled isn’t the way to go here, because my two sisters both ordered liver and onions ($9.95 for one piece, $11.95 for two), and it was so delicious it would make a liver-lover out of even the most finicky eater.
Sides include all your favorite home-cooked veggies — cabbage, greens, stewed tomatoes, green beans — and whatever you choose, you won’t go wrong.
Our server told us that night’s dessert was a blackberry cobbler that she had made herself, and she was worried that she hadn’t made enough. Taking our cue from the disappearing meat loaf, we quickly put in our orders.
I’m glad we did. It was moist, gooey and packed with luscious blackberries. I fear there were plenty of disappointed diners when they ordered dessert.
Seeing your dish disappear from the menu board with one swipe of an eraser is likely to be the only disappointment you’ll experience at the Thoroughbred.
Patti Nickell is a Lexington-based travel and food writer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.