BEREA — Way back in the 1930s — before Interstate 75, before cell phones, before Berea was the Artisan Capital of Kentucky, when the highways weren't always paved and driving was a true adventure — a traveling salesman from Chicago pulled into Berea and stopped at the Boone Tavern Hotel.
After a hard day of driving, the hotel must have looked like the Taj Mahal — a huge, gleaming white building in the middle of a sleepy town. That salesman was Bowling Green native Duncan Hines, the nation's first "restaurant critic" and the man who put Boone Tavern Hotel and Berea on the map.
Before he was the cake mix mogul most know him as today, Hines started his critiquing days by compiling a list of places to stop for good food and clean accommodations. Back then, road food could kill and overnight stays could be less than restful (say, in a barn next to railroad tracks). His list was shared with friends and colleagues as Christmas presents. It became so invaluable and popular that it evolved into a book series, Adventures in Good Eating.
Boone Tavern Hotel and another restaurateur on U.S. 25, Col. Harland Sanders in Corbin, were in the book. If Hines liked a place, you were "in." If Hines didn't like you, your place wasn't mentioned. But then in the late '50s and early '60s, I-75 was built, Berea was bypassed and Boone Tavern Hotel waned.
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In the '90s, my brother-in-law took my entire family to Boone Tavern for Thanksgiving and I considered doing a review. But the flower had turned to seed. It was neither the lovely place Hines visited in the '30s and '40s nor the nice restaurant my parents took their four, well-dressed brats for spoonbread and "chicken flakes in a bird's nest." No, no, had I reviewed it in the '90s, it would have been more like, "Run for your life, don't pass go, what a dump!"
Welcome to the 21st century and oh my, how things have changed at Historic Boone Tavern Hotel & Restaurant at Berea College. It's celebrating its centennial this year, it's on the National Register of Historic Places, and, with the World Equestrian Games coming next year, the powers that be decided it needed a facelift, a new chef and a return to its pre-eminence as a destination restaurant. It's well on the road.
The new dining room is powder blue, crystal chandeliers reflect in its highly polished wood floors and its well-napped tables have Chippendale-style chairs. But the tavern hasn't fully realized its decorative potential yet. The sofa art has to go. And surely with all the wonderful art galleries in Berea, something can be arranged to get good stuff on the walls.
The food has been brought into contemporary times, as well. While Boone Tavern has kept a couple of old favorites like those chicken flakes in a bird's nest ($17), its menu reads like a better Lexington restaurant's. There's good reason for that. The chef, Jeffrey Newman, is a Lexington native, and he studied at the Culinary Institute of America in New York.
Another welcome change: Our server was a professional and not a student. The restaurant used to be staffed by Berea College students. Tipping wasn't allowed, either, but 'tis now.
If you visit Boone Tavern, you will try the spoonbread. You must. Berea has built an annual festival around it. The cornbread soufflé, the hotel's signature dish, is offered by roving servers. It was one of my fondest memories from Boone Tavern (that and the skittles game), and on this visit, it was exactly as I remembered: hot, a bit eggy and luscious.
Another starter you must try, the pimento soup ($3 cup, $4 bowl), made the trip from Lexington worth it. It was sweet, creamy, lightly flavored with the tang of pimentos, warm and perfectly smooth.
The Tavern Creole crab cake appetizer ($10) was excellent. Lump crab was mixed with Creole spices, topped with a dollop of green chile pesto, served on fennel salad and surrounded with a tasty sauce made of peanut powder. It was an exceptional crab cake and certainly not typical of the Boone Tavern of old.
The roasted beet salad ($6 with entree) was another hit. Sliced roasted beets shared a platter with pickled pepper goat cheese and, most notably, braised walnuts. They were like boiled peanuts, very soft and tasty.
Entrees included soft shell crabs ($24). Two large crabs had been dipped in egg, dredged in seasoned flour and then sautéed. Served on top of both crabs was a dollop of lemon-truffle-chive tartar sauce, which my companions and I didn't like. It tasted just like regular tartar sauce and would have been better served on the side. Still, the crabs were delicious and came with a medley of glazed spring vegetables (including baby lima beans) and new potatoes.
The other entree was the night's special: tenderloin of beef topped with crab meat ($33). We asked that it be cooked medium rare, and thanks to the kitchen, that's the way it came. It was a fine cut of beef, and the crab meat didn't hurt it a bit. A few fried, breaded coconut shrimp were served as a bonus. Intensely coconut flavored, they were like eating a piña colada. I'm not totally sure how they were created because there wasn't that much visible coconut (maybe coconut flour?) but they were interesting.
Boone Tavern is proud of its spoonbread, and rightfully so. However, its dessert version, a chocolate spoonbread ($5), needs to be rethought. All the whipped cream in the world couldn't moisten this chocolate cornbread tart. Dry as dust.
Boone Tavern's version of chess pie ($4), however, was scrumptious. (We were told it was originally named Jefferson Davis pie.) Eggs, butter and sugar were the base, but it was spiced with either mace or nutmeg and lemon. Dollops of whipped cream came with it. It was a big hit.
Service was exceptional — and tippable.
Dinner for two, including two iced teas ($1.50 each) and tax (state and city tax equaling $7.47), was $90.47.
The food and hospitality at Historic Boone Tavern Hotel and Restaurant are well on the road to recovery. I have no doubt that Duncan Hines would be proud. This is my last review for the Herald-Leader, and I'm proud, too.