Summer reduces inhibitions. Clothes are lighter, nights are shorter, temperatures climb. Think of Martha and the Vandellas singing Dancing in the Streets. It's all about getting outside. That applies to al fresco drinking and dining, too.
Sidewalk and patio furniture appear from mid-spring through mid-autumn, and we all seize that window from April to November to increase the fun factor by living the fresh-air life.
Let's consider maximizing the eros of this sunny season. I have chosen a smattering of well-known Lexington scenes and asked their staff to reveal the amusing and the unabashed. Given the city's Anglophile tendencies and veneer of gentility associated with equestrian sports and civilized bourbon-sipping, some of these answers might surprise you.
Most of the venues are downtown, but a few extend farther south. I omitted places with views only of parking lots because the scenery and fumes just don't move me. This list, however, is hardly comprehensive; it's merely a jumping-off point for exploring outdoor dining and drinking.
All downtown revelers know Cheapside. Its newly renovated patio's second story offers excellent views of area historic architecture and delightfully shameless customers.
Manager Ryan Feheley remembers the spontaneous young woman who reached into her duffle bag and changed her shirt in front of everyone. No one blinked.
Props to patrons and management alike for keeping things laid-back. It's no wonder that, when I asked Feheley what song personifies Cheapside, he picked supercool Curtis Mayfield's Diamonds on the Back, Sunroof Down from the score of Superfly.
In 2003, nearby Le Deauville introduced the city center to Parisian sidewalk dining. Translation: casual elegance blended with French joie de vivre. Loyal regulars are unflappable: Manager Marc Puil recalls one dinner group happily waiting to regain their table after staff repaired the chaos from a flock of birds that had descended upon it.
Sit near the entrance to view the gorgeous 200-year-old trees in the parklike area opposite or for contemporary celebrity sightings, such as NBC sportscaster and native son Tom Hammond.
Bigg Blue Martini — in the Downtown Lexington Hotel and Conference Center, at South Broadway and West Vine Street — offers a charmingly romantic vista of splashy fountains, light-strewn trees and the occasional horse-drawn carriage. The clip-clopping of hooves and the click of heels are street syncopation, but outdoor speakers provide music, too. If the tunes get you going, the patio has a dance license.
Cars and pedestrians stream past, and this intersection has the best of both. I only wish I had been invited to the private party there that hired a petting zoo — complete with young lambs. Sweet.
Atomic Café's green patio seems closest to the whole concept: Patio means back yard or back garden in Spanish. But forget colonial refinement. The island energy and tropical tone evoke a good time in the Caribbean.
Co-owner Bill Riddle associates Bob Marley's Stir It Up with the feeling there. Only the Lexington skyline peeks over the boundary walls, tall trees and lush shrubs, giving privacy to such groups as the bachelorette party that once recruited a willing regular to stand in for the male dancer who was a no-show.
For bohos and progressive thinkers who relish art and conversation and want to pretend they're in New York, the obvious choice is Natasha's. Visual pleasures abound, from planters of purple flowers to The Kentucky Theatre's façade across the street (circa 1921) to the moody geometric shadows cast by Moroccan lanterns. There also is the joy of half-priced wine on Wednesdays and the culture of local independent theater and music inside the restaurant.
Bragging rights go to Natasha's as the hangout of choice for Richie Havens and Taj Mahal when they're in town. Owner/general manager Gene Williams picked Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen as Natasha's theme because, he says, "you would love to stay on the patio that long."
Because university life is a major driver around here for most of the year, the beer garden at Pazzo's is a must-visit. With 40 beers on tap, it attracts University of Kentucky types who stroll over for informal meetings or rocking recreation.
There is no live music, but a 9-foot by 12-foot big-screen projection television on one wall provides more than enough stimulation for Cats fans. Murals of horses racing and Pazzo's European alter-ego are a well-kept and beautifully maintained secret.
SOUTHBOUND IN ALL DIRECTIONS
A.P. Roots salutes Bluegrass farmers — "Local people, local food" — but that serious commitment in no way precludes a shock or two at this former grocery store. For example, on particularly nice days, customers have been known to stretch out in the French-style garden to catch the rays. Or there was the time, manager Jason Neely said, that a "gentleman drove his car through the front entryway of the building ... but no one was hurt." One reason to be outdoors is to bear witness. Neely thinks of Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me as the anthem for A.P. Roots because the patio and the sunshine mix so nicely.
What surprises people most about Merrick Inn, says manager Jennifer Murray, is how unstuffy and personal it is despite its stately grandeur. Trees are planted on the property for friends who have passed away. Yet, at this Secretariat of Lexington patios — big-hearted, beloved and enduring — the crowd is not above climbing fences to take a dip in the residential pool — and equally unfazed when asked to come out.
Sports notables including the equine industry's Nick Zito and Bob Baffert, as well as Cincinnati Bengals stars Carson Palmer, T.J. Houshmanzadeh and Chad Johnson, have made "most ogled" on Merrick's celebrity list. And, for those who must have a UK big name, recently hired Coach John Calipari Twittered about Merrick on May 13: "Just had the best fried chicken EVER."
The landscaping on Summit's patio is spacious and lovely, but who knew that it is set on one of the highest peaks in Lexington? The name says it all.
Here is the place where bourbon-sipping definitely works — Summit boasts one of the city's largest selections — yet in spite, or maybe because, of that, the friendly comfort level sometimes results in customers sitting in and getting down with that evening's regular band. When reporting this story, I was waiting for someone to include a jockey in a celebrity sighting. Thank you, Summit bar manager Robert Vap, for naming Kent Desormeaux.
And last, but certainly not least, we have Southland Drive's Marikka's Restaurant und Bier Stübe, with its white-sand volleyball court next to the patio. Although owner/manager Doug Tackett considers Welcome to the Jungle by Guns N' Roses the patio's theme song — draw your own conclusions — the beer list is by contrast erudite and encyclopedic: more than 500 brews at last count. There's no live music but a rocking jukebox.