A restaurant manager runs off with the register receipts; another restaurant's namesake gets arrested; feather boas and polyester suits catch on fire (a bad bananas Foster incident); and a notorious rogue cop gets shot on the steps of an upscale restaurant.
A few legendary stories came to mind when we found a box of old Lexington restaurant menus, but they also brought back fond memories of special occasions at places like Rogers Restaurant, The Little Inn, The Saratoga, Bungalow, Executive House and Columbia's.
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The old menus — some still in their leatherlike covers, others discolored by age — were located after a request from cookbook author Regina Charboneau of Natchez, Miss., who came to Lexington earlier this month as part of a book tour. She is collecting old and new menus for the Southern Food and Beverage Museum (www.southernfood.org).
”I think menus are a great way to archive food history. Restaurant menus really tell a story and give a time line for the popularity of ingredients and trends,“ Charboneau said.
Museum curator Elizabeth Pearce agreed.
”Menus are by their nature ephemeral, as restaurants change them daily or seasonally, printing them on material not meant to last,“ she said. ”People rarely save menus, unless they are marking a particularly important, celebratory meal. This is unfortunate as menus are often the only physical remains of a restaurant's past.“
We decided to take a trip down memory lane and ask a few readers about their favorite restaurants of the past. If this sparks a recollection, we'd like to hear from you, too. We plan to write an occasional series about Lexington restaurants. E-mail your story to swthompson@ herald-leader.com.
”Hearing the name of a restaurant can have the same effect as a song you hear for the first time in ages. It transports you back in time to a really memorable day or moment, and the details come flooding back for just a few seconds,“ said Gayle Deaton of Beattyville.
The Bistro in Chevy Chase
”Restaurants have always been an integral part of the horse scene and wannabes. That's where the entertainment is,“ Donna Potter said.
Potter who owns Catering by Donna, once was a partner in a downtown restaurant called Capers. While attending the University of Kentucky, Potter worked at many of Lexington's hot spots in the '70s, including the Bistro at 829 Euclid Avenue in Chevy Chase.
”That was an entertaining place to work,“ she said. ”There was a lot of money flying around in town in entertainment. People were spending. It wasn't unusual for me to get $500 in tips a night, and sometimes more, during Keeneland. When the high rollers in the horse business would have a big win — or anyone who had won a lot — they'd be throwing money.“
The little French bistro was the place to see and be seen for about eight years, until owners Sandy Fields and Louis Cease parted ways.
David Larson, who owned The Pampered Chef around the corner on South Ashland Avenue, (it was formerly The In-Between) recalls the Bistro's glory days. ”When I pass by that location today, I laugh and think two things: If only those walls could talk, and if you could somehow harness all the energy expended in that building during those years, you could light Lexington for decades,“ he said.
When Cease left, Fields kept the Bistro and hired Georgia Feeney, who had worked at the Bungalow and Le Café Chantant, 137 West Vine Street. Cease went on to open La Brasserie at 210 West Main Street in the old Rick's Place. In November 1988, Cease opened C'est Si Bon at East Main Street and South Ashland. which has housed many restaurants including The Stirrup Cup, Le Café Français and Furlongs.
After Fields closed the Bistro, she joined a la lucie owner Lucie Slone in a new venture, The Rosebud, in the former site of The Bungalow, 121 North Mill Street.
The Bungalow was where downtown movers and shakers ate lunch and dinner, and it had a lively bar crowd. ”The food was fabulous when John Ferguson and Joe Woosley were there,“ Potter said. Her first bartending job was at The Bungalow. ”I made a killing there, but I never knew what I had.“
Ferguson went on to open Fleur de lys at 216 East Main Street in the old Plaza Café location in February 1987. It was destroyed by fire a few months later, and he moved into the old Gabby's Gourmet Grille spot at 127 South Upper Street.
At that same time, French-born Alain Rochelemagne opened Acajou at 265 North Limestone, a building renovated by Tim Mellin and his brother James. When Rochelemagne left Acajou in 1990, he opened Le Café Français Restaurant and Piano Bar at 535 East Main Street. Tim Mellin, Lynda Hoff and Dale Holland turned Acajou site into Atomic Café in 1992, serving a Caribbean menu.
Rogers Restaurant, founded in 1923, was Lexington's oldest eatery when it closed in July 2004. The first time Deaton went to Rogers Restaurant was in the '60's; she was 17 or 18 and coming home from the Sweet 16 tournament in Louisville with a friend, a recent UK grad who ”was practically drooling by the time we got there,“ she said.
Deaton had fond memories of being on a double-date at The Cork & Cleaver, 2750 Richmond Road, (now Columbia's) after attending UK football games in the '70s.
”There was a fire in the fireplace near our table, and we had really great steaks, with candlelight to eat them by, and their famous mud pie for dessert. The restaurant was romantic and beautiful and a perfect place to end an autumn Saturday,“ she said.
The Little Inn
The Little Inn, 1144 Winchester Road, opened in 1930 as a Prohibition-era roadhouse just outside Lexington's city limits. It was considered the first restaurant between Lexington and the mountains.
In January, 1989, The Little Inn moved uptown to Chevy Chase to the former site of the Bistro, which had closed in fall 1988. It was a popular spot until August 1989, when a sign was hung on the door that read: Closed for vacation. It never reopened. In January, 1990, the original Winchester Road building was razed.
”It was a very special time, date, to go to The Little Inn on a Friday night for one of their delicious steaks,“ Mary Jane Davis of Winchester said. ”The first time I went, I was dressed to the nines and remember thinking or praying I would use the right utensils. It was crowded and noisy and, yes, dark.“
The Little Inn was known for its prime rib (a large painting of a prime rib was on one side of the building) — as well as baby-beef liver, frog legs and lamb fries.
The Saratoga, 856 East High Street, was a Chevy Chase landmark and best known for its characters: bookies, college professors, socialites and city hall types.
Totsie Rose opened it in 1953 and named it after the famous Saratoga Race Track in New York. Ted Mims owned it from 1977 to 1989. He bought it from Ed Whitlock, who had bought it from Rose. Rob Ramsey and Joe Reilly, co-owners of Ramsey's Diner, owned it for a short time.
A Toga menu, served from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. Monday through Saturday, featured Mrs. McKinney's snappy beer cheese ($2.95), fried bologna ($2.50), cold meatloaf on white ($4.95) and fried egg sandwich ($2.50). The hot plate special for a Derby weekend was chicken and dumplings for $6.95.
In the late 1980s, Lexington's restaurant landscape really began to change.
When Lexington Festival Market opened with a flourish in 1986, it brought Jay's Seafood, Charlie & Barney's (now Sawyer's), and Scores Sports & Stakes Restaurant & Bar. Scores, on the top floor of Festival Market, was owned by David L. Gayheart and Richard M. Noonan. Menu items included Joe B's trout, filets à la Roy Kidd, Sutton's steak, and steak Claiborne.
In February 1986, former Mayor Jim Amato and friends opened an upscale Italian restaurant at 535 West Second Street, in the renovated West Jefferson Place. The menu featured Italian dishes prepared from recipes collected by Amato and his kitchen manager, Mary Parlanti. Amato's was sold to Tracy Farmer in 1988; two years later, Amato's moved from Second Street to Chevy Chase Plaza, and in 1992 it was bought by Geraldo Favaro, who closed the doors in 1993.
Stanley Demos' Coach House
Demos opened the four-star restaurant in 1969 at 855 South Broadway, and sold it to his daughter, Tootsie Nelson, when he retired to Sarasota, Fla., in 1989. In 1992, Demos' daughter Tootsie Nelson and her husband Sam sold it to John and Marsha DuPuy. The Nelsons and master chef Tony Seta had opened Tootsie & Tony's Restaurant and Bar in Hartland Shopping Center in September, 1991.
Tootsie & Tony's specialties were wood-grilled pizzas, steaks and salmon cooked in a brick oven imported from France. They introduced Lexington to potato rags, thinly grated fried potatoes covered with ranch dressing, cheese, bacon and green onions.
In 1989, Mesut Sakar, who was maitre d' at Stanley Demos' Coach House for nine years, opened 1880 Restaurant & Bar at 270 South Limestone. In 1991, Sakar was featured on Bluegrass Crime Stoppers for bilking Lexington banks out of several thousands of dollars.
Allman's and Hall's on the River
Johnny Allman opened his first restaurant in the late '30s on the Kentucky River, and it was there that he used his cousin Joe Allman's recipes and created a home for beer cheese and fried banana peppers.
The restaurant flooded many times and burned down twice — or maybe three times.
It was Johnny Allman who started a tradition that the Hall family inherited. George and Gertrude Hall started Hall's on the River in 1965. Hall's on the River has seen thousands of regular folks drop by as well as former Govs. Martha Layne Collins and John Y. Brown Jr.; Hollywood legends Lily Tomlin. Lee Majors and Raymond Burr; and members of the British royal family.
The Halls' son, Steve bought the business from his family in 1981 and in 1983 opened Hall's on Main at North Ashland Avenue and East Main Street in Lexington, where Furlongs is now.
The early chains
As Lexington continued to grow, chain restaurants began to take over the suburbs. In the early '70s, Lexington was a test market for chain restaurants, and some of the first on the scene were Ireland's, Steak 'n Ale, Mississippi River Co., T.W. Lee's, and W.W. Cousins.