As late as last year, people weren't comfortable walking at night along Jefferson Street, which had few businesses open and little foot traffic, said Lester Miller, an owner and general manager of Stella's Kentucky Deli.
But with a spate of business openings, Miller said, that atmosphere is clearly changing.
Among those opening recently have been the Grey Goose Bar, new tea café Cuppa and Wine + Market, which features evening wine tastings. Also, Wingspan Art Gallery is set to reopen on Saturday, and Don Wathen, who has extensive restaurant experience, has broken ground for a new building that will have a white tablecloth restaurant on the first floor and apartments on the second.
"It's really becoming a great neighborhood," Miller said.
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Stella's, opened by Darryl Woolums in the early 1980s, was already a popular deli when Miller and a group of investors bought it in April 2006. It was a daytime favorite for people who worked in and around downtown. "We tweaked the menu," Miller said. In December 2008, they began serving dinner.
"It was pretty quiet a lot of evenings, but things have really begun to pick up," he said.
A few steps from Stella's, the former home of Isle of You at the corner of Jefferson and West Short was the perfect spot when Lisa Samson decided to open Cuppa. "We love the location," she said last week. "It's great visibility."
When you think Cuppa, think Starbucks but for tea drinkers. Samson serves organic teas, drip coffee and espresso drinks. She bakes scones fresh daily and has sandwiches and other light fare. One afternoon recently, her eclectic mix of customers included University of Kentucky students, neighbors and a couple of downtown residents.
"It's really turning into an interesting group of people all along Jefferson to Manchester Street," said Sara Boyd, a UK graduate student who had her laptop propped on a table.
Wathen, who's breaking ground on a new building, pointed to other signs of "vitality" returning to this once bustling commercial street. There's the Artek condo project a couple of blocks away on Old Georgetown Street, beautiful renovation of houses all through the neighborhoods, called the Historic Western Suburb and Near Northside, and the infill housing project recently completed on nearby Miller Alley.
"I like the energy that's developing down here, and I wanted to be a part of it," Wathen said. "Jefferson Street is going to be an integral part of the downtown revitalization. I feel it coming."
Keith Clark, a long-time resident of West Second Street who owns several houses in the area and last fall opened the Grey Goose Bar, said a "healthy sign" is that most of the businesses on Jefferson are owner-occupied.
"When you have a business owner who says 'I own my building. I manage my business closely. I'm on the premises daily,' that's a very healthy sign that good things are happening," he said.
Among the businesses leading the revitalization are:
1. Cuppa: A Tea Cafe, 591 West Short Street: Owners Will and Lisa Samson call their new venture Lexington's first "tea-centric cafe." It's a sunny place to hang out with local art on the walls. Sample a selection of more than 50 loose teas, as well as coffee for the java fans, and freshly baked scones and light fare. It also features free Wi-Fi.
2. Stella's Kentucky Deli, 143 Jefferson Street: For years, it was a favorite lunch spot with downtown folks and it now serves dinner. Try Fancy Fridays with white linen tablecloths, candles and a creative menu. It specializes in simple foods made with high-quality, local ingredients. It also has a delightful patio and fun interior that can fill up fast.
3. Nick Ryan's, 157 Jefferson Street: With a background in the restaurant business, Don Wathen is building a 1920s-style building for his new casual, mid-priced restaurant. Apartments will be on the second floor. "I like the energy that's developing on Jefferson. I want to be a part of it," Wathen said. The original Nick Ryan's was a saloon on Mill Street in the early 1900s.
4. Grey Goose Bar, 170 Jefferson Street: Opened last October in a historical building, the Grey Goose has already become a favorite neighborhood watering hole and great place for pizza baked in a wood-burning oven. Owner Keith Clark was one of the original owners of Cheapside Bar. If the bar is crowded, head to the enclosed patio.
5. Wine + Market, 486 West Second Street: This European-style market, deli and wine shop offers a well stocked cheese case with all the classics, plus a few local cheeses. All are cut and wrapped to order. Take time to browse. Owner Krim Boughalem plans to expand to include a bakery and meat market.
6. Wingspan Gallery, 191 Jefferson Street: After an eight-month hiatus, Wingspan Gallery re-opens Saturday with an exhibit of Impressionist paintings by Joan Mudge. Owners Livia Theodoli-Wing and husband, Carlton, will resume catering cocktail and dinner parties in the gallery.
7. Cornermart Grill, 268 Jefferson Street: This full-stocked neighborhood convenience store was opened in September by Becky and Salvador Hernandez and offers homemade deli sandwiches and hot food, plus beer, lottery tickets and cigarettes. The Cornermart "has really taken off," said employee Wendy Wilson.
8. Green Lantern, 497 West Third Street: The business features a pool table, pinball machine, jukebox and good live music. It's a mix of young and old, down-to-earth folks.