On Wednesday night, the restaurants, bars and breweries on or near Jefferson Street are holding the Jefferson Street Soiree to introduce themselves to local foodies and those of the horse world.
Timed to coincide with the annual Keeneland September Yearling Sale, the largest auction of young Thoroughbreds in the world, the event will be a street-long cocktail party.
Restaurants from Wagon Bones barbecue to Smithtown Seafood at the West Sixth Brewery will serve gourmet street food, often paired with drink specials, outside. Inside, most restaurants will offer specially priced offerings.
The food fest could be considered a tasty test run for the 2015 Breeders' Cup, to be held next October at Keeneland for the first time. The track, the championship and Lexington businesses recently formed a host committee to plan efforts to welcome the thousands of horse racing fans from around the world to the Bluegrass and make the most of the economic opportunity presented.
VisitLEX officials said they hope that events such as the soiree will create a new town-track synergy.
Niki Heichelbech, spokeswoman for the Lexington visitors' center, said the group's Beyond Grits initiative was interested in doing something to showcase the city's burgeoning culinary and craft beer scene — and it turned out Keeneland had the same idea.
"We wanted to find a way to better connect our sales clients to Lexington's vibrant downtown," Bill Thomason, Keeneland president, said in a statement. "We are delighted to partner with our friends at VisitLEX, and the restaurants and bars along Jefferson Street, to create an event that will showcase the rich culinary heritage of Lexington and the evolution of one of the city's hippest areas."
The restaurants had tried for a while to get a street event off the ground, said Seth Brewer of Wine+Market and Enoteca. Once they all came together, things clicked.
Jefferson Street from Short to Second will be closed to traffic from 6 to 10 p.m., and restaurant owners will set up food and drink booths, plus stages for live music. There will be free parking at the lot behind Rupp Arena in the Cox Street lot, with a trolley taking visitors to the Jefferson Street corridor all the way to West Sixth Brewing.
For the locally owned businesses along Jefferson Street, this is a chance to showcase the dining district that has emerged in the past six years.
Before 2008, only Stella's Kentucky Deli and The Green Lantern bar were open on the street. Now they have been joined by The Grey Goose, Nick Ryan's Saloon, Wagon Bones Grill, Wine+Market, Enoteca, The Blue Heron Steakhouse, Chase Tap Room, County Club Restaurant, West Sixth Brewing and Smithtown Seafood. Blue Stallion Brewery is just around the corner on Third Street, and Alltech's brewery and distillery are just across the viaduct on the other side of the railroad tracks.
Les Miller, owner and chef at Stella's, said the neighborhood around the dining district, with its beautiful older houses, has been in transition for a long time. When he took over Stella's in 2006, "it was ripe for rejuvenation," he said. "I think there's some critical mass that's been building."
The area has gained a reputation for great locally sourced offerings for a while, but with the soiree, restaurant owners and chefs hope to take their act to a larger stage. The Keeneland September sale draws thousands of buyers from nearly every state and more than 50 countries.
"There are many of us who have been passionate about this area of town for a while now, and we couldn't be more excited to showcase the nightlife along Jefferson to the Keeneland sales clients, visitors and residents of Lexington who might not be as familiar with downtown Lexington," Keith Clark, owner of The Blue Heron and The Grey Goose, said in a statement.
But they plan to stay true to their Kentucky roots: Blue Heron will offer a char-grilled oyster appetizer and other grilled "hand food," Clark said, "to kind of give people a little flavor for the appetizers we run there."
Stella's will feature Kentucky cassoulet, burgoo and watermelon gazpacho, with a $20 four-course "taste of Kentucky" menu inside.
Up the street at Wine+Market and Enoteca, co-owner Renee Saunier Brewer said, they will be teaming up with Alltech to feature the brewery's Pumpkin Ale and other beers and with Maker's Mark to offer special cocktails made with the new Maker's Mark Cask Strength to go with tapas.
"Every single business brings something to the table," she said. "There's not a lot to do in the middle of the week, when the sale first starts, and everyone was interested in finding something fun to bring folks downtown and Jefferson Street just made sense, with everything concentrated here."
Keeneland also has gotten in on the act, teaming up with Country Boy Brewing for Keeneland Sale Ale, a special beer offered at Jefferson Street taps and in the sales pavilion just for the start of the September sale.
Brady Barlow of West Sixth said that brewery will have on hand all its canned beers, including the newly offered Pay It Forward Cocoa Porter.
Blue Stallion will bring its Hefeweizen, Dunkel and Helles beers to the soiree, co-owner Kore Donnelly said.
"This block party should be a lot of fun."