Almost lost amid the bric-a-brac that covers every wall of Rick’s White Light Diner are two framed certificates that explain a lot about the place.
One is Chef Rick Paul’s 1975 diploma from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. The other is a Best of Frankfort citation declaring him the city’s Most Colorful Character.
“I know how to cook, and I like to banter with customers in my own cantankerous way,” Paul said. “A lot of people say it’s dinner and a show.”
That spicy combination has made the White Light Diner a tourist attraction since Guy Fieri, host of the Food Channel TV show, Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, featured it on a 2010 episode. That led to other media attention, from Southern Living magazine to The New York Times.
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“Guy Fieri was a godsend,” Paul said. “He put us on the map.”
Many of the diner’s customers are now out-of-towners, such as Jose and Mayra Vazquez of Miami. They were visiting their son in Shelbyville last week and decided to come over for lunch because they had seen the diner on Fieri’s show.
“It sounded good, so I said let’s go for a drive and see,” Jose Vasquez said. Two po-boy sandwiches and a slice of pie later, they were impressed.
The White Light Diner doesn’t look like much: a tiny 1940s building crowded with three tables for six and a counter with nine stools. In good weather, there’s more seating on deck near where Paul parks his Harley-Davidson Street Glide motorcycle.
Paul, with regular help from daughter Hannah Davis and longtime employee Jennifer Stosberg, cooks breakfast and lunch five days a week. His specialties are Cajun-style seafood dishes he learned about from Culinary Institute classmates from Louisiana.
Breakfast items include fresh beignets, eggs benedict, crawfish pie and Cajun omelets. The lunch menu is extensive, including Muffaletta and Cuban panini sandwiches, jambalaya, crawfish étouffée and lots of po-boy sandwiches: crawfish, shrimp, oyster, catfish, sausage or alligator. Paul also makes burgers and smokes pulled-pork barbecue.
“If you buy it here, we made it here,” he said, including the fresh-baked French bread he uses for sandwiches. “We’re a real restaurant.”
Paul said he buys as much farm-fresh local food as he can. All of the seafood comes from fishermen he knows in Louisiana or the East Coast and is flown in fresh, Paul said. Then he launched into a rant about how low-quality seafood from China is taking over the market.
Top-quality ingredients are a big reason the White Light Diner’s food is good — and pricey. Most lunch specialty items sell for $15.75, including a side dish.
“We spend a lot more money for ingredients than anybody else does,” Paul said. “We’re not looking for the cheapest. We’re looking for the best.”
But the real key to the diner’s success is Paul — his decades of culinary experience and a quirky personality that keeps customers entertained while they eat.
Paul was born in Louisville and grew up mostly in Lexington, where he graduated from Bryan Station High School. After a year at Morehead State University, he went into the Navy, then spent a couple of years at the University of Kentucky before he realized his future was cooking.
He had cooked with his mother growing up, and then in the Navy. Paul worked for Cornelius Sears at his Chef Sears Restaurant in Nicholasville and Stanley Demos at his Coach House Restaurant in Lexington. Demos encouraged him to go to the Culinary Institute.
That education landed Paul a job cooking at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia. When he returned to Kentucky, Paul became chef at Calumet Farm and then Lane’s End Farm. That led to several restaurant ventures and two bankruptcies.
“I’m not a businessman; I’m a cook,” Paul said. “Every failure has been the result of me, not anybody else.”
When he started the White Light Diner in 1991, Paul said he found his niche.
It helps that Paul’s daughter manages the business and tries to keep him in line, which isn’t easy. Paul loves discussing politics as much as cooking, and he has even less regard for right-wing Republicans than for imported Chinese seafood.
“This is probably the best job in America for me,” Paul said. “People come in from all over the world and I give ‘em dinner and a show.”
Rick’s White Light Diner
Where: 114 Bridge St., Frankfort
When: 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 8 a.m. - 3 p.m. Saturday
More information: whitelightdiner.com