I’ve always been a fan of historic properties that offer dining and accommodations. They’re just so … historic. But I also am aware that if patrons are asked to swallow a history lesson, the food they swallow should be equally palatable.
Several years ago, that wouldn’t always have been the case at Boone Tavern, situated on Berea’s College Square. The history was there all right — founded in 1909 and named in honor of Daniel Boone — and it quickly became a favorite of guests traveling Dixie Highway and stopping to check out its reputation for Southern cooking (among those guests were Eleanor Roosevelt, Henry Ford, Robert Frost and the Dalai Lama).
It has never lost its renown for the signature spoonbread, a cornmeal-based dish that is part bread and part savory pudding, but the rest of the menu, over the years, became a bit more pedestrian, and tourists rather than those who knew and appreciated good food made up the bulk of its diners.
That began to change in 2008, when a nearly $10 million renovation upgraded guest rooms, public spaces and the dining room. Also, the 2014 introduction of alcoholic beverages to the restaurant for the first time increased business and perhaps gave the menu a needed boost.
Whatever the reason, my most recent visit to Boone Tavern was a significant improvement over past visits. The spoonbread is as delicious (and filling) as ever, and the rest of the menu can now hold its own.
Several of us went for a recent holiday lunch, and in addition to the glass of wine we could enjoy with our meal, the food itself was satisfying and delicious.
I’ll start with what I had: a Boone Tavern classic, chicken flakes in a bird’s nest ($17) — creamed chicken served in a crisp potato nest with mashed potatoes, green beans and cranberry-orange relish.
I’ve ordered it before, and it sometimes came out soggy and fairly tasteless. This time it was spot-on — creamy where it should be creamy and crisp where it should be crisp. I polished off every morsel, particularly loving the zestiness of the relish paired with the subtle flavors of the chicken.
One in our party had the hot Brown ($14) and said the thick slices of fresh roasted turkey were dressed with a Mornay sauce that was a cut way above the cheesy concoction that sometimes overshadows the taste of the dish.
Another of our group was equally complimentary of the fried catfish basket ($14). He said the catfish, rolled in Weisenberger Mills fish batter, were lightly battered, fried to perfection and deliciously moist. The basket comes with the usual fries, cole slaw and hushpuppies, plus a somewhat unusual green onion tartar sauce.
A good starter is the Howard’s Creek beer cheese platter served with carrots, celery and crackers for dipping ($7) or the fried green tomatoes, cornmeal-crusted with warm pimento cream, greens and pickled onions ($8).
Four of us had the soup of the day ($7) — a stuffed pepper soup more like a thick stew and all of us polished it off. They should consider making this a regular on the menu.
As far as food is concerned, if Boone Tavern hasn’t reached the level of haute cuisine (and it doesn’t really need to), the excellence of its culinary team has made it possible for visitors to enjoy a first-rate meal.
Service can be spotty, but more in the case of a forgotten glass of water or a failure to refill a coffee cup than anything egregious. Remember, these are students and not professional waiters and waitresses.
As for ambiance, the dining room and public spaces are so refined that if old Dan’l showed up today in buckskins and muddy moccasins, he would probably be shown the door.
All in all, Boone Tavern is definitely worth making the 45-minute drive from Lexington.
Patti Nickell is a Lexington-based travel and food writer. Reach her at email@example.com.
Address: 100 Main Street North, Berea
Hours of Operation: Breakfast 7 a.m.-10 a.m. daily, lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. daily, dinner 5-8 p.m. nightly (winter hours), Sunday brunch, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.
Payment: Cash and major credit cards
Other: Ample parking in the rear of the building.