Restaurant News & Reviews

It's the piano, man

The Penguin Dueling Piano Bar, whose name evokes the black and white of piano keys, is a rambunctious and bawdy place. The public might be clamoring for more — the crush at the entrance after 10 p.m. is pretty tight — but it's probably a good thing that it has limited hours at the moment: Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights only. Otherwise, people would just be worn out.

If you arrive at 8, you almost have the place to yourself, exposing the current renovation, which probably will be complete by the time this story goes to press. But one hour later, all that's invisible. The dueling piano players arrive; by 10:30 there's a drummer, and you no longer see the dry-walled posts or the half-finished ceiling. That view has been replaced by a crowd of faces, a wall of bodies, a ground floor and mezzanine of packed tables and attractive backlit bars that serve draft beer, wine and spirits, and where, if you are lucky, über-professional bartender Al Kokwaro will pour your drink.

Unlike venues where music is a mere spectator sport, The Penguin is all about interactivity. There are not one but three piano players on any given evening, coming sometimes from as far away as Nevada. They rotate, playing two at a time, and riff off each other on the baby grands, facilitated by the joy of standards spanning decades — and slugs of Red Bull.

And the audience gets involved. Every table has a pile of blank request cards to be filled in with a song, the artist and comments (include a tip when passing these to the entertainers). It is not uncommon for patrons to go onstage, from a silent presence on a piano bench to uninhibited tail-shaking. In general, however, most involvement comes in the form of sing-along and call-and-response.

The original Penguin was started 4½ years ago in Columbia, Mo., by a group of University of Missouri graduates, including co-owner Craig Hays, who earned his bachelor's degree in economics there.

"When we first looked to expand from the Missouri location, we were looking for towns with 250,000-plus people that had a college," Hays said. Homecomings and basketball, football, fraternities, sororities, parents weekends — all create a destination for large groups. But they also wanted a strong presence of young professionals, their target audience.

"We felt that Lexington fit those criteria well," Hays said.

Probably the most remarkable thing about The Penguin is the range of music. Regardless of your demographic, you won't feel cheated. These players know seemingly every hit that ever made the charts in the past 40 years: Neil Diamond and John Mellencamp, Jimmy Buffet and Randy Newman, and whatever else you can conjure up.

Apparently, the rule of thumb is that these artists should know a minimum of 1,200 songs by heart; the majority know more like 3,000.

It's mind-blowing.

On the Web site, the Penguin's concept is billed as "your personal jukebox." But that's a machine. Here it's all live. All good. All fun.

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