Visiting Lexington, my once staid hometown, took me to a place I didn't recognize


Lexington, I thought we had a deal.

You were supposed to stay the same lovable, but — let's be honest — staid college town where I grew up in the '70s and '80s. You were supposed to be my Bedford Falls. I remember watching It's a Wonderful Life for the first time in a film class at UK and practically yelling at the screen, "Get out, George! To hell with the Building and Loan. Let it burn! Go, George!"

I left Lexington for good in 2000, but these days, when I visit I feel like I'm in some parallel world vision of the town I knew. It's as if George Bailey had crawled out of that river to learn that, without him, Uncle Billy would be running a trendy restaurant, Violet would have opened a coffee shop and art gallery and Mary would have started a glossy magazine devoted to the local food scene.

There's a sense of energy and enthusiasm in Lexington now that I frankly don't recognize but recently decided to see up-close. I brought my wife and 10-year-old son for a weekend. Here's some of what we found and would recommend.

Coba Cocina

Eating here seemed essential because it just looks so odd, like an intergalactic disco that soft-landed in the parking lot of the Idle Hour Shopping Center. How many idle hours did I spend in this area as a child never to imagine it might one day be home to a restaurant that boasts the world's largest privately owned jellyfish aquarium?

When we walked in, I felt a little hypnotized by the neon blue lighting, glass sculptured light fixtures and of course the jellies, floating and glowing in a giant tube in the center of the two-story, two-bar restaurant.

Put this in the middle of a larger city and you could double the prices and triple the clientele's hipster quotient. As it was, we were relieved to find the servers were friendly and engaging and the Mexican-Latin menu filled with tasty-sounding items whose descriptions were engaging yet understandable. Kudos to the owners for going all in on style for Coba Cocina's building, but keeping the menu and general vibe accessible. There's nothing sophisticated about snobbery.

We savored the shrimp Diablo and Red chile Caesar salad, though nothing in the experience was as impressive as the fact that my son devoured two bowls of the house dip and now claims to enjoy black beans.

Trust Lounge

This is the dance club that Coba Cocina appears to be, only it's in a century-old building that was once a Main Street Bank. It's a gorgeous space with hardwood floors and crown molding. On this night, a sign in its window advertises something called a "Silent Disco." Manager Taylor Mullins tells me that they'll be broadcasting their DJ's tunes through headsets that patrons will receive upon arrival instead of through the club's speakers.

"It's popular in a lot of bigger cities and we wanted to see how it goes here," he said.

The idea seems equal parts cool and ridiculous but more to the point, like something else that this new Lexington might be ready for that the old one I know likely would not have. I'd check the scene out if I still had the capacity to stay awake till 2:30 a.m. when the place closes. If that intrigues you, Trust Lounge is easy to find; it's right across from that giant hole in the middle of downtown.

By the way, why is there a giant hole in the middle of downtown? Did something crash there?

Lexington Dinner Train

The view was a little industrial on the first few minutes of our lunchtime ride on the R.J. Corman Dinner Train. Once our restored 1940s dining car reached horse country, it became lovely, a ride out of time and I remembered how much I've always loved the countryside around Lexington.

Our generally poor experience with dining on trains, boats and other forms of novelty transportation meant that we basically assumed that going on the Dinner Train for the dinner would be like going to a UK basketball game for the music. The food turned out to be worthy of the scenery.

The harvest beef bourguignon and lobster pot pie were hearty, well made and attractively presented. The bourbon pecan pie was perhaps the tastiest dessert, but the most unforgettable had to be chocolate choo-choo for two, a hunk of milk chocolate carved into the shape of a train and served with whipped cream and a cherry.

Blue Stallion Brewing

Along with Country Boy Brewing and West 6th, Blue Stallion is a significant part of Lexington's burgeoning craft beer scene. A fantastic beer excites me far less than, say, an above-average sundae, but it seemed important to visit, in part because it's a cool, happening place on West Third near Newtown Pike, a neighborhood I honestly don't think I'd ever visited.

Blue Stallion's tap room is clean and spacious yet without pretension. There's a shuffleboard table, pool table and two dart boards. On this Friday night, the clientele seemed to range in age from about 25-65, with the notable exception of a toddler sitting in her father's lap by the window.

Gratz Park Inn

Built around 1916, this place is only new in geologic time, but I'd never stayed there so it was new to me. Gratz Park Inn always seemed to belong to some other Lexington. That's part of what made it fun to use it as a base as we checked out Lexington's nouveau attractions.

Admittedly, in terms of décor, Gratz Park Inn is a little stuffy, with more class than style, but there's something special about looking out the window of a second floor room onto North Upper Street and imagining that except for the power lines, that view might not have changed much since the early 20th century.

Still to do and see

There's more, of course: ice skating in Triangle Park, breakfast at Doodles, walking along the Legacy Trail. Lexington has changed and I like much of what I see here. Next time I'm in, the one traditional place I have to visit is the Kentucky Theatre. I peeked in the other night. It's been years, though I've been here many times, of course.

The Kentucky is new, too, in a way. It re-opened earlier this year after getting a much-needed renovation involving new digital projectors, seats, carpeting, paint. It looked beautiful. I had my first date here (in 1987, wow typing those four numbers sends a shudder up my arms). I'd love to take my family to a show here. Louisville, where we live, has no movie house experience that comes close.

I love that on the screens of the Kentucky, present and past live side by side. The theatre's December schedule features new movies like Wild and The Imitation Game as well as a series of holiday classics. I've half a mind to come in today at 3 p.m. and spend a little time with my old friend George Bailey.

These days, it's the only way I can get to Bedford Falls.