Lexington food scene shifting: New restaurants coming, old slip away

Gone: Rincon Mexicano closed unexpectedly in 2016. Nothing has been announced to take its place in Chevy Chase, above Charlie Brown’s.
Gone: Rincon Mexicano closed unexpectedly in 2016. Nothing has been announced to take its place in Chevy Chase, above Charlie Brown’s. Herald-Leader file photo

The last year has seen a lot of changes to Lexington’s food scene, from new groceries coming in to familiar restaurants going out. And for every old favorite that disappears, there are new ones waiting in the wings hoping to earn a spot on your regular dining roster.

New restaurants always seem to do well in this town, at least for a while. But the food and service have to be good. The much anticipated Macho Nacho, which opened at Euclid and High in December, closed after only three months, a disappointment to many. Now, almost a year later, Louie’s Wine Dive has opened there and expectations again are high.

▪  When a new place delivers, it can build a loyal following. Lexingtonians mourned when Billy’s Bar-B-Q left, but Joella’s Hot Chicken, which opened at the corner of Cochran and Tate’s Creek in March, has done booming business.

And now Joella’s has some serious competition, with Big Shake’s Hot Chicken on Broadway, which opened in June. Both continue to be popular with diners, perhaps an indication that even more spicy chicken will be in Lexington’s future.

▪  Ultra rich shakes definitely will be, with even more creamy goodness coming down the pike with first Freddy’s Frozen Custard & Steakburgers due to open out at Hamburg, a second BurgerFi opening next to the University of Kentucky campus, and then cult favorite Shake Shack, which is coming to the The Summit at Fritz Farm sometime in 2017.

▪  If 2016 was the year of hot chicken and shakes, 2017 likely will be the year the burger and pizza wars get serious.

▪  And the grocery scene likely will become even more competitive now that Lucky’s Market and Fresh Thyme have joined fray this year. Good Foods Co-op, which said it would announce plans for a potential second location, has been quiet on that front so far.

▪  In fact, all of Lexington’s food scene is likely to feel the heat from The Summit, which will have 22 restaurants, including several locally owned concepts in The Barn food hall, as well as the Whole Foods grocery, which is moving from Lexington Green.

Besides Shake Shack, The Summit will have Honeywood, a 4,500-square-foot restaurant from Beard-nominated chef Ouita Michel; Athenian Grill; Babalu Tacos & Tapas; Blaze Pizza; Blue Sushi; Crank & Boom; CRÚ Food & Wine Bar; Edley’s Bar-B-Que; Grimaldi’s Pizzeria; J. Alexander’s steakhouse; Marksbury Farm Market; Starbucks; Steel City Pops; Ted’s Montana Grill; Texas de Brazil and World of Beer.

The opening sometime in the spring will undoubtedly have ripples across the Lexington dining scene, which is already in flux.

▪  Fayette Mall last year saw the closing of Abuelo’s, which is now Oak Springs Grill, a new concept from the same company, and the loss of Travinia Italian Kitchen. But BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse opened in front of Macy’s.

▪  Lexington Green, which will lose Whole Foods to The Summit, has not announced what will come in its place. But last summer the complex opened Jax Burgers & Brews, which also has boozy milkshakes, and began a thriving summer music series. In the same area, Mellow Mushroom opened a second location, too.

▪  In fact, some of the stiffest competition in 2017 is likely to be amongst Lexington’s many fast-casual pizza places. Now that MOD Pizza is open in Hamburg, Blaze Pizza on South Limestone, Pie Five Pizza on South Broadway and at Fayette Mall and Uncle Maddio’s Pizza on Euclid, expect the sauce and cheese deals to fly.

And don’t forget the traditional pizza places, including Goodfellas, which will open a location in the Pepper distillery soon next to the James Pepper micro distillery.

▪  Another area that’s seen big changes this year: Chevy Chase, after years of the same dining options. Besides Macho Nacho and Billy’s, Rincon Mexicano closed and the former Art Bar was torn down to make way for Bear & The Butcher, a meat-friendly sports bar that will open in 2017 next to the Beer Trappe. No word yet on what might go into the Rincon spot over Charlie Brown’s. Just around the corner, La Petite Délicat, which sells handmade macarons, likely will have to move to a new location so the building can be torn down for a Kroger parking lot.

▪  There were other significant casualties in 2016: Coba Cocina on Richmond Road closed in April despite the efforts of chef Jonathan Lundy to revamp the menu. National Provisions, once hailed as a culinary star, went out under a cloud. Natasha’s on Esplanade stayed empty. And Sabio in Dudley Square went to private dining with plans to close altogether at the end of March. It’s unclear what, if anything, will go into any of these prime spots.

▪  Other losses were quickly filled: The Upstart Crow, which closed on Short after a year, will be where Lundy opens his much anticipated Corto Lima after the first of the year. Willie’s Locally Known moved to Southland Drive, which made way for Maria’s Kitchen to expand on Broadway. Shorty’s Market and Tap on Short Street closed but School Sushi will reopen there in March. The former Atomic Cafe spot on North Limestone reopened as the very upscale Grillfish.

Where a la lucie’s on Limestone closed in late 2015, Minglewood opened in 2016. Cosmic Charlie’s closed on Woodland, but re-opened on National next to the new Mirror Twin Brewing. Sal’s and MEATS MKT closed in Lansdowne but Malone’s expanded its banquet space. House of Soul closed on Limestone but a second Graze is coming; around the corner on Vine, a Mexican restaurant closed but The Madame Eatery & Juke Joint (from the chef behind Mia’s) will be opening.

▪  At the high end of things, restauranteur Jeff Ruby made waves in February over his complaints about the lack of progress at CentrePointe, where he’d planned to open a steakhouse. Meanwhile, Lockbox opened in the new 21c Museum Hotel in the middle of downtown and Carson’s Food & Drink opened on the east end of Main.

▪  They won’t be the last new additions or changes to the downtown scene: Will Lucie’s Red Light finally open? What will become of JDI Grille & Tavern on Broadway? Or Lynagh’s on Woodland or Alfalfa on Main, which are for sale?

Stay tuned and stay hungry.