BEREA — Boone Tavern has long been known as a place for iconic Southern fare such as spoonbread or "chicken flakes in a bird's nest," a dish of creamed chicken served over a crispy shell of shredded potatoes.
Although "tavern" is part of its name, the 103-year-old hotel and restaurant has never sold alcohol. Nevertheless, out-of-town diners often ask for drinks with their meals.
"We do get that pretty much every week," said general manager Gary McCormick. Servers politely tell customers that if they want something stronger than coffee or tea, they'll have to drive 14 miles north to Richmond.
That could change in the wake of last week's East Berea Precinct vote of 146 to 57 favoring the limited sale of alcohol by the drink at Boone Tavern. Whether that actually happens is up to the 30-member board of trustees of Berea College, which owns Boone Tavern.
Berea College President Larry Shinn said last week that the board is "some distance" from making a decision on whether Boone Tavern sells alcohol.
"It is a fairly significant event for even a precinct of Berea to have made this vote, but I think it's a long way from saying that Boone Tavern is now going to serve alcohol," Shinn said.
Shinn, who retires in June, said the alcohol issue will not be on the agenda for the May trustees' meeting. His successor, Lyle Roelofs, will start work July 1, but Shinn doubts the board will take up the matter in the fall.
"I doubt it because you have a brand-new president, and the new president is going to try to learn about the institution, get a sense of our history and talk to trustees," Shinn said. "I can't predict what my successor will do. If I were he, it would not be the first issue that I would take off the table. My point is, there is no urgency for Berea College to respond to the new circumstance for Boone Tavern to serve alcohol by the drink."
Nor could Shinn predict how the "trustees will translate our historic opposition to alcohol."
"Our founder, John Fee, was anti-sin, anti-caste, meaning anti-class, and 'anti-rum,'" Shinn said. "Well, that reverberates throughout the institution over time. But we're a very different institution today than we were in 1855."
For example, smoking and dancing were once prohibited on campus, and at one time "you could have been thrown out of Berea College for smoking," Shinn said.
Those restrictions were relaxed in the 1940s, when the college hosted 790 naval-officer candidates for preliminary training during World War II. Berea College now restricts smoking, for health reasons, to designated spots on campus.
Last week's East Berea Precinct decision was the third approved by voters since a 2006 state law took effect. The law allowed local-option elections for precincts with sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places that also have restaurants and lodging.
The first vote was on Nov. 6, 2007, in which voters in the North Burgin precinct of Mercer County approved the sale of alcohol 426-341. That vote allowed Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill to sell alcohol by the drink; sales at that historic site started in May 2008.
The Shakertown situation was not altogether different from Berea's. At the time, some questioned whether serving alcohol at Shaker Village was in keeping with the ethos of the religious sect known for its members' celibacy and the vigorous dancing from which their name was derived. But, as it turns out, the Pleasant Hill Shakers drank in moderation and made rhubarb wine.
And in the early 19th century the Shakers operated a tavern that served alcohol to guests. But Shaker records indicate that alcohol hadn't been served on the property since the late 1880s.
The second vote came in May 2011 in which voters in a Greensburg precinct voted in favor of limited alcohol sales 149-108. That vote would allow alcohol by the drink at Green River House, a historic hotel and restaurant in downtown Greensburg. So far no license has been issued, said Nathan Jones, spokesman for the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
That's because the issue has been tied up in litigation, said Greensburg Mayor Lisle Cheatham. But he said there are still plans to renovate and reopen the hotel, and to some day offer meals with alcohol.
In Berea, guests at Boone Tavern today can take alcohol they purchased elsewhere to their rooms, but they are not allowed to bring a bottle of wine or other alcoholic drinks to their table in the restaurant, McCormick said.
Should the college decide that alcohol sales will be allowed, "it would obviously have an impact on the hotel," McCormick said. The hotel's out-of-town clientele tends to be accustomed to having an alcoholic beverage with a meal. Alcohol sales would mean more tax revenue for the city and state, the ability to hire more people, and the possibility of purchasing more equipment for the restaurant, McCormick said.
But it would also put the college in the position of allowing alcohol in one restaurant but not in two others that occupy property also owned by the college.
Papaleno's Italian restaurant and Main Street Café are tenants in College Square, a series of buildings connected to Boone Tavern. But under the state law, those eateries are not qualified historic sites.
"It would put us in an awkward position with our own tenants because we own those buildings and they rent from us," Shinn said.
Shinn emphasized that the college neither "initiated nor endorsed" the move to put the alcohol question on the ballot.
"The first time I knew about this was when a citizen of the town wrote me a very angry letter about this thing coming up and I had no idea it was under way," Shinn said. "I've gotten some very angry letters from people assuming we were the underground movement for this. ...But no one talked to us ahead of time. No one said a word to us."
A clerk in the Madison County Clerk's Office said Berea Mayor Steve Connelly submitted the petition seeking to put the issue on the ballot. Among those signing the petition were Berea City Council members Richard Bellando and Virgil Burnside.
The petition drive was the result of "an unusual grassroots interest by the citizens in East Berea Precinct," Connelly said. He said he answered some questions the citizens had, and acknowledged that he turned in the petition to the clerk's office.
(Two previous wet-dry votes that would have allowed alcohol sales within all the city limits of Berea were defeated in 2000 and 2007.)
Shinn said his advice to trustees would be to take time to evaluate the implications of allowing drinks, and "don't move quickly on this."
"It is a very complicated decision for the college, and the board is the only ones who can determine whether or not Berea College will allow Boone Tavern to sell alcohol by the drink," he said. "It is they who will make that final decision. Not the administration, not a single person like the president."
McCormick, the general manager of Boone Tavern, said he agrees with the take-it-slow approach.
"If it happens, it happens," McCormick said. "If not, we'll continue what we're doing."