Lockbox, the restaurant at Lexington’s 21c Museum Hotel, ready to open

A first look inside Lockbox restaurant

See inside the Lockbox, the restaurant and bar at 21c Museum Hotel. The restaurant in downtown Lexington opened in February 2016. Chef Jonathan Searle runs the restaurant.
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See inside the Lockbox, the restaurant and bar at 21c Museum Hotel. The restaurant in downtown Lexington opened in February 2016. Chef Jonathan Searle runs the restaurant.

While the drama over the hole in the middle of downtown continues, across the street a new gem is quietly opening its doors: Lockbox, the restaurant and bar at the much-anticipated 21c Museum Hotel is opening Feb. 15.

Inside, the former historic First National Bank building’s lobby has been transformed and will become the gateway to the boutique hotel when it opens in a few weeks.

The restaurant, to the left of the lobby, will seat about 100 and includes an informal bar area and a private dining room in the former bank vault, complete with massive still-functioning door.

Art is everywhere, from the floors — the vault is tiled with photos of shell casings, a piece called Brass —to the ceiling where overhead in the bar is Tomorrow’s Weather, a scattering of orbs that change color according to temperature and barometric pressure.

The orbs will be a permanent installation but other pieces around the room will change periodically so visitors always have something new to discover.

“The banking hall (the main LockBox restaurant space) is such an historic space and we are honored and thrilled to help re-imagine it and make it a public space that the community of Lexington can enjoy for many years to come,” said Molly Swyers, senior vice president of design and communications.

The space reminds Swyers of the location of Louisville’s 21c, at the downtown corner of Main and Seventh.

“Proof’s bar and lounge are located on that corner, and it’s always fun to drive down Main Street and see all the activity and energy of that space from the exterior of the building. So when we were considering where to locate the restaurant and bar for this (Lexington) project, we sort of gravitated toward the banking hall,” Swyers said. “It’s such a beautiful space architecturally.”

The corner has already been drawing attention: Last week, as Lockbox readied to open, a series of test dinners were offered to invited patrons. And from the windows along Upper, passersby could watch chef Jonathan Searle and his team at work in the kitchen.

Each 21c Museum Hotel — there are locations in Louisville, Cincinnati, Bentonville, Ark., Durham, N.C. and an Oklahoma City museum hotel is opening later this year — features a chef-driven restaurant with a unique menu.

When the LockBox opens Monday night, Searle will be excited to unveil his culinary vision. He’s designed the menu to encourage sharing and informality, he said.

The restaurant will serve dinner only for a couple of weeks, then add breakfast once the hotel opens. Lunch service will start “when we are feeling good and ready to do lunch,” he said. “So we can do it right.”

To highlight the restaurant’s local roots, Searle plans microseasonal dishes that focus on the best of what’s available from local farmers.

Searle has found local farms to provide everything from salad greens to chicken and beef. All will be prepared in the specially designed kitchen suite that, unusually, has the work happening with the cooks facing each other for better communication.

I’ve sat in every seat, and my favorite is table 51, at the corner of the banquette.

Jonathan Searle, chef at the Lockbox

“We have the prettiest and neatest kitchen in the state,” Searle said. “We have a lot of pride in what we have here.”

And it’s clearly meant to be on display, with the glazed brick walls and marble staging station all open to the dining room.

Searle’s favorite spot?

“I’ve sat in every seat, and my favorite is table 51, at the corner of the banquette,” he said, pointing along the wall of windows. At mid-room against the wall, you can people-watch and see the action in the kitchen without being too close, he said.

Like the dining room, Searle hopes the menu will feel comfortable to diners while still being special.

“Posh is word I wouldn’t use for my style of cooking,” he said. “It’s very real food. I want you to know it came from a real animal. It’s approachable, comfortable and brings the high and low together.”

Where does Searle see Lockbox fitting into Lexington’s dining landscape? “We just want to jump in and play along. ... We are ready to open our doors and get people in here.”

Sarah Robbins, senior vice president of operations for 21c Museum Hotels, agreed, saying she’s excited to finally welcome the public in.

“There’s nothing better than inviting people from the outside and seeing their reaction. That’s the best part,” she said. “The wandering, I love that, when people come in off the street with no specific agenda. I can’t wait to open these blinds.”