Friday, May 2, 2008

So many restaurants, so little town

This story includes updates, which appear in italic.
By Autumn Harbison
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications

One night during his term as governor of Kentucky, 2003-07, Ernie Fletcher decided to eat dinner in Midway, Ky., halfway between the state's capital, Frankfort, and its second largest city, Lexington. He had no reservations and all five restaurants on Main Street were filled. He did manage to find a table at the Holly Hill Inn, up Winter Street toward Interstate 64.
"I’m never that busy," said Ouita Michel, the inn's owner and chef. "The sitting governor of our state always has table here at the Holly Hill Inn no matter how busy I am"
Midway may have a population of only 1,620, but within its city limits lay several high-profile restaurants that bring in customers from around the state, so many at times that it can be hard to get in to eat, as the governor learned.
"A lot of customers come from Lexington, Louisville, Frankfort," said Bill Van Den Dool, owner of The Black Tulip restaurant.The Black Tulip exterior
UPDATE: Black Tulip is now The Grey Goose, providing less of a fine dining experience and offering pizza and pub food fare.
So what makes the restaurant scene in Midway so special that so many people would be willing to drive a ways to get there?
"I think people are hungry for sort of an authentic experience in their lives," said Michel. "It's a little bit of a drive in the country and it kind of reconnects them with what it means to live in the Bluegrass."
Van Den Dool said customers come to Midway for an uncommon experience.
"Midway is something unique in this day and age, and I think that is what people are really looking for, something different, and not like the big chains," he said.
When dining in Midway, diners have several choices to pick from when making reservations.
"We’re all very different and we’re not cooking Kentucky exactly," Michel said, "but we’re expressing our own ideas about food in this area and this region."
With its neutral tones and modern furnishings, Heirloom serves up continental cuisine like seared Tasmanian salmon and an open faced New York strip sandwich. UPDATE: Heirloom fought to change state law so it could serve liquor, and won.

Bistro La Belle exteriorAt Bistro La Belle patrons can get French food while surrounded by homey décor. 
UPDATE: Bistro La Belle was closed for a period but has reopened as a soup and sandwich shop.
Lunchgoers enjoy a variety of hearty sandwiches and a cozy atmosphere at Quirk Café and Coffee.
UPDATE: Quirk closed and was replaced with 815 Prime and a downstairs tavern; 815 Prime has been replaced by Mezzo, which maintains the downstairs tavern. Heirloom owner Mark Wombles owns Mezzo.
Darlin Jean's Apple Cobbler Cafe, with its traditional home cooking, such as an old fashioned Kentucky hot brown, is also on Main Street but is most often frequented by locals.
The Black Tulip and the Holly Hill Inn round out the town's dining options.
"It's hard to put this restaurant into a little catch phrase," said Michel. "What we want to try to do here is bring a new sensibility to sort of something very old Kentucky." The Holly Hill Inn's walls are covered in art from Kentucky artists and it has a room where Kentucky poets come and read their works. The restaurant features a frequently changing menu.
The Black Tulip, on Main Street, serves both lunch and dinner in a warm atmosphere.
"There's a lot of camaraderie. It's just a good, fun place to be," Van Den Dool said of his restaurant. Offering fine dining with a classic winery feel, The Black Tulip has items like oysters Rockefeller and a New Zealand rack of lamb on its menu.
While Lexington has a wide selection of comparable restaurants, many people from the city some to Midway.
"It's not that far. It's a nice drive through pretty country," said Midway resident Lucy Clare. "They come here and there's really no trouble parking in the evening."
Michel said many customers come to Midway to experience something they can no longer find in larger cities.
"I'm not knocking chain restaurants … but they don't have the flavor of the region at the heart of what they're doing," said Michel. "That's part of what is so neat about these restaurants in Midway."
Van Den Dool also said people come to Midway to eat because they want a change from the usual.
"I think that is what people are really looking for, something that is different, not like the big malls and chains," Van Den Dool said. "Here you've got the little mom-and-pop stores, here you've got the little guy trying to make a living. And it's working. People like to see something different."
Most restaurants in Midway do relatively little advertising. Van Den Dool said The Black Tulip only advertises at Keeneland Race Course during racing meets and on a friend's radio station early on Saturday mornings. Michel said the Holly Hill Inn employs a publicist to generate media attention for the restaurant.
"Word of mouth is everything in the restaurant business," said Michel. "You want people talking, but you've got to make sure you're starting the conversation."
Both owners said word of mouth is the best advertising they get.
"The best thing is that people leave here and are satisfied or happy," said Van Den Dool. "They spread the word."
First-time Midway eater William Goebol of Lexington was invited there for dinner by a friend who had been there before. He described what he was expecting from his dinner experience while waiting for his food to be prepared.
"I'm anticipating a quiet, relaxing meal," said Goebol. "I don't think it's going to be like . . . Lexington, where it's eat and leave."
The restaurants in Midway do not just serve dinner, and the differences in the feel and atmosphere of the lunch and dinner hours are like night and day.
At lunch, businessmen dressed in tailored suits sit drinking wine while blue-collar workers at the next table bite into sandwiches washed down with Coke. There is no standard lunch attire; but like at dinnertime, there is no rush to finish.
Black Tulip interiorQuirk interior
The lunch crowd at the Holly Hill Inn is predominantly women, according to Michel.
"I love the ladies' lunch. As a Southern tradition, I really love it," said Michel. "Our lunchtime menu we try to keep more traditional than we do at night, kind of more Kentucky."
When the sun goes down, the nice clothes come out, as the cream of Kentucky comes out for dinner at Midway's fine dining restaurants. One night in February, people were dropped off in a stretch limousine and a woman walked into a place for dinner wearing fur.
Because of their high volume of customers, all of the restaurateurs in Midway recommend having reservations.
Many well-known people have eaten at Midway's restaurants. According to Michel, actor William Shatner and Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, have been to the Holly Hill Inn. Wallace Station, a restaurant near Midway run by owners of the Holly Hill Inn, has been visited by actor Johnny Depp, who has relatives in Frankfort. The Black Tulip has fed actor Steve Zahn and television personality Carson Kressley.
During his time working in the White House for President George W. Bush, political guru Karl Rove and some of his associates made a reservation to eat at The Black Tulip after a political event in Lexington, but were late. This eventful visit is now a local legend. Van Den Dool, who upbraided Rove, tells the story:
"If I would had been downstairs, in all honesty, I would have would have said 'Sorry, that's it,' because for one thing they had reservations at 8 o'clock; they didn't show up until 9. And then the worst thing is they have an ice tea, they have a cup of coffee. They were the cheapest ---- -- ------- in town."
Rove and Fletcher apparently didn't realize that the restaurants in Midway are so popular it can be a feat to get a table, no matter who you are.

No comments: