Tuesday, February 28, 2012

As Midway's restaurant scene evolves, one of the businesses badly wants liquor by the drink

By Cody Porter
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications

Restaurants such as the Grey Goose, 815 Prime, Heirloom, the Holly Hill Inn, and Darlin’ Jeans Apple Cobbler CafĂ© offer a level of quality that Midwegians believe can only be found nearby in the likes of Louisville or Lexington. But only a select few of those restaurants can offer liquor by the drink, which can be important to a restaurant, and that is making alcohol an issue for the broader community.

L-R: Grey Goose, 815, Thoroughbred Theatre, Heirloom
Heirloom owner and chef Mark Wombles filed a petition Dec. 19 for a local-option election to authorize the sale of liquor and wine by the drink regardless of the number of seats. His restaurant has 58 seats, well short of the 100 required by state law without a vote of the public, but is a little more upscale than its Main Street neighbors.

“Fine dining is what we do,” Wombles said. But Heirloom only has beer and wine available for sale.

“We never thought it was fair because if you have one restaurant that sits, you know, here on the street and you have another one right next to it that’s bigger than that restaurant, or has room to add on to the back, then they can have liquor,” Wombles said. “Where we can’t add on to the back, we’re kind of doomed to never have it, so you know it doesn’t create a level playing ground for restaurants.”

Wombles said today that he has withdrawn the petition, at the request of Mayor Tom Bozarth, in favor of state legislation sponsored by Rep. Carl Rollins, D-Midway, left, that would reduce the seating requirement to 50. The bill was introduced Jan. 11 but has not been posted for consideration.

The importance of alcohol to the Holly Hill Inn could be found with a series of cultural dishes recently prepared by executive chef and owner Ouita Michel. The cultural menu, called the Winter Dinner Club, was in tribute to various chefs around the world, manager Donna Hecker said: “We did Italian, we did Southern Comfort, we did Indian, and we did vegetarian, and we did Mardi Gras.”

A select wine was chosen for each menu, and patrons could also order one of many cocktails. For instance, in tribute to actress and food writer Madhur Jaffrey, who helped introduce Indian cuisines to the U.S., a “Bombay Cucumber Gin and Tonic” was offered.

Bar at the Holly Hill Inn (Photos by Cody Porter)
If the Holly Hill Inn could not serve alcohol, “It would cripple us,” Hecker said, because they rely on it to accompany the tastes of their various dishes. She said that wine, at the very least, is something they would need to continue to serve. The Holly Hill Inn only had a wine license when it first opened, but has since obtained a liquor license that allows it to feature a full bar. The restaurant has been the recipient of the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence every year since 2002.

The role of alcohol at Midway restaurants is more than simply what you eat, Hecker and other restaurant operators stressed. “It allows us to represent Kentucky, I think, at its best,” Hecker said.

The Grey Goose is in the former location of The Black Tulip, where the search for a high-end establishment in Midway used to stop. Now the venue has more varied offerings. “You get what you pay for,” manager Billy Oakley said. “If you just want to get a $6 lunch, you can do it. If you want to come in and get a $50 meal, you can do it.”

Oakley said the resaurant helped fill “a big hole” in Midway left by the closing of The Black Tulip. While it can be one of the more affordable restaurants in the town, the Grey Goose’s manager says it is the bar that is the draw to their restaurant, “especially when we first got started. That was one of the reasons people were coming here, because you could come here and get anything you wanted.”

On Monday evenings, a casual dining experience can be found at only two locations along Main Street in Midway, and both have liquor by the drink: The Grey Goose and its neighbor, 815 Prime and Tavern 815, located below the restaurant.

815 owner Rob Vandegrift replaced his previous Quirk restaurant and transformed the bookstore below into a cozy tavern. As successful as it may be, Vandegrift believes that the Midway restaurant scene will not return to its former level unless the horse industry in the area bounces back to pre-recession levels. “It’s so dependent on it,” said Vandegrift. When asked how his own business is doing, Vandegrift said it's for sale.

Hecker, at the Holly Hill Inn, doesn’t share Vandegrift’s view on the horse industry or, perhaps, his clientele. Midway does “not necessarily” depend on the industry, Hecker said. “It’s important, it’s vital,” she said, “but we have a real wide ranging customer base.”

Hecker said the biggest influence the horse industry has on the town, and, her restaurant, is bringing in a national clientele for such events as the World Equestrian Games or the annual Rolex event at the Kentucky Horse Park.

Wombles said a large number of his customers are from Lexington, Louisville, Midwegians, and people affiliated with the horse industry, some of them from outside the U.S., especially Europe. “They come here and eat with us a lot,” he said. “Horses are really big in Europe.”

Wombles said his restaurant’s need for liquor by the drink was illustrated during the World Equestrian Games, when Europeans asked for bourbon and he was unable to provide it, even though it is produced a few miles away, in the same county.

“You have Woodford Reserve right up the street here that makes bourbon,” he said. “If a wealthy person comes in here from Europe or something, first time traveling here and they want a Woodford, I’d have to say, ‘Well, I can’t sell you one, but it’s made right up the street. It’s ridiculous.”

Information for this story was also gathered by UK journalism student Patrick Thompson. 

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