LEXINGTON, Ky.—Few places contain as wide an array of pleasing aromas as the building at 501 West Sixth Street in Lexington.
About half of its 90,000 square feet—originally home to a Rainbow Bread factory — is occupied by West Sixth Brewing Co.— while approximately the other half is divided between Smithtown Seafood and FoodChain, an aquaponics operation. (More on that in a bit.)
The smells of brewing (on this day, winter squashes cooked for pumpkin ale) and frying fish blend just as agreeably as the idea that made both come together.
Yeah, a fish house and a brewery. It was intentional.
Smithtown Seafood is the brainchild of Ouita Michel, chef and co-owner of four restaurants (Holly Hill Inn, Wallace Station, Midway School Bakery and Windy Corner) spread between Midway and Lexington. Michel’s uber-creativity once compelled her to consider a brewpub of her own, but when, as she recalled, husband Chris Michel said, “Honey, we can’t stay married if you want to do that,” she listened. “He was right: It’s much more complicated than it looks.”
Yet the idea evolved: She’d pair her food with someone else’s beer and both would benefit from the other’s strengths. Over time she learned friends wanted to open a brewery, and the group sought a site roomy enough for both businesses. The long-abandoned factory was available, and the four co-founders of what would become West Sixth bought it.
“We knew we needed room to grow, so we bought the space with that in mind,” said Ben Self, co-owner of the brewery, and husband to Becca Self, owner of FoodChain. “It’s a good thing,” he adds, pointing to another massive and empty space in the building, “because we’re growing faster than we thought. We’ll be expanding production and putting equipment back there.”
On the opposite wall of “back there is” the aforementioned FoodChain, Kentucky’s first indoor, commercially scaled aquaponics system. (Aquaponics is the process of growing fish and plants in a mutually beneficial system. Click here to see a neat video describing it.)
In the room are six, ever-gurgling 250-gallon freshwater tanks containing hundreds of live tilapia that eat grain pellets today and, eventually, spent grain from West Sixth.
Nearby and connected by complex series of PVC pipes are several long rows of planter boxes from which lettuce and herbs spring forth.
The plants are fed filtered water from the tilapia tanks and, like actor George Hamilton, are bathed in artificial light round the clock. Those lettuces, herbs and fish are used in Smithtown. Michel calls Smithtown a “farm to table restaurant,” only the farm is in the back room and the tables are located away from the restaurant in West Sixth’s space.
“I and several other women worked on this idea for some time,” Michel said. Their goal was to make agriculture immediately accessible to Lexingtonians. Mushrooms will eventually be cultivated in the same space, and an experimental hatchery for their fish is already working. “This is our first example of what this will become.”
Michel also wants the restaurant to be culturally sustainable, meaning, “My heart would be broken if this restaurant didn’t serve the people of the neighborhood. I want them to eat here and have jobs here.”
Smithtown began as a post-Civil War settlement for freed slaves who could work at nearby farms while having their own homes. The area has undergone at least a few evolutions, one of which left dozens of beautiful historic homes. The neighborhood is old, roomy and leafy, the type that becomes gentrified once urban renewal efforts take hold and crime concerns fade.
While such positive changes are good, Michel also recognizes the inherent risk of those improvements, such as driving up property values to levels unaffordable for current many residents.
“So what’s the other option? Do nothing? Make no new opportunities for people who need them?” she said. “One goal for every restaurant I have is that they be staffed by the people in the communities where they operate. We’ve already achieved that here.”
For customers, the Smithtown-West Sixth relationship is simple. Go to the counter at Smithtown and order your food. Walk through the open doorway and grab a seat in West Sixth’s brewpub, a sprawling area with high ceilings and industrial décor. A few moments later, a server from Smithtown delivers your food.
I visited in early September on a soft-opening day, when the kitchen was fully operational but not yet dolled up for the public or my camera. Eventually it will have menu boards and fresh fish cases bearing Gulf shrimp and whole fish wild harvested from domestic waters and farms.
Since Michel said the menu was still being adjusted, I neglected to photograph the temporary one on the counter. She told me it goes well beyond just fish sandwiches and baskets, that customers can expect multiple sautéed items along with whole fish preparations done in Asian, African and Latin styles.
“We’re using the same fish monger here that we use for Holly Hill, so it’s not all coming from here,” she said, gesturing toward a tank full of aggressively splashing tilapia.
I had a fantastic (and huge) fried catfish sandwich with fresh-cut fries and a Smithtown Brown ale from the bar at West Sixth. The sizeable meal kept me full for the next seven hours. (All loaves for Michel’s sandwiches also come from Midway School Bakery.)
“It’s not pretty, but it’s running,” Michel said through her infectious laugh. “We’ve got a lot of training to do still, but we’re on our way. I think it’s going to be too cool once it’s all done.”
If you want to go, don’t do what I did and take the scenic Versailles Road route. It’s torn up and orange barrel-lined for non-scenic construction and narrowed to one lane on each side. (UPDATE: I’ve learned from some Lexington readers that the road is now clear again. Still, the fastest route by far is the one below.)
Take I-64 to Exit 113 and turn south onto Broadway. Drive. 2.2 miles to West Sixth St. and turn right and drive to 501. Far easier and faster.