Old Owl Tavern at  Beaumont Inn, the historic Harrodsburg, Ky., spot recently recognized by the James Beard Foundation
Old Owl Tavern at Beaumont Inn, which recently was recognized by the James Beard Foundation | Photo courtesy of Beaumont Inn

It’s not a stretch to say that when the average Kentuckian gets a call from New York on a Sunday afternoon, it’s from a relative or a doctor with grim test results from Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Even rarer are “Lord’s Day” calls wired to Harrodsburg, Ky.

That explains Helen Dedman’s “Oh, my goodness, oh, my goodness!” response to a late winter ring from the James Beard Foundation. A James Beard representative phoned to say her family’s Beaumont Inn would receive one of five of the foundation’s America’s Classics Awards handed out on May 4 in Chicago.

Hearing her reaction, her semi-alarmed son, Dixon Dedman, hurried to her office.

“She couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it. Nobody could,” said Dedman, who manages the historic inn, restaurant and tavern for his semi-retired parents Chuck and Helen Dedman. The family was familiar with the James Beard Awards, but they’d never heard of the foundation’s America’s Classic award. “In my mind, the Beard awards were only for recognizing cutting-edge chefs who make waves in the field, not places like ours.”

According to the James Beard Foundation, the America’s Classic is “given to restaurants that have timeless appeal and are beloved for quality food that reflects the character of their community.” Dedman said he understood Beaumont’s achievements in those areas … but a James Beard award? That seemed surreal.

“Never in a million years did I think we’d be recognized,” he said.

Certainly not for edgy cuisine. In its 97 years, Beaumont Inn has built its reputation on foods from the Southern canon: gravy-coated, slow-baked, long-stewed and battered-fried goodies many deem comfort food. The five generations of Dedmans have worked that angle to near perfection, drawn crowds for decades and earned a good living.

“People don’t come here for cutting edge, they come here for tradition,” Dedman said.

Yet ironically, as a standard bearer of such timeless fare, the Inn has made fans of the modern chefs (and culinary writers) idolized by the Dedmans and the Beard foundation. If Dedman’s hunch is right, two such personalities — Southern Foodways Alliance director and food writer John T. Edge, and Louisville restaurateur Edward Lee — may have influenced Beaumont’s chances of receiving an America’s Classics award.

“It might have started with Ed Lee, who participates in the Alliance with John T. Edge,” Dedman said. “From what we learned, John T. wanted a place from Kentucky represented, so maybe that’s the connection. Whether that’s true, we don’t know.”

Dixon Dedman
Dixon Dedman | Photo by Steve Coomes

What’s certain, he said, is the Beaumont Inn didn’t lobby for the award or hire a publicist to promote it, tactics long regarded as essential to pinging the James Beard Foundation’s radar.

“After we got that call, we had to go online to see what the award was all about because we’d never heard of it,” he said.

But while Beard awards center mostly on restaurant food and drink — and judging by past winners, the more avant garde, the better — the America’s Classic encompasses a broader package of setting, community and longstanding. The Beaumont Inn more than meets those criteria.

The 115-year-old property, perched atop a grassy and tree-speckled hill in Harrodsburg, is beautifully preserved and elegant. All its 10 suite-sized rooms are a step back in time featuring antique chairs, lamps and large four-poster beds set so high off the floor you climb into them. The century-old woodwork throughout the one-time girls’ college features hand-carved details long gone from modern carpentry. Scaling its huge twin staircases tells stories of their history and wear as each tilts slightly off center, making even teetotalers feel a tad imbalanced.

But its more modern additions to the building, The Old Owl Tavern and its upstairs Owl’s Nest, draw the largest and most consistent crowds of locals and tourists.

Several years ago, when weekend waits stretched to two hours at the Tavern, the Dedmans created the Nest to absorb overflow crowds. Yet before long, guests suggested the family turn it into a quieter space for adults only.

“We literally had kids running up and down the banquettes some nights, and that was too much, so we made the Nest for people 18 years and older,” Dedman said. Before long, the 40-seat room became the hottest ticket in Harrodsburg.

“If you want to sit at that bar any evening, you’d better get your seat early because they’ll be filled by 5:30,” he said, adding that guests can eat from the Tavern menu also. “It’s turned into a nice place where parents can go and have a drink by themselves and leave the kids at home for a while.”

Capitalizing on Harrodsburg’s proximity to Four Roses and Wild Turkey bourbon distilleries, Dedman also hosts weekly guided bourbon tastings. One recent $60 sip session included tastes of Pappy Van Winkle, George T. Stagg and Beaumont’s own Old Owl Bourbon, which sells for $175 a bottle. (Yep, well out of my price range, too, but it is a terrific bourbon, so splurge on a pour sometime.)

“That was an eight-year project in the making, and I’m pretty pleased with what we’ve come up with,” said Dedman, whose grandfather sold the brand at the inn until Prohibition.

The Inn's dining room | Photo courtesy of Beaumont Inn
The Inn’s dining room | Photo courtesy of Beaumont Inn

If you’re reading this and wondering why similar Louisville properties such as The Seelbach Hotel or The Brown Hotel or Lexington’s Gratz Park Inn haven’t received an America’s Classic, know that I’m thinking similarly.

All three properties and their restaurants have publicists working for them. The food produced at their respective dining rooms are far more technically challenging than Beaumont’s fare and their chefs get a lot of deserved media attention in their home towns.

Unfortunately, the answer is difficult to pin down since the Beard foundation doesn’t discuss publicly how it arrives at its decisions.

It can’t just be Beaumont’s splendid bourbon or even the 1-year-old Meacham County country hams it dry ages on premise for an additional year. And unless there were secret judges at work, it can’t be the charming Dedman family.

Maybe its humble, simple and unchanged menu pleased judges who saw it as a taste of the past. The only America’s Classic winner I’ve been to is Arnold’s Country Kitchen in Nashville, a no-frills “meat and three” cafeteria with great food and an endless line at the door. So perhaps that assumption holds water.

By comparison, the food in the main dining rooms of the three aforementioned hotels is very modern, expensive, served by polished servers and alongside extensive wine and cocktail lists. Again, I don’t know if that matters, and neither does Dixon Dedman.

“Our line here has always been that you don’t shoot the horse that brung you,” he said, smiling. “Getting that award makes me want to push harder and make every effort to just refocus on what we’ve done well for five generations.”

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Steve Coomes
Steve Coomes is a restaurant veteran turned award-winning food, spirits and travel writer. In his 24-year career, he has edited and written for multiple national trade and consumer publications including Nation's Restaurant News and Southern Living. He is a feature writer for Louisville magazine, Edible Louisville & The Bluegrass and Food & Dining Magazine. The author of two books, "Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke," and the "Home Distiller's Guide to Spirits," he also serves as a ghostwriter for multiple clients.