Nestled along the Kentucky River, literally in the shadow of the state capitol building and the governor’s mansion, sits Cliffside Diner, where it began serving Frankfort, Ky., locals in 1948 under the name Jim Miller’s Diner.
Aside from a digital menu board behind the lunch counter, the dining-car-style space doesn’t look like it has changed much since those days, with faux leather-topped stools, red Formica tabletops in booths along the front wall, and Coca-Cola tchotchke on the walls.
And if you go, the hearty food might remind you of days gone by as well.
I met my friend Kory at Cliffside for lunch recently and was immediately struck by the friendly service as I waited for him to arrive. It actually seemed like the busy employees were worried about me.
“Honey, you’re gonna be starved by time they get here,” one told me. When Kory arrived a few minutes later, a couple of the staff ribbed him good-naturedly. It was like we were regulars.
When we prepared to order from the retro-looking menus (complete with vintage clip art), one of the employees, who identified herself as Jen, offered us a few tips, starting with the Cliffside Burger.
“We’re famous for our burger,” she said. She also mentioned the chicken Philly sandwich and noted that the veggies of the day included green beans and Brussels sprouts. Specials were posted not only behind the bar, but on a chalkboard mounted outside by the entrance.
Kory went for the burger and ordered it with fried potatoes, another house specialty, over crinkle-cut fries, along with homemade coleslaw. I couldn’t stop eyeballing one of the platter specials — country-fried steak with two sides. I chose mashed potatoes and a cup of bean soup with cornbread.
The wait for our food was negligible, with my soup coming out maybe a minute before the rest. The soup was accompanied by two miniature cornbread pancakes and whipped butter — not only were they cute, they were lightly sweet and delicious. The soup was a bit on the thin-side, but it was quite tasty, especially once I added some pepper — definitely a good choice.
Kory offered up a fried potato, and they were spot on, fried crispy around the edges and just fluffy enough inside. The burger, however, was impressive even to look at.
The signature sandwich came on Texas toast, topped with two different cheeses, caramelized onions, bacon and tartar sauce. Throw in the fact it’s a double-decker, and you’re talking about a sandwich that looked like a meal in itself. The bite I got was off-the-charts good.
“I can see why they’re famous for that,” I said to Kory.
My country-fried steak was excellent, too, reminding me vaguely of the fried minute steak my mom used to make, but without the gristle. The breading was peppery and light, and no doubt was the stuff they use on the fried chicken (another Cliffside staple). It was drenched in peppery country gravy, as was the ample pile of smooth mashed potatoes.
Now, I have never used the word “decadent” to describe mashed potatoes, but they were so buttery and delicious, that’s the word that came to mind and wouldn’t leave until the last bite was gone.
Healthful? No way. But delicious? Oh my, yes. I would go back just for those.
Of course, there’s no telling how many calories we consumed at lunch. Kory normally sticks to a gluten-free diet, but as he perused the menu, he said, “I think I’m going to forget I’m gluten-free for this meal.”
What choice did he have, really?
The prices were cheap, the digs were cozy and the service was ultra-friendly. Sure, it’s a bit of a drive, but the diner is not far off Interstate 64 and would be a fine place to stop for lunch if you’re traveling between Louisville and Lexington.
Kory, who lives in Lexington, and I decided we’d make it a regular stop on our lunch schedule going forward. My guess is, the staff will probably remember us when we come back. Maybe next time I’ll be the one running late.
Cliffside also features breakfast any time, with the Cliffside Special — two eggs, meat and biscuit or toast — checking in at just $4.59. Lunch and dinner items range from pimento cheese sandwiches to coney dogs to platters like fried fish and pork tenderloin.
Cliffside Diner, located at 175 Old Lawrenceburg Road, lists its hours as Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; Friday, 9 a.m.-8 p.m.; Saturday, 7:30 a.m.-8 p.m.; and Sunday, 7:30 a.m.-3 p.m.
(NOTE: If you use an iPhone, you might be directed to the wrong place. Kory had a bit of trouble finding it until he switched to Google, and the Cliffside staff confirmed this is fairly common.)