Lexington(Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a two-part look at Kentucky’s second-largest, fastest growing, city.) 

The last time I went to downtown Lexington for any other purpose than a rock concert at Rupp Arena was 1989. Velvet Elvis was the band and they played at the Bottom Line. (Great show, by the way.)

If we ate anywhere after that, it was likely Tolly Ho, a good greasy burger stop frequented by University of Kentucky students.

Even though I was a chef in those days, I didn’t imagine making a restaurant stop on purpose in the heart of the city. No one ever talked about dining or just hanging out there. Food in Lexington was for maintenance, not dining, something to get you filled up before you headed back to Louisville.

Now, however, people are talking. A lot.

And eating and drinking. A lot.

In about a five year span, Lexington’s city center has come alive with new bars, brewpubs and restaurants (and about a zillion great retail shops, too) that draw a broad demographic to a once largely dull business district.

Today, be it midday, afternoon or evening, the area’s crawling with people. Business owners in Louisville’s downtown, which still struggles to attract consistent evening foot traffic on days when there’s no major event, would envy those crowds.

That positive buzz has radiated many blocks in every direction to include neighborhoods around Gratz Park and Transylvania and beyond. Just imagine taking the Bardstown Road-Baxter Avenue stretch and forming it into a multilayered square that’s easy to navigate and has easy access to ample street and paid parking. There is no place in Louisville offering this much to do within such a limited and easy to access bit of acreage.

This isn’t trashy-touristy stuff. These are great independent restaurants, pubs, breakfast spots and white tablecloth places at which you can drop a wad of cash or spend $3 on a massive slice of pizza. Whether you’re dressed up or grunged out, you can find a swell place to hang around here.

So here’s our suggestion: Go on a date. Bring your parents. Bring your kids or whoever. Just go and enjoy the blooming food and beverage scene in Kentucky’s second largest city. No need to leave the state this summer break, there’s lots to do there.

Here’s a list of some of the places we’ve visited over the past year or have been told are must-stops.

The Village Idiot: No, that’s not a reference to a raving UK fan, it’s the name of a gastropub like none other in the state, one of the most complete concepts I’ve enjoyed in a long time. Food, drink, service, ambiance and price all balance perfectly. Without being

Scallops and foie gras Benedict at The Village Idiot. Everything here is good.
Scallops and foie gras Benedict at The Village Idiot. Everything here is good.

the least bit pretentious or passé, it’s simultaneously appropriately modern and correctly classic.

Pick a seat at a bar, upstairs or downstairs, and you’ll find it way too easy to linger. The craft draught selection is limited but well chosen, and with bar snacks like Scotch eggs, chili roasted almonds and devils on horseback, it’s difficult to pull away and go to a dinner table.

Even the bartenders here are extraordinarily friendly. When the University of Louisville men’s hoops team was playing Syracuse for the Big East championship last March, after starting our afternoon there, we asked the bartender if, when we returned after dinner elsewhere, he would turn the game on so we could watch it.

Secretly, we thought that was a long shot given U of K’s already frustrating basketball season, but he promised he would, and he was true to his word.

The Village idiot is only open for dinner (and brunch), but that doesn’t mean you have to spend a lot for full meal. The menu (it’s laid out on the website in multiple pages, so a single link isn’t available) is nicely varied, simple and straightforward and changes with some frequency.

One dish still on it that I do recommend is the scallop and foie gras Benedict (toasted brioche, country ham, seared scallops topped with foie gras and apple butter hollandaise), though everything I’ve eaten in the past has been delicious.

If you go no other place, go here.

Table 310: Situated directly across the street from the Village Idiot is Table 310, a restaurant whose blend of rustic and modern decor extends to its nicely varied menu. Be sure to get reservations for dinner or they may well—as they did us—look at you as if you are the village idiot when you try to walk in at 8 p.m. on a Saturday night.

The bar-dining room area at Table 310.
The bar-dining room area at Table 310.

Needless to say, we didn’t get in, but without fail, it is the most frequently referred to restaurant when I ask locals where to go, and that says a lot.

What we do know: Imagine a restaurant that is part French bistro, part Spanish tapas bar and part American wine bar and you start to get the picture. It’s sophisticated without being snooty; no need to dress up to dine here. The entire front of the restaurant opens to the sidewalk, where tables also are located. Just as any Cumberland Brews fan knows, landing a sidewalk table is the best. Same here.

The restaurant’s terrific selection of charcuterie and cheeses the place to start (or end) your meal.

Dudley’s on Short: Dudley’s, a long time Lexington standard, wisely relocated to North Short St. in 2009, apparently anticipating the neighborhood’s revival.

Just like table 310, its front of opens onto the sidewalk where you can dine or drink or both. (Located directly across from Cheapside Bar, suffice it to say, you get a lot of interesting people watching.)

Frankly, there’s nothing adventurous about the menu, but that’s part of why you go to Dudley’s: risk-free goodness. If you’ve got dining partners who aren’t adventurous, settle here. It’s moderately pricey, but you won’t have to tap your 401k to chow down.

We enjoyed after dinner drinks here one evening and vowed to return.

Cheapside Bar & Grill: Likely a good portion of people reading this know the place but haven’t been there since college. It has changed a bit since those days, what with a massive menu and bottled wine list and all.

But the outside bar action hasn’t changed much: The students still get lit and the music’s still loud.

If you’re parents of college kids visiting Lexington, send them there and you go to the aforementioned places.

If you’re feeling younger, join them, but before 9 p.m. on weekends (maybe not at all on weekends). Should you eat, individual pizzas and burgers are safe choices.

Goodfellas Pizzeria: And speaking of pizza choices, it’s hard to beat a massive slice at Goodfellas. You’ve heard of “walkin’ around money”? This is “walkin’ around pizza”: a Spinelli’s-size wedge topped with lots of options; a thin, floppy, slightly greasy triangle of pie you could share with another—for $4 or less. Click here to see the menu.

Goodfellas Pizza isn't a big place, but its slices are a big bargain.
Goodfellas Pizza isn’t a big place, but its slices are a big bargain.

Here’s why this is good: There are so many more bars and restaurants I can’t even list here, places you should at least peek into before you make your pick. Shopping like that on an empty stomach is never a good thing because you might make hasty choice and be dissatisfied.

The only bad thing about Goodfellas is it gets busy, which is actually a good thing, because it proves the pizzas are tasty.

Steve Coomes

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.