A longtime destination for Bourbon lovers, Lexington—dubbed the “Horse Capital of the World” by some for its racetracks and many equestrian farms—isn’t on most people’s culinary radars. However, this Kentucky city is on track to change that. Recent openings and an increasingly diverse scene that includes West African, Sri Lankan, Greek, Japanese, Cuban and Vietnamese cuisine have seized attention from the long-time sports bar and steakhouse staples.
Where to Eat
Honeywood is the latest from Lexington culinary icon Ouita Michel, whose restaurants have defined farm-to-table cooking in the region for almost two decades. Southern comfort food made with local ingredients doesn’t get much better. Look for chicken with creamed wild rice and Kentucky seedling pecans, brown beans in country ham broth with cornbread croutons and Bourbon chess pie. Michel also runs the Bourbon-centric Glenn’s Creek Café, housed at Woodford Reserve Distillery in Versailles.
Middle Fork Kitchen Bar
Middle Fork Kitchen Bar sits at the heart of “Pepper Campus,” the former site of the late-1800s James Pepper Distillery that’s set to reopen early next year. The complex houses another distillery, Barrel House, as well as microbrewery Ethereal, casual watering-hole The Break Room and more. Much of Middle Fork’s inventive menu is cooked over fire, like their duck breast served with a pilaf of brewers’ grains and kumquat marmalade.
Don’t miss Middle Fork’s version of a Northern Kentucky favorite, goetta (sausage made of beef, pork and oats). It’s served with confit of red and green tomatoes, locally milled grits and a poached egg.
The beverage director, Michael Florence, has crafted an extensive, natural-minded list of small-production wines that would stand out in any major city, but served with trademark Lexington hospitality.
Ostensibly a barbecue restaurant, County Club avoids the obsessive regional specificity of most other Kentucky ‘cue joints. It offers responsibly-sourced local meat slow-smoked over hardwood, along with global touches that abound in dishes like smoked pork belly bánh mi, smoked crispy chicken skins with pepitas and habanero-lime sauce, and the Original 193 Burger, made with Kentucky beef, smoked mushrooms and housemade gochujang ketchup.
Where to Drink
Enoteca, Lexington’s best wine bar offers an extensive bottle list that’s heavy on France and California, and a by-the-glass program with 20 selections via Coravin in 2- or 5-ounce pours. It also offers robust beer and whiskey lists.
The tapas menu includes traditional Spanish dishes like patatas bravas, tortilla española with piquillo pepper sauce, and mussels with saffron in a white wine sauce. There’s also the occasional down-home pick like shrimp and grits, or bread pudding with Bourbon sauce.
Ona is a neighborhood bar, booze-industry hangout and hipster cocktail lounge in one. Drinks are simple but impeccably balanced. Try the modestly named “Sour,” with pisco, mezcal, aromatic herbs, lemon and frothed egg white. Or grab a can of apple-peach-cranberry cider from Cincinnati’s Rhinegeist Brewery.
Beer Trappe is a retail shop and bar with one of the widest beer selections in the country—more than 500 options on sale any given day. Many are made in such small quantities that they’re only available at the bar. Don’t look for cider, though. In Kentucky, cider is classified as wine, and Beer Trappe is beer only. Select Sundays also feature “Beer School,” with educational themed tastings for $10.
Where to Stay
21c Museum Hotel is a hotel and contemporary art museum located in the historic Fayette National Bank Building, built in 1914. The hotel’s restaurant, Lockbox, serves imaginative Southern cuisine with comprehensive local beer and Bourbon lists.
George Clooney, Mary Todd Lincoln and musician Richard Hell were all born in Lexington.
Lexington’s annual Halloween parade is followed by a massive reenactment of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video, with thousands of people dressed as zombies.
There are more Bourbon barrels aging in Kentucky than people in the state.