In the 1930s, 40’s, and well into the 50’s dining out was considered a luxury, something done on special occasions. But as lifestyles began to change so did the restaurant business.
With more women stepping out of the kitchen and into the workforce, local eateries emerged as did chain restaurants, both recognizing that we were becoming a society on the move.
And we’re still on the move. That’s why in Kentucky alone there are hundreds and hundreds of quality spots to dine. Of course most of the chains are good, but the purpose here is to zero in on several of the “local types” that will be well worth your time as you twist and turn your way along Kentucky’s back roads.
For several years now I have eaten my way across our state in search of interesting things to see and do. And regardless of what I discover or how many people I talk to, the conversation always turns to food.
No matter how Kentucky differs within its own boundaries from the flatlands to the wetlands, from the lakes to the mountains, the one common denominator is food … good food. Nothing fancy, mind you, but good food.
I’m going to tease you with a small sampling of places to seek out. It’s a safe bet that you’ll find some others on your own, but these are restaurants that I have tried and enjoyed.
In western Kentucky just outside of Murray, in the antique village of Hazel, is the Blue & White Grill, so named because the owners are big Kentucky Wildcat fans. But in spite of being in Murray State Racer country and close to the Tennessee border this is a thriving restaurant. It just goes to show that good food can over-come a lot of differences. When it is time to eat a truce is called.
DaVinci Little Italian Restaurant in Hopkinsville is the real deal. Chef Pavel Skorpil has parlayed his passion for good food in such a way that the only thing little here is the name. His lasagna may be the best you’ve ever eaten.
The Dairy Freeze in Island, Kentucky, in McLean County, is a “walk-up.” In other words you walk up to the window and order. Nothing wrong with this. Customers come from miles around, and have since it opened in 1956. The three generations of Taylor family have created one of the most popular spots to grab a bite year-round. Try the Island Burger. They sometime sell as many s 800 a day in this town of 350.
The Bluebird Cafe’ in Stanford has given chef-owner Bill Hawkins a chance to create dishes that have made this a destination restaurant that not only appeals to the locals, but also some of the so-called city slickers. He brings experience from Florida, Elvis Presley Enterprise on Beale Street in Memphis, Food Network with Bobby Flay, the Discovery channel and Travel channel. If you haven’t been to Stanford in a while, you might be surprised at the resurgence downtown, and the Bluebird is right in the middle of it all.
A trip to New Orleans is nice, but you don’t have to go there to enjoy good Crescent City style food. Tea Bayou sits on Fountain Square in Bowling Green. From Po’ Boys to red beans and rice, shrimp and grits, it’s just like being their . . . well, eating there anyway. Don’t even think about leaving without a bag of beignets. Owners Theresa and Greg Shea have created a really different place to dine.
About 12 miles from Glasgow is the wide place in the road called Freedom. Don’t blink or you’ll miss some of the best fried chicken on the planet. Freedom General Store, on Friday’s serves up their skillet fried chicken. They start cookin’ it about 11 a.m., so get there early or it’s gone. The store is on the Tompkinsville Road out of Glasgow.
It’s a ritual for anyone who has ever moved away from Monticello to come back and stop in at the City Pool Hall in the middle of downtown. Since 1946 this pool hall has been frying up the best burgers and hot dogs in town. There’s a small counter in front of the grill and for most of the day someone is sitting and eating. Back in the day this was a “men only” place, but now it is commonplace to see ladies enjoying the food, too. This is your basic burger joint, but well worth a stop.
Brook’s General Store and Cafe in Sonora in Hardin County just off I-65 is one of those places you probably wouldn’t seek out unless you read it here. It’s a meat-and-two-plus-cornbread place that features a daily special. The hanging sign out front is rusted and the “r” in Brook’s is no longer there, which proves you don’t need a fancy neon sign to draw em in if the food is good. They are closed Satur-day and Sunday.
Near Louisville not far off I-65 is Fairdale. I recommend 100% you make a BBQ joint called Shack in the Back a must visit. It’s an old 1896 log cabin that has been added onto and converted into one of the best barbecue restaurants you’ll ever visit. Don’t leave without someone in your group ordering the smoked turkey ribs.
Like so many good, out of the way places to eat, the Olde Bus Station in Harrodsburg, is one of those recycled buildings that was once a Greyhound bus station. This is mainly a breakfast-lunch eatery, except when they do Friday nights. This is a reliable place to dine in an interesting downtown atmosphere.
The Dixie Cafe in Corbin is closely tied to legendary Redhound sports history. The owners, Ed and Carolyn Garr, have tried to keep it like it was back in the 50’s. It is known for their chili buns and chili-dogs.
On up in the mountains in Pikeville is one fine place to dine … The Blue Raven. Chef Matt Corbin’s goal when opening was to serve up something that would appeal to the sophisticated diners as well as casual. This former auto dealership building has become a regional favorite.
Just off the Mountain Parkway in Powell County in the town of Stanton is Bruen’s Restaurant. I had to drive by it three times before I was sure this was the place recommended to me.
No way, I thought. But it was, and man-oh-man was it good. It’s a daily special place that opens at 4 a.m. every morning.
Little Town & Country owner Bill “Big Eye” Hughes is legendary in the Bedford area. U.S. Presidents, senators and governors have eaten here, but none have been more colorful than Big Eye.
“One famous visitor wouldn’t come in,” he says. “So I went out to the car he was in. I shook hands with Elvis.” Big Eye was a football star at Corbin back in the early 50s and his wall is plastered with some of the greats.