Friday, September 24, 2010

Kentucky Food: The Madison Diner

When I'm on the road I do my best to find a local mom'n'pop eatery, the kind of place where the old timers and real locals go. I was wandering around Richmond last week looking for such a place why my wife was in a meeting, when I stumbled across the Madison Diner. It's a tiny little place on Big Hill Road just outside of downtown proper. It didn't look like much from the outside, and doesn't even have much of a sign, but it had a good mix of vehicles in the parking lot. I look for a place that mostly has pick-up trucks, old clunkers, and a few late model sedans. That combination tells you that the portions are good (big ol' boys in trucks need quantity), the price is right (cheap cars mean they need to stretch a dollar), and the service is great (old people are picky and drive big cars). Another good thing to look for is a sign that says "breakfast all day", which generally means real down-home cookin'.

The Madison did not dissapoint. The older lady who told me to sit anywear quickly cleared off my table, brought me some coffee, and asked me about the book I was reading (which was for work and not worth discussing). She sounded like a diner waitress should, with lots of "honeys" and "darlins". The other patrons were just about right as well, lots of old men talking politics and high school sports, and big families (and by big I mean obese) eating waffles with extra has browns and hot sauce. It was only about 10 in the morning but I'd had an early breakfast so I ordered a "Bill's Spicy Burger" with fries. The burger was pretty good, although not particularly spice, as were the fries, and the bill was only $7, which included the coke I had. They didn't charge for the coffee, which they refilled about 5 times while I read and listened to the old codgers around me solve the world's problems. After about 1 1/2 hours I finally went up to pay. I gave the old feller at the register my credit card, who was probably "Bill", and he apologetically told me their machine was busted. When I told him I didn't have any cash, he said "don't worry 'bout it, take care of it next time you come in." Since I'm not in Madison County very often I pratically had to beg him to give me the address of the place so I could mail him a check. He was just going to let it slide!

These are the kind of places we all need to visit more often. They're owned by real people, and pretty much all their profits stay right in the community. It's a crime that there are more fast food joints in the Commonwealth than home cookin' restaurants.

Madison Diner on Urbanspoon

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Kentucky Places: Tom Dorman State Nature Preserve

This site is dedicated to the "real" Kentucky, not the homogenized world most of us live in but the parts of the state that are unique. Unfortunately, when it comes to the natural world all we really have left are the scraps. The Kentucky that Daniel Boone first encountered has long been clear-cut or plowed under, and is now being paved over as you read this. However we do still have a few scraps to remind us of what used to be. One of my favorite scraps close to Lexington is the Tom Dorman State Nature Preserve. The Dorman is almost 1000 forested acres right on the Kentucky River in Garrard County just outside of Nicholasville on US 27. Although it's only 30 minutes from Man O' War Boulevard it seems secluded - I've rarely encountered anyone else hiking there. You get some great views of the Palisades, the giant limestone cliffs along the river that are the reason none of the big towns in Central Kentucky are located right on the river.

Here's what you do: pack a lunch and hike the main loop trail clockwise out of the parking lot. After 10-15 minutes, you'll see a sign for the the ridge trail, which dead ends about 1/4 mile from the loop. Take the ridge trail until it ends (you'll see another sign) and eat you lunch on the huge boulders at the end of the trail, overlooking the river. When you're done with your lunch (and your nap), return the way you came until you reach the loop trail again, then continue on the loop clockwise once again. The trail will take you down to the river's edge (where you can take another nap) then it'll lead you back to your car alond an old pioneer road. I've been told by locals that this road was used during colonial/pioneer times to reach a ferry located on the river before there was a bridge.

The Nature Conservancy also owns several preserves nearby, but the Dorman is the largest and the best place to hike. As an aside, the Tom Dorman State Nature Preserve is owned by a state government agency that you've probably never heard of, the Kentucky State Nature Preserve Commission. The KSNPC is responsible for protecting Kentucky's endangered species and most significant natural areas. They are definately worthy of your support if you care anything about retaining some of Kentucky's last unique places. The best way you can do that is get a nature license plate the next time you register your car, it only costs $10 extra (tax deductible) and the KSNPC gets the money and uses it to buy fantastic places like the Dorman!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Kentucky Places: Hunt-Morgan House

Nothing quite gets me as fired up and nerdy as talking about the War Between the States, except maybe talking about barbecue. I was raised on stories of how the Yankees burned my great-grandmother's family farm near Colesburg, even though after the war she married a Union soldier. Of course, like many Kentuckians, I have ancestors on both sides of the war (there are dozens of Union and Confederate privates and even a few Confederate generals and congressmen in my family tree) but I've always been more interested in Confederate history; I guess I'm a sucker for a Lost Cause.
When most folks think of Kentucky during the war (if they think of it at all) the first name that comes to mind is General John Hunt Morgan, the Thunderbolt of the Confederacy. Morgan was the epitomy of the Southern cavalier, tall in the saddle, feather in his hat, point Van Dyke on his chin, gallantly riding against the Yankee horde who invaded his beloved Commonwealth. Morgan spent most of the war blowing up bridges and railroads, just generally harassing Union troops and forcing them to waste a lot of time, money, and manpower they would otherwise have used to fight the Confederate Army of Tennessee. A lot of old-timers in Kentucky will tell you they have relatives who rode with Morgan, and there's even a club for them to join the "Morgan's Men Association". I don't belong myself, but as THE old-timer I got to tell you that I have a few ancestors who were in the 8th Kentucky Cavalry CS under Morgan, and one of Morgan's uncles-by-marriage is even in my family tree!
There are a whole bunch of books on Morgan and his men, some of which I'll get around to reviewing one of these days. All over the Commonwealth, from Hopkinsville to Mt Sterling, you can find historical highways markers detailing the exploits of Morgan's Raiders as they hassled the Yanks from behind enemy lines, but if you want a first-hand experience walking in his footsteps you need to visit the Hunt-Morgan House in Lexington. Owned by the non-profit Bluegrass Trust for Historic Preservation, the house was built in 1815 by Morgan's maternal grandfather and saved from the bulldozers in 1955 by a group of preservation minded citizens. Since then the home has been restored to its antebellum glory and it's waiting for you to come and tour it. In addition to the home and period furnishings the house contains a small War Between the States museum complete with saddles and sabres. The coolest items incude General Basil Duke's coat and a scale model of the Morgan statue that graces the Fayette County Courthouse lawn. The house is open seven days a week for guided tours, which cost $7 per adult. There is also a small gift shop for all of your antebellum souvenir needs, and you can even rent out the formal garden for weddings.

I guess I should mention that this isn't really Morgan's house, but his grandfather's and then his mother's. He never lived here as an adult, he lived in a house across the street (which, I should mention, he bought from the very same uncle-by-marriage whi is in my family tree, Colonel Thomas Hart). That house was torn down in 1955 and turned into a lovely parking lot. If it wasn't for the folks at the Bluegrass Trust, this home would also be a parking lot. Which is why you should join.

Kentucky Food: Midway's Affordable Eats

Midway is a tourist town, pure and simple; the entire downtown consists of one block of high-end restaurants and gift shops. It's a great destination for "red hat ladies" and wealthy horse breeders, but not much there for regular folks on a budget. Most of the restaurants are excellent, but none are really affordable. That is, until about a month ago when a few new places opened within 100 feet of each other.

The Wonderland Book Cafe is a really nice little place focusing on breakfast and light lunch. It's really the only decent breakfast in town - Wallace Station isn't really "in town" and the Quirk (or whatever they're calling it now) isn't very good. Your best bet is the "Farmer's Breakfast", a pretty hearty omlette served with bacon and homemade bread. The vast majority of the food is locally produced, from the veggies to the eggs. They have several coffees to choose from, which is self-serve. The bookstore part is really just several book cases around the dining room, mostly full of kid's books. In fact, the Wonderland's focus is being kid-friendly; if you bring your kids to town, this is where you want to take them when they get bored out of their mind in the decorator shops.

Also opening recently is the Grey Goose, a pizza place that originated in Lexington on Jefferson Street. It's as good as any pizza I've ever had, with hand-tossed crusts and fresh toppings. I'm not going to spend much time talking about it, though, because if you come to a quaint little railroad town in Central Kentucky you need to get a Hot Brown or some burgoo, not eat a pizza. You can do that anywhere. Keep it real! Same goes for the new Italian place across the street, Jimmy D's. Its got pretty good burgers, as well as spaghetti and other Northeastern big-city food. Like the Grey Goose, the quality is there and the price is good, but if you're visiting Midway for the first time you really should hit one of the more traditional Kentucky places like Darlin' Jeans, or my favorite, Bistro La Belle . Darlin' Jean's Apple Cobbler Cafe is the most unpretentious, down home style place in Midway, and it's still fairly upscale. It's the kind of place my 75-year old mother thinks is "charming". The hot brown is pretty good, and the debris is excellent, and everything is served by a great staff at affordable prices. The Bistro isn't remotely affordable, but it's the best food in town, most of it with a unique spin on traditional Southern cuisine - ignore the girly name and get the fried chicken livers followed by some shrimp and grits or lamb sliders! And if you are a drinker make sure to order an old-fashioned or whatever bourbon-based drink special they have, they have a great mixologist who really knows how to treat Kentucky's signature beverage.

Now, if you're interested in trying any of these places I suggest trying them soon because I don't see how a town of 1200 can possibly support more than a dozen restaurants for very long, tourism or no.

Wonderland Book Cafe on Urbanspoon Bistro la Belle on Urbanspoon Darlin Jean's Apple Cobbler on Urbanspoon


Unfortunately I was right. The Bistro La Belle closed in January 2011. Hopefully someone else will buy it and keep a similar menu, but since the owner, chef, and mixologist are all moving on it certainly won't be the same...