Food & Drink

The Essential Lexington Restaurants

Published On 09/14/2015 Published On 09/14/2015
Blue Door Smokehouse
BBQ from Blue Door Smokehouse | Shelley Dawn Images

Lexington, in the heart of the Bluegrass region, is tough to beat if you’re looking for thoroughbred horses, bourbon, or a place called the University of Kentucky. But Lexington has become something of a dining destination now, too, and these excellent restaurants might have something to do with that...

Best vegetarian

Alfalfa

Address and Info

141 East Main St

Known for its Hoppin' John and cabbage salad, Alfalfa comes by its hippie vibe honestly. In the 1970s, members of the Weather Underground hid out among the kitchen staff. Don't worry, carnivores, they have plenty of seasonal meat specials, too.

Best date spot

Lockbox

Address and Info

167 West Main St

The 21c Museum Hotel penguins waddled east from Louisville to Lexington earlier this year, turning in their red hue for a UK-appropriate blue, and setting up shop in the old National Bank building on West Main St. This award-winning chain of boutique hotels and contemporary art museums is entirely unique, and the Lexington location’s Lockbox restaurant is no exception. Order a cocktail and wander the museum galleries before dining on chef Jonathan Searle’s grilled hog chop and house-made Toulouse sausages.

Brasabana

Best Latin

Brasabana

Address and Info

841 Lane Allen Rd

With Cuban flair, Brasabana's carnitas take pork in a sweet and savory direction. Don't miss the black beans and plantain chips.

Best farm-to-table

Stella's Kentucky Deli

Address and Info

143 Jefferson St

As one of the first outposts in the burgeoning Jefferson St dining district, Stella's has seasonal food from the region's best producers, making for great burgers and sandwiches, like the fried green tomato BLT.

middle fork kitchen bar

Best place to splurge

middle fork kitchen bar

Address and Info

1224 Manchester St

Named for the creek beside this restaurant in the former James E. Pepper distillery, middle fork has an inventive menu: the “J” in chef Mark Jensen's PB & J is lime-orange jam dressed with cilantro, red onion, and chilies. Get a beer from Ethereal Brewing next door, and step over to Crank & Boom Ice Cream Lounge for a bourbon ball sundae for dessert.

Dudley's on Short

Best patio

Dudley's on Short

Address and Info

259 West Short St

Designed by acclaimed gardener Jon Carloftis, Dudley’s rooftop patio offers an idyllic setting for enjoying the highbrow fare turned out by this classic Lexington restaurant, currently celebrating its 35th year.

Best fish

Smithtown Seafood

Address and Info

501 West Sixth St

Sharing space in a former Rainbo bread factory with West Sixth Brewery, Smithtown serves tilapia raised on-site and fed on spent grain. This is one of chef Ouita Michel's restaurants, so it's way more than fried fish. Try the catfish in cornmeal or shrimp & grits, both featuring products from nearby Weisenberger Mill.

Best Mexican

Maria's Kitchen

Address and Info

805 North Broadway

Until recently, Maria's was a bit of an underground hit, an authentic taqueria with homemade hot sauce and a positively addictive tres leches cake (get there early, the cake doesn’t last long). A recent move to a larger space on Broadway has raised Maria’s profile, drawing adventurous Lexington foodies to the new digs, where you can try the beef tongue and fried chitlins.

OBC Kitchen

Best bourbon bar

Bluegrass Tavern

Address and Info

115 Cheapside

The list of "Best Bourbon Bar" accolades that have been bestowed upon Bluegrass Tavern includes nods from Garden & Gun, Southern Living, and the one and only Thrillist. With over 400 rare bourbons on the bar, it's earned its street cred, in our view.

Best African

Sav's Grill

Address and Info

304 S. Limestone

Specializing in West African dishes, Sav's, near the University of Kentucky campus, has cheap and tasty fare like goat, chicken, beef, or potatoes in peanut sauce on rice. Or go native and have your choice on fufu, made of mashed plantains. Across the street, get ice cream at Sav's Chill.

Shelly Dawn Images

Best BBQ

Blue Door Smokehouse

Address and Info

226 Walton Ave

Barbecue this good doesn't last all day -- get there early. You can't go wrong with the beef brisket, pulled pork, pulled chicken, smoked sausage, or ribs. Or get the Blue Door Special, which comes with EVERY meat.

Best sports bar

Winchell's

Address and Info

348 Southland Dr

Don't let the TVs fool you: Winchell's is just as serious about food as Kentucky is about basketball. The menu goes way beyond pub grub. Try the Funny Farm: a fried pork chop sandwich topped with country ham, bacon, fried egg, and pepper jack cheese.

Tolly-Ho Restaurants, Inc.

Best college hangout

Tolly-Ho Restaurant

Address and Info

395 South Limestone

Nothing has cured generations of UK students' hangovers like all-day breakfasts or great greasy burgers from the Ho. Want gravy on top? You got it. And get a banana pudding milkshake. Trust us.

Best sushi

Tomo

Address and Info

848 East High St

Located in Lexington’s Chevy Chase neighborhood, Tomo serves sushi that is beautifully constructed and thoughtfully prepared. Standout rolls include the Tuna Tuna roll (raw tuna and raw salmon are married with fresh avocado) and the Wild Ride (asparagus and cooked white tuna are rolled together and topped with spicy crab).

Courtesy of The Beer Trappe

Best beer bar

The Beer Trappe

Address and Info

811 Euclid Ave

The walls of this craft beer shop are lined with over 500 rare by-the-bottle finds, curated by an owner whose passion for beer is unparalleled. The Beer Trappe also boasts eight rotating taps at its small bar, in case you’d prefer to sit and stay a spell.

Best wine bar

Enoteca

Address and Info

191 Jefferson St

This tapas-style restaurant and wine bar set up shop on Jefferson St in 2013, offering an eclectic list of wines by the glass in addition to sharable Spanish classics like patatas bravas and serrano ham wrapped Medjool dates. Consider yourself lucky if you’re able to score a seat on the patio.

Best coffee house

A Cup of Common Wealth

Address and Info

105 Eastern Ave

There’s no question that the coffee brewed at A Cup of Common Wealth is of the highest caliber, and the vibe at its shop is just the right amount of eclectic. However, the coolest thing about this coffee shop is its "Pay It Forward" board, which encourages customers to purchase a drink for a future patron, making note of who the drink is meant for on the coffee sleeve for them to discover at a later date.

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Janet Patton is a Lexington writer who enjoys good food, good beer, and people following her on Twitter.

Lindsey McClave may have moved to Louisville post-college, but will always call Lexington home. Follow her food, wine, and travel adventures at @FoodieGirlKY.

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1. Alfalfa Restaurant 141 E Main St, Lexington, KY 40507

This bare-brick cafe just steps from the Kentucky Theatre in Lexington as founded by a couple of college kids in the 1970s who wanted a place to get healthy vegetarian fare near the KU campus. Their vision still remains today in Alfalfa, where ingredients from nearby farms and suppliers like Jane's Herbs and Flowers and Boone Creek Creamery come together in meatless and organic dishes like mushroom ragout and black bean chili.

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2. Lockbox 167 W Main St, Lexington, KY 40507

An airy, banquet hall-like mood pervades at this refined southern restaurant, where the diners are as dressed up as the dishes. The menu changes according to product availability, but names local favorites like spit roasted jerk chicken, grilled okra, and spicy shrimp, as just a few sample courses.

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3. Brasbana 841 Lane Allen Rd, Lexington, KY 40504

Cuban flair comes to play at this Lexington strip mall joint, owned and operated under the watchful eye of native Southerner Jeremy Ashby who's giving Latin flavor a spotlight at this, his second restaurant. The decor is simple, so the brightly colored and flamboyantly presented dishes like pineapple-topped chicken and slow-marinated Cuban brisket draw all the attention.

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4. Stella's Kentucky Deli 143 Jefferson St, Lexington, KY 40508

In true Kentucky fashion, Stella's Lexington location is housed in a cheery yellow house on Jefferson, where dishes are so fresh they might as well have been made at the farm from which their ingredients came. The menu's winding but it's simple -- burgers, sandwiches, and pasta dishes are likely what you're having. They've got your run-of-the-mill reubens and beef burgers, but most every option on the menu come in a veggie-friendly version.

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5. Middle Fork Kitchen Bar 1224 Manchester St, Lexington, KY 40504

This industrial-chic spot looks the way it does because it's housed in the warehouse where the Jas. E. Pepper Bourbon distillery used to be. They've cleaned up the rusted tin and transformed it into a bar and restaurant with a killer cocktail list and a consistent menu with global influences, from the French duck confit, to Spanish sausage, to the more laid-back Japanese-style braised pork and kimchee.

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6. Dudley's On Short 259 W Short St, Lexington, KY 40507

Designed with intense, red-stained walls and immaculately pressed tablecloths, this Lexington mainstay defends its classic reputation via its interior space alone. The menu, too, shines with pinky finger-up courses like duck breast & confit, roasted sea scallops, and pork loin. During warmer months, take it to the rooftop, where a patio designed by acclaimed gardener Jon Carloftis offers a refreshing and comparably refined dining situation.

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7. Smithtown Seafood 501 W Sixth St, Lexington, KY 40508

This name's title and reputation is all about fresh seafood -- and it is, with a menu dominated by cod sandwiches, fried catfish platters, and tilapia three different ways -- but it's also sporting a beefy burger selection topped with everything from the classic fixings to quinoa and banana pepper mustard alongside their crowd favorites -- the salads, the offering of which changes every week (and that you can always add shrimp, fish, or oysters to).

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8. Maria's Kitchen 895 N Broadway, Lexington, KY 40508

This authentic Lexington taqueria plates harder-to-find items like beef tongue and barbacoa tacos, fresh tortilla shells, and housemade hot sauce. There's no interior seating area, but the shaded outdoor porch is clean and tended-to, and will make your meal feel like a serene, backyard dining experience. Just make sure to get early for lunch, as the place draws queues during the afternoon hours.

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9. Bluegrass Tavern 115 Cheapside, Lexington, KY 40507

Ignore the old-timey name and step into this shrine to bourbon for a taste of any one of its 400 rare bourbons. At this renowned bourbon bar, which has won every bourbon accolade imaginable, the bartenders are dressed in pressed white, and the counters polished. The real attraction however, are vintage bottles like the Four Roses Limited Single Barrel, which you'll be hard-pressed to find outside of this single bar, or specialty auction houses.

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10. Sav's Grill 304 S Limestone, Lexington, KY 40508

Conveniently located by the University of Kentucky campus, Sav's Grill brings authentic and affordable West African cuisine to the Lexington area. Flavorsome dishes like the peanut-vegetable stew attract a large vegetarian crowd, but the meat here is on point -- the slow-simmered sirloin tips are equally hearty and delicious whether you order them with the peanut or spinach broth, and the lamb ragout is entirely satisfying. If you can take the heat, be sure to try the house-made piment habanero sauce.

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11. Blue Door Smokehouse 226 Walton Ave, Lexington, KY 40502

Look for the eponymous blue door, and you've found it: Blue Door Smokehouse, arguably the best barbecue spot in Lexington. The bare-bones counter service joint is only open for lunch, and even then we suggest you arrive early: whether sliced beef brisket or pulled pork, homemade coleslaw or crispy French fries, the food here sells out fast. If the kitchen hasn't been raided prior to your arrival, we suggest you opt for the ridiculously affordable combination platter and load up.

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12. Winchell’s 348 Southland Dr, Lexington, KY 40503

Oft lauded as the best sports bar in Lexington, Winchell's rests upon three main things: barbecue, beer, and sports. The food menu doesn't doesn't mess around, as seen by the heaping portions of Southern comfort staples like wings, pulled pork, and sandwiches, and the actual warning on its house hot sauce (pro tip: it's really hot, and the kitchen won't refund you if you can't take the heat). There's a few rotating brews from regional producers and array of bottled options, but it's safe to say you'll always see Bud Light and Miller Lite on draft. As for sports, there are more flatscreen TVs in this place than you can count on all fingers.

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13. Tolly-Ho 606 S Broadway, Lexington, KY 40508

Whether you're hungover from partying at the University of Kentucky or simply in need of a grease pick-me-up, Tolly-Ho has you covered. The Lexington mainstay serves an array of quarter-pounder burgers with any number of patties stacked one on top of the other (the "Mega-Ho" features three layered beef patties, and the "Big Tolly" even incorporates an additional set of buns to essentially equal two burgers in one), a 24-hour breakfast menu, and pretty much anything fried you could possibly want.

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14. Tomo 848 E High St, Lexington, KY 40502

This upscale Chevy Chase sushi spot exudes minimalist elegance with blonde wood furnishings that curves and contours to the restaurant's relaxed air, as well as perfectly packed sushi rolls that use chewy, moist rice and fresh fish that mystifies with its savory and buttery perfection. Standouts include the Tuna Tuna roll (raw tuna and raw salmon are married with fresh avocado), though simple salmon rolls or the fried Godzilla roll add variety to your meal.

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15. The Beer Trappe 811 Euclid Ave, Lexington, KY 40502

This impeccably stocked beer bar stocks over 500 rare-to-find bottles, all curated by the expert, all-knowing owner. The bright lighting, plush single sofa, and spotless space establishes the retail front's business aura, but for those who'd rather enjoy their brews on-site, the Beer Trappe also offers a few high chairs on which to enjoy eight rotating taps.

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16. Enoteca 191 Jefferson St, Lexington, KY 40508

Situated inside a mint green house on the corner of Jefferson and 2nd Sts, this chic and cozy restaurant offers an eclectic list of wines by the glass, plus sharable Spanish classics like patatas bravas and Serrano ham-wrapped medjool dates. The interior, adorned with shelves upon shelves of wine bottles and dangling globe-like light fixtures, makes for a romantic date spot. But when the weather's nice, you should try to score a seat on the outdoor patio, a homey space with plant life and twinkle lights.

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17. A Cup Of Common Wealth 105 Eastern Ave, Lexington, KY 40508

A Cup of Common Wealth brews top-notch coffee inside an eclectic space, sporting furniture and a personality that are equally colorful. The best thing about this Lexington shop, though, is its "Pay It Forward" board, which encourages customers to buy a drink for a future patron, and make a note on a coffee sleeve that says who it's for. That lucky someone will discover it the next time they stop in.

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