Kentucky Hot Brown
The Kentucky hot brown is an open-faced sandwich with layers of bread, and meat (often turkey, ham, and bacon) smothered in creamy Mornay sauce or cheese. A chef at the Brown Hotel in Louisville (about a 90 minute drive from Lexington) is credited with creating the original hot brown sandwich in 1926.
While the hot brown may be a Louisville creation, restaurants in Lexington offer several delicious interpretations. Three local restaurants are especially celebrated for their hot browns: Stella’s Kentucky Deli, Ramsey’s Diner, and Winchell’s Restaurant and Bar.
With multiple kinds of meat, beans, cabbage, potatoes, carrots, and more simmered in a large pot, burgoo is a guaranteed way to feed a lot of people a filling meal. Burgoo tastes even better when Lexington’s weather is being temperamental.
For a true Lexington experience, you can enjoy burgoo prepared by the track kitchen at Keeneland after watching the thoroughbreds finish a morning workout. The Elkhorn Tavern on Manchester Street prepares burgoo the old way with rabbit and elk and the dish is one of their most popular menu items.
Owensboro in Western Kentucky calls itself the “Barbecue Capital of the World” and hosts the annual International Bar-B-Q Festival, but Lexington also boasts some great places to enjoy smokey, slow-cooked barbecue. Finding mutton barbecue, a Kentucky tradition, can be tricky in Lexington. Instead, try the brisket or pulled pork from Blue Door Smokehouse or Red State BBQ—two local favorites.
Lexington’s Parkette Drive-In opened in 1951 when that portion of New Circle Road was still a dirt track. Along with their Poor Boy sandwich, Parkette was once famous for their original recipe fried chicken, known at the time as “Kentucky Fried Chicken.” Now, you’ll find some memorable fried chicken in different establishments around Lexington.
The buttermilk fried chicken is a hit at Merrick Inn, one of Lexington’s top fine dining establishments. For a quick fix without a dress code, try the fried chicken from the deli inside Critchfield Meats on Southland Drive.
Fried catfish with okra and onion rings
Central Kentucky’s rivers and creeks are full of catfish, so it’s no surprise that fried catfish shows up on so many menus in Lexington. The best iterations should use Kentucky Proud catfish, and everything is made better when prepared with hush puppies or batter from Weisenberger Mill in Midway, Kentucky. Chef Ouita Michel’s restaurants once again tick all the boxes. Try Kentucky catfish at Smithtown Seafood or her popular restaurant in the Summit, Honeywood.
Lamb fries (testicles) might not be for the squeamish, but they were once a very popular food to try in Lexington. Finding lamb fries in restaurants can be tricky now, but they are a regular feature on the menu at Colombia Steakhouse, a proudly old-school eatery serving Lexington since 1948. If you aren’t feeling as adventurous as your dinner date, go for the legendary Nighthawk Special (an 8-ounce tenderloin served with a Diego salad).
Kentucky Beer Cheese
Kentucky is the birthplace of beer cheese, and Hall’s on the River (located in Winchester, a 30-minute drive from Lexington) has been at the top of the game since 1965. In fact, Queen Elizabeth II, reportedly came to Lexington for the thoroughbreds but left with a tub of beer cheese because she enjoyed it so much.
Many other brands have hit the market since, and competition is fierce. Watch local menus for an opportunity to order beer cheese as a starter; you can also add it to a burger as a rich, slightly spicy enhancement.
Benedictine spread is an even older, spreadable Kentucky creation. The creamy, white (or sometimes green) spread was once meant for cucumber sandwiches but can be enjoyed on any sandwich or as a dip for veggies.
Sticky buns are an old-fashioned, Pennsylvania Dutch breakfast food, and the buns from Spalding’s Bakery (open weekends only) are famous. Whether you prefer a sticky bun or doughnut, Spalding’s has been baking since 1929. The handmade doughnuts rise on birch boards before frying. Locals literally line up at the door of this cash-only institution that often sells out early.
Many of Lexington’s residents (or their parents) moved to the city from Appalachia, a short drive to the east. These people brought a lot of their food traditions with them, making Lexington a great place to try some classic comfort foods typically associated with home cooking.
Country Ham With Biscuits or Cornbread: Try this magical combination at Honeywood.
Soup Beans: Try the Whitesburg Soup Beans at Zim’s Cafe or Wallace Station. The Courtyard Deli often serves soup beans with country ham and cornbread as a daily special.
Killed or “kilt” Lettuce: If you believe salads are made better by wilting the lettuce with hot bacon grease, watch for this hard-to-find Appalachian dish on signboards.