Once when traveling as a teenager through New England, my family and I struck up conversation with a couple German tourists. They asked us where we were from; we said Kentucky. Then they asked, “Why should we come to Kentucky? What’s to see there?”
My answer was likely something vague about horses. As young as I was, I don’t know if my mind even went to bourbon then.
Since this conversation, I’ve lived in London and now North Carolina. I’ve traveled across the U.S. and to Turkey, France, Belgium, and Egypt. In the process, longing has made my heart grow fonder; I’ve fallen ever more deeply in love with my home state.
The German tourists’ question and my answer still haunts me today … for all I left unsaid. Sure, there are horses, but there is also driving through the backroads of horse country along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, there is hiking and mountain climbing galore at Red River Gorge, boundless history, so many good-hearted people, and, actually, a lot of good food, too.
Here, I’ve collected a few of my favorite bites across the bluegrass. This list may be based on bias and nostalgia, but I think you will enjoy these spots, nevertheless.
Pictured is Crank & Boom.
No other establishment has shaped my love of food as much as the Bluebird, which is located in downtown Stanford—a 17-minute drive from Centre College where I went to school. Sure, there were restaurants within walking distance of our dorms in Danville, but I’d choose a trip to the Bluebird every single time. From the booths, to the light fixtures, sweets, teas, meats, veggies, and grains—Chef William Hawkins has created an establishment that is local in every way. And the community, in return, supports him fully. They recognize suppliers as neighbors all over the menu and keep coming back for more. Take note: this is how an experienced, well-trained chef enters a small town. And it doesn’t hurt that Hawkins’ food is crave-worthy. For breakfast, my favorites are The B.E.L.T.A. Sandwich—bacon, egg, lettuce, tomato, and avocado—and the Blueberry Crunchcakes—blueberry buttermilk pancakes topped with granola (pictured). For lunch and dinner, my philosophy is to order anything covered in the restaurant’s smoked gouda cream sauce—so yum! And I always leave with something sweet from Bluebird’s rotating assortment of baked goods.
I was just remembering how much I enjoyed baking with Weisenberger Mills’ flours. My husband took me to this Midway-based mill a few years back for my birthday, and it was such a treat. Even in the dead of winter, the waterfall by the mill was a sight to behold, and I got to pick up my stash of meals and flours while there. If you find yourself in the area—I’m looking at you, Bourbon Trailers—Midway is a must. On top of the mill, there’s James Beard nominee Ouita Michel’s Holly Hill Inn and The Midway Bakery close by and lots of delightful merchants downtown to keep you busy for an afternoon. Pro-tip: Michel does a Chocolate Bourbon Pecan pie (pictured), which I would describe as my childhood in a shell. If you ask any Kentuckian, they’d call such a pie a “Derby Pie,” but in hushed tones as the company Kern’s trademarked the name away from everyone who enjoys making her grandma’s recipe for the iconic Kentucky event. #notbitter
Visiting a distillery during a visit to Kentucky is a necessary experience. My favorite is Buffalo Trace, but I challenge you to discover yours. The big guys like Woodford Reserve, Four Roses, and Maker’s Mark are within spitting distance of one another (not really, but you can do them all in a day), and there are a few nouveau craft distilleries popping up, too, like Bluegrass Distillers in Lexington. While you’re sampling the hard stuff, it’s a good idea to fill up at one of the dining establishments the bourbon makers have brought to campuses, like the new Star Hill Provisions headed up by Chef Newman Miller at Maker’s Mark. Lean into the Kentucky experience and get the hot brown (pictured)—country ham with roasted turkey, bechamel sauce, bacon, cheese, and tomatoes, all on toast. This is my childhood bubbling in a skillet.
Real talk: I haven’t actually been to Chef Edward Lee’s restaurants. But Lord knows how long 610 Magnolia and MilkWood in Louisville have been on my list! I’ve read Lee’s book Smoke & Pickles front to back and even painted a quote from it to hang on my wall—“It’s the act of distilling beauty from the imperfections that exist around us” (it’s about bourbon, but, also, life). He is pulling all these parallels between the Kentucky cuisine I grew up on and the Korean cuisine of his background that I am so interested in learning more about. Think Kentucky BBQ Lamb (that’s right, we barbecue lamb in the western part of the state) with bibb lettuce, boiled peanuts, and rice vermicelli, or a Catfish Kamaboko with sugar cane, pink peppercorn mayo, and country ham furikake. If you are in Louisville and don’t make it to one of these restaurants, you are a disappointment.
I didn’t realize how special Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill in Harrodsburg was until I took a class studying utopian communities at Centre. The history of this nearly extinct religious community is fascinating, and I have always had an affinity for the simple, stripped-down design of 3,000-acre village. Growing up, we’d visit for holiday teas with my grandmother, who was a potter and would sell “Shaker ladies” made from clay in the village’s gift shop. At Centre, the destination was a welcome escape from campus, just a few miles down the road. At the village’s restaurant, The Trustees’ Table, I’d recommend the cornmeal-fried catfish, but, whatever you order for your meal, it should be followed by a slice of Shaker Lemon Pie (pictured). This tart delight is complex and satisfying, most likely due to the Shakers’ whole-lemon philosophy.
I’m biased, but it doesn’t get much better than Ruth Hunt Candies’ caramels. There’s also the cream candy—yes, you should try a Blue Monday—as well as bourbon balls abound. I grew up in Mt. Sterling, where the factory is based, and have had the pleasure of touring a few times. If you are looking for a gift to bring back to friends, a box of bourbon balls fitted in the company’s equine box collection is a solid choice.
My sweet tooth is showing in these last few entries, but no trip to Lexington is complete without a visit to one of Caramanda’s Bake Shoppe locations. It’s hard to choose, so I usually walk out with a selection of cupcakes from Chocolate Explosion to White Chocolate Raspberry.
Another favorite from my hometown of Mt. Sterling is Berryman’s Tastytreat, a family-owned, quick-service joint near downtown. You want to get one of the famous chili dogs and pair it with an Ale-8, a must-try local soda mixing ginger and citrus flavors that here is served so cold you can see ice bits floating to the top. #heaven
When mom took my husband and I to Nefertiti Fresh Food Restaurant on Winchester Road in Lexington for a quick bite after visiting my grandparents over the holidays, I was floored. My husband and I had just been to Egypt for a 10-day trip in late September, and this was the best Mediterranean/Middle Eastern cuisine… I have ever had. The spicy chicken platter is where it’s at, people.
Following Crank & Boom on Instagram was, at the same time, an amazing and awful decision. I love to to see all the shop’s creative flavors—C&B’s sundae creations are too beautiful for words—but the shop’s posts are torture to witness from states away in North Carolina. Visit one of C&B’s locations in Lexington and grab a scoop of Kentucky Blackberry & Buttermilk ice cream, a Bourbon Ball Sundae (pictured) with bourbon-honey ice cream, chocolate bomb sauce and candied pecans, or a Kentucky Coffee with with Buffalo Trace bourbon and bourbon cream.