My Bluegrass foodie report: Kentucky food not to be missed

Video inside the Keeneland Track Kitchen, a great spot for breakfast – and, sometimes, lunch

If you’re attending the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky, you’ll be walking a lot. Be glad. Because Kentucky delicacies tend to be heavy.

But if the fried ones are done right, they won’t be greasy. They’ll be crisp and taste lighter than they are. As with many areas where southern cooking reigns supreme, fried food in Kentucky has been raised to an art form.

The thing is, few of these foods are Kentucky-only. A lot of these are basic southern-cooking specialties.

I’ve also included some restaurants I can recommend, especially on the outskirts of Lexington, like Harrodsburg or one of the old roads to Richmond.

Also, this is not meant to be an exhaustive list. I’ll certainly leave out your favorite Kentucky treat, let alone your favorite Kentucky restaurant, so feel free to add your favorites to the comments section below.

The Kentucky Must-Haves

  • Fried banana peppers – mildly spicy but crispy and tangy. You’ll find them on the menu in the appetizer section.
  • Fried chicken – But not KFC (sorry, Colonel). Besides, you can get that anywhere. Get your fried chicken with cream gravy over mashed ‘taters, or buttermilk biscuits. Don’t forget the napkins.  Cole slaw or potato salad, usually with mustard and mayo here, are the traditional sides.
  • Catfish – Fried in cornmeal batter. Don’t forget the hush puppies, coleslaw or potato salad. (BTW, I’m a terrible sucker for catfish fried in cornmeal. Just in case that doesn’t dawn on you.)
  • Fried frog legs. Take a chicken wing drumstick with sweet chicken back meat attached- that’s what frog legs taste like.
  • Burgoo – A thick stew with meat and veggies. Burgoo is more of a western Kentucky specialty, yet I’ve had it at the Kentucky Horse Park and at Keeneland in the grandstand.
  • Biscuits and cream gravy – Thick with chunks of breakfast sausage. Can be served as a side or as the main breakfast course.
  • Hot Brown – Invented at the Brown Hotel in Lousiville. A hot open-faced turkey sandwich with Mornay sauce, bacon and tomatoes.
  • D____ pie – Chocolate chips and walnuts made like a pecan pie. The pie’s name, not a “bad” word BTW, is trademarked, so I’m too chicken to type it because I can’t find the TM sign on my keyboard – although plenty of restaurants list the pie on the menu without the TM. Anyway, this pie is named for that famous horse race that happens every May at Churchill Downs and was invented by the Melrose Inn of Prospect, KY. (Read about the now-closed Melrose Inn, D__y Pie and some free (?) mint juleps here.)
  • Sweet or plain iced tea – Yes, I realize you can buy Lipton everywhere. Get some iced tea here, especially if you don’t live in the South. Make it sweet tea, if you’re not diabetic, at least once.
  • Ale -8-One – The taste will remind you of ginger ale. This soft drink is made in Winchester, KY. It’s even tough to find in Kentucky. Comes in diet, too.
  • Elmwood Inn teas – You’ll see the dark green tins in gift shops. The actually inn with the famous tea room is in Perryville, where the Civil War battlefield is, and not far from Harrodsburg, which is where I seem to be sending y’all most of the time. Now, I’ve never done tea at the Elmwood Inn, although I’ve bought several tins of the tea that I enjoy here at home. (Frankly, my time in Kentucky is better spent inside a barn or along the rail of an equestrian event, not sipping tea in a pretty room. But that’s just me. And, again, your mileage may vary.)


Sour mash at the Four Roses distillery looking pretty, well, sour/Photo by Rhonda Lane

  • Bourbon – Take a little drive and visit some of the distilleries on the Bourbon Trail. A single sample taste is often available at the distilleries to those of drinking age.

(Helpful hint – How to drink bourbon straight. Tiny sips, then swallow and blow out as closely together as possible, just like how Lauren Bacall tells us how to whistle. But without the sound. Also, keep in mind that your mileage will vary – that’s what works for me.)

  • Bourbon candy – My husband prefers Makers Mark’s. Woodford Reserve also makes bourbon balls. Then, there are also the classic Rebecca-Ruth candies.
  • “Bourbon and branch” – The Kentucky way of asking for “bourbon and water.” I’m more of a “sweet drink” girl, despite my talent for sipping bourbon straight (see above). Folks don’t call that “Kentucky sippin’ whiskey” for nuthin,’ y’all. 
  • Mint Julep – I’ve never had one, the signature drink of the Kentucky Derby, but my sources advise going with good bourbon – none of that cheap stuff – pure spring water, shaved ice made from pure spring water, mint so fresh it sasses you and simple syrup (water and sugar mixed already.)

Shhh ... bourbon sleeping. Former tobacco curing barns now housing barrels of bourbon. Four Roses distillery/Photo by Rhonda Lane

My favorite places to eat

Keep in mind that I often stay outside Lexington. But one of my favorite places in town is …

The Keeneland Track Kitchen, which serves breakfast all year round and lunch during sales and the April and October race meets.

Another little best-kept secret of mine is swinging by Keeneland during the sales to enjoy the food and the ambiance.

Just keep in mind, that the track kitchen is set off a little ways from the grandstand. Below is a video I shot to explain how to get there.

Video I shot of how to get to the Keeneland Track Kitchen

Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill – on the outskirts of Harrodsburg on US 68. You will need reservations and I suggest you make them in advance. I especially enjoy dining there after dark, when the lanterns are lit. Lunch here is delicious, too. But the lantern light? The spiral staircase sweeping above you in the foyer. Magic time.

The food is traditional southern cooking. I recommend the catfish and, to this day, I wish I could re-create a side of carrots and horseradish I enjoyed there once.  Be sure to arrive very hungry. And watch out for the relish try, which can fill you up fast, if you’re not careful.

Halls on the River – this is a scenic drive along the Kentucky River toward Richmond. You’ll find those fried Kentucky classics, especially fried catfish and fried banana peppers. Big place and menu with a friendly feel. If you want a steak, you can get one here.

Old Owl Tavern – in the Harrodsburg area again, but on the south side of town on US127.  I like to dine there before I head over to the nearby Mercer County Fairgrounds for horse shows.

To find the Old Owl, follow the big billboard sign south of Harrodsburg’s downtown on the left side of 127 to the Beaumont Inn. When you pull into the parking lot, you’ll see the OId Owl tucked into the the left side of the main building facing the street.

FWIW, the Beaumont Inn has a restaurant, which I’m sure is fine, but I’ve never eaten there. Frankly, IMO, if you’re looking for a fine-dining southern experience, you should do well at the Beaumont Inn’s restaurant.

Just keep in mind that the only day you can have lunch at the Old Owl is Saturday. However, the pub is open every evening but Sunday.

What do I recommend? What do you think – the fried catfish! (I do have a catfish obsession when I’m in Kentucky.) Old Owl’s has a nice little snap to it. I’m thinking maybe white pepper? No matter, theirs is  among my favorites. So’s the potato salad, what with its slight mustardy tang.

If I’ve forgotten something, sing out!

Are you miffed that I’ve left out your favorite? I don’t blame you! If I should add your favorite Kentucky treat or restaurant, add it to the Comment/Reply form below.

  • Debbie @ Happy Maker
    September 28, 2010

    Hi Rhonda,
    You sure are making me hungry. I’ll take some of those eggs for breakfast and then find some of that fried chicken later in the day. Frying chicken is an art and there aren’t many people that know how to do it anymore.
    Thanks for all the good info.

  • rhond7
    September 28, 2010

    You’re welcome, Debbie. So glad you stopped by. People don’t realize how difficult the “simplest” foods are to cook well. I know I didn’t.

  • Vickie
    September 29, 2010

    Hello Rhonda

    Your bluegrass foodie report sure made my appitite grow. Its amazing how much there is to learn about food and it sure made going to the races that much more fun. Burbon candy, banna peppers and sweet tea wow now that is southern hospitality at its best.

    thanx for the delicious post


    • rhond7
      September 29, 2010

      You’re welcome, Vickie, and the best part is – reading the post didn’t pack on extra calories. 🙂 Unless, of course, you became overcome with a ferocious hunger and dove into a stash of snacks. In that case, maybe I should have posted a disclaimer about not being responsible for any weight gain resulting from reading the post? 😉 (The thing is? I’m not sure I didn’t gain weight from writing it. =:-D)

  • LaRene
    September 29, 2010

    It sounds wonderful. I would love to attend. It has always been a secret dream of mind to go to the Kentucky Derby ever since I the read the book as a kid. The Black Stallion by Walter Farley. It would be great to be there and the food sounds wonderful.

    • rhond7
      September 29, 2010

      Thanks for stopping by, LaRene. Maybe you and a friend or significant other could make plans to attend a future Derby? Like people make plans to go on a once-in-a-lifetime trip? It’s an experience you’ll never forget, that’s for sure. Companies sell ticket and hotel packages. It’s not cheap, but neither is a tour of Asia or a photo safari in Africa. (Actually, going to the Derby might be cheaper … .)

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