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Visiting downtown Midway’s dynamic restaurant scene
A leisurely stroll down East Main Street with Mayor Grayson Vandegrift offered a look into downtown Midway’s dynamic restaurant scene.
In addition to being home to four unique restaurants on Railroad Street (what locals commonly refer to as East Main Street), downtown Midway has two restaurants just off the beaten path on North Gratz Street.
“There’s something unique about each one of them, and I think that goes for restaurants and shops,” said Vandegrift, whose family owned a restaurant (815 Prime) in downtown Midway for eight years. Mezzo Italian Café now occupies that space and continues his family’s legacy of operating a full-service restaurant and bar.
The downstairs Tavern at Mezzo (formerly occupied by a bookstore) offers a cozy space for karaoke on Saturday nights and trivia nights on Tuesdays, with live music every Friday night – sometimes downstairs, upstairs or outdoors on the patio, said Charles Mitchell, whose family manages Mezzo Italian Café and Provisions.
“I like seeing people have a good time,” said Mitchell. “I like seeing people enjoy themselves.”
Upstairs in the dining room, customers can expect sauces and dressings that are made from scratch, he explained. “So we try to bring an authenticity,” to a dining experience that Vandegrift describes as embracing a Southern Italian vibe.
The Goose & Gander restaurant features pizza on its menu, but Vandegrift said, “It’s totally different,” from what’s offered at Mezzo.
“Their pizza to me, that’s the draw. But they have great wings and great burgers. They have all kinds of great things here.”
Manager Lea Ann Haynes, who grew up in Midway, said she enjoys working at The Goose & Gander because she gets to put diners – many who are regulars – in a good mood.
“People come in, they sit down, they enjoy their meal, they’re happy,” she said. “You get to spend time with them … and it’s almost like a fellowship every day.
“… I can make them real happy here all the time.”
Two of The Goose & Gander’s more distinctive features are a private dining room for meetings and parties, and an angled patio that’s a huge draw on warm, summer days.
When Don Jockey Mexican Grill & Cantina opened its doors last year, it became the sixth restaurant in downtown Midway. On a recent Saturday, the restaurant had a margarita special “and you couldn’t even get a seat in the place,” said Vandegrift. “And the food is very, very good.” A friend told him, Don Jockey’s “grouper taco is just as good as what he had in Mexico City,” and now the mayor said he loves their grouper tacos too.
Co-owner Jorge Garcia said his family’s recipes are different because of the ingredients, which he described as fresh and traditional. The recipe for their authentic mole sauce is his grandmother’s, he said.
“This is a place a foodie would love,” added Vandegrift. “… When you see (the food) it’s just visually appealing, but it’s delicious.”
Don Jockey’s décor creates a different dining atmosphere for customers, explained Garcia. The Mexican restaurant’s name is a tip of the cap to jockeys – many of whom are Hispanic, he said.
Next door is Heirloom Restaurant, which draws customers from across the region and one of its regulars was former Gov. Steve Beshear, Vandegrift said. Another notable guest was former University of Kentucky basketball Coach Rick Pitino.
“So this place gets quite the draw,” said Vandegrift.
Heirloom owner Mark Wombles has built a name for himself as a restaurateur and chef in Midway (he also brought Mezzo Italian Café to town) as well as Lexington, he added.
Darlin’ Jean’s Apple Cobbler Café has been in downtown Midway for 20 years – longer than any other restaurant. Now located on North Gratz Street, its dining room was bustling with customers for lunch last Friday.
Owner Reb Butler was busy filling orders in the kitchen, but took a moment to share his excitement about last year’s action by the Midway City Council to designate the business area of downtown into an Entertainment Destination District, which will allow patrons to walk around with an alcoholic beverage as long as they remain in the district.
“I’m more excited right now (about the growth potential) than I have ever been,” Butler said.
Darlin’ Jean’s has a large selection of comfort foods on the menu that continues to draw a lot of return business, said Vandegrift. “Everybody knows what they’re coming there for (whether it’s a hot brown, bagel melt or macaroni and cheese) and that’s what they want,” he said.
“They’re called Darlin’ Jean’s Apple Cobbler Café for a reason,” he added later. “Their apple cobbler with ice cream on it … it is outstanding, outstanding.”
Not only does Butler own Darlin’ Café and cook there, Vandegrift said he’s a singer/songwriter who’s released an album and sometimes performer at his restaurant.
The Brown Barrel has only been open since late 2017, but owner J.P Gibson has found success running a restaurant that’s not on East Main Street by having his own parking lot on North Gratz Street and, more importantly, a niche.
“I like the fact that we’re right off the beaten path,” said Gibson. “We’re part of the city. The city’s growing towards us.”
An open kitchen concept allows patrons to see their meals being prepared on the grill – whether they’re eating burgers, a buffalo chicken sandwich or an array of seafood options, including walleye or scallops.
“They can watch us cook. It’s part of the atmosphere,” said Gibson.
“What’s fun about our menu,” he added, “is it’s got a bunch of different things going on. It’s family friendly – first and foremost. It’s fine dining, but very casual at the same time. So people like us because we’re very inviting, we’re very comfortable.
“They like the fact that we’re honoring the Thoroughbreds and the bourbon industry. We’re also honoring Midway,” citing a sign outside the restaurant that shares its history as distillery town.
Having six restaurants within walking distance of each other creates a critical mass of dining options for visitors and residents alike, Vandegrift said. He cited occupational tax revenue being on the upswing for Midway restaurants as an indication that business is good.
Vandegrift credits restaurateur Ouita Michel, owner of Holly Hill Inn and others across Central Kentucky, for putting Midway on the map as a great dining destination town. People “know … it’s a place with great restaurants. And they’re not disappointed,” he said.