A blog heart to Debbie Long

Wine bottles, Dudley's

Wine bottles, Dudley's

A version of this article first appeared in Nougat Magazine, February, 2007. When someone tells me how much they like Dudley's, I get ready to make a new friend. I assume they like what I like.

Dudley's was the first Lexington restaurant to serve beautifully prepared fresh, locally grown foods, and among the first to operate in a renovated historic building downtown. I like everything about going to eat there.

I usually eat at home, but recently I got lucky and ate at Dudley's three times in three weeks. Like most of the meals I have eaten at Dudley's since it opened in 1981, all three took place in daytime.

Most recently, I ate lunch with my oldest friend on a grey January workday. I had a perfect salad with spicy miso dressing and country ham-potato quiche served with lots of fresh fruit. He had salmon with roast root vegetables.

First, though, we talked. Instead of ordering and getting on with the meal, we sank into some long topic and left our menus unopened.

I had never seen our server before. He handled our long delay with kindness that seemed natural, not a trained facsimile. In fact, the server treated us so graciously that a little flood of happiness ran through me, bringing me the sweet awareness of being in a good place, with more goodness yet to come.

I asked my friend, 'How do they do it?'

How does Dudley's make me happy every single time? Certainly they use fine ingredients, beautifully prepared and served. The eating spaces, particularly the main dining room and the seasonal patio, are among the most beautiful in the Bluegrass. Those are wonderful assets, but Dudley's offers even more.

Last Christmas Eve, one of our sons organized a brunch at Dudley's for 13 people whose present and past relationships to each other would take a while to describe. For example, the group included our sons' parents, all six of us.

I ordered salmon on risotto. I had an idea Kentucky mushrooms were involved.

The servers brought the food quickly, and my plate came first. Tiny whole green beans and roast salmon sizzled on the creamy rice. Beautiful! Fragrant! The people near me applauded my good entrée judgment with a little riff of 'Oooohs' and 'MMMMs.'

In half a minute, I negotiated a half-and-half entrée swap with–get ready—my husband's former wife's former husband's present wife. I see her rarely and always enjoy her. Suddenly nothing seemed more natural than handing over half of my salmon-n-sides for half of her Downtown Debbie Brown, Dudley's delicious version of the famous Kentucky Hot Brown.

On that chilly morning, Dudley's staff, servers, food, and space welcomed and warmed our unique group. We had plenty of opportunities for awkwardness, but Dudley's special qualities nudged us instead into conviviality.

I value hospitality, welcome, and generosity as life-giving, life-changing forces essential for conviviality. When people gather in a place that supports conviviality, they feel safe, and good things happen.

Conviviality is the Social Growth Hormone. It supports the development of good ideas, good projects, good relationships, and good communities.

My theory about Dudley's is that the restaurant manifests the heart, mind, and values of its owner, Debbie Long. I do not know Debbie personally. I am making this theory up from scratch, to tell the truth.

I believe Debbie must have a rare ability to see and cultivate what is genuine and fine in people and ingredients. I sense she values and trusts the staff members who work for her, and has a knack for organizing smooth, effective work systems.

Debbie Long seems both cool and warm. I see 'cool' in the elegance of Dudley's rooms, menus, website, and embrace of food and dining styles that are in front of the competition. I feel warmth all through the Dudley's experience: the staff's welcome, the carefully made complementary muffins and breads, the sense of abundance, and the commitment to accommodation that seems to come easily to all who work there.

This is my Valentine to Debbie Long and Dudley's. It comes with wishes for at least 125 more years of greatness, and with hopes that many other restaurants in Kentucky will follow Dudley's convivial example.