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Alfalfa Restaurant: You Had Me At 1973

Alfalfa Restaurant is 40. Why? Because it's so loved. I love it, patrons love it, but more important, main owner Jim Happ loves it enough to keep sustaining it because, as he says, "Lexington needs Alfalfa."

Alfalfa entrance on Lexington, Kentucky's Main Street

I used to think Jim meant that our town's main vibe of preppy gentility needs the punch of attitude and cool that Alfalfa introduced in April, 1973. Even now, in 2013, with fresh energy rising downtown and north of Main, plus a fair ferment of music and art and expression leavening our placid place, we need Alfalfa.

Jim Happ, who met his wife Betsy Moses when working at Alfalfa, probably means something more fundamental and less snarky. In an email to me, he said, "I recently drove from Charleston, South Carolina to Lexington and stopping in small towns and cities I realized how valuable it is to have a nice place with decent food downtown. Many cities had desolate downtowns. Alfalfa or a similar restaurant (Natasha’s, Doodles) would be an oasis of food and light for local young (or young at heart) people."

For me, progressing from young to young at heart across 40 years, Alfalfa is oasis, haven, respite, community, communion, home. It's the only restaurant about which people say, after they move away from Lexington, that they can find no replacement. No other place is like Alfalfa.

I generally loathe nostalgia, and always expect the future to hold more interest than the past, yet in this piece I intend to look back in order to try to answer the question Tom Eblen asked me earlier this week as he worked on his excellent story about this big Alfalfa birthday: What's special about Alfalfa?

I ate at Alfalfa perhaps five times between its opening in April, 1973 and my leaving town that August for Peace Corps service in the Philippines. The restaurant, including the kitchen, occupied one rectangular room. Cool people near my age cooked right in front of diners, up on a little stage. Perhaps there were eight tables in all. After my first visit, I installed a countdown clock in my brain, always looking toward to my next meal at the place with the flavors, the butter, the real vegetables, the cool-looking and cool-acting people on the stage and in the patrons' seats.

My first meal in Lexington after returning from the Philippines in 1975? At Alfalfa, of course. Within three weeks, I had moved onto Bonnie Brae (a two-minute walk from Alfalfa) and began working at an office on Maxwelton Court (a one-minute walk from Alfalfa.) Before I knew about food miles, I thought in Alfa-miles.  Alfalfa served as the navel of my universe. I never passed by it when its warm yellow lights were on without wishing to be among the lucky people inside.

Alfalfa became the place to punctuate transitions. It was not hard to discover that new couples had formed over a weekend: just notice who ate Alfalfa brunch together on Sunday morning. 

These were years seasoned by vegetarian lasagna and Gold Coast Stew, and anything that came with that amazing Swiss cheese sauce. I was eating the house cabbage salad, waiting for my lasagna to come, when a best friend told me he had fallen crazy in love and had to leave his wife, also a friend of mine. Eight days after my son was born at Central Baptist Hospital, while he still lay under hateful bilirubin lights, his father and I left the hospital for a few hours to go north on Lime a mile or so and eat at Alfalfa. I don't remember my order, but I remember wearing the bright red cotton granny dress my mother had made. The escape from the bizarre world of the hospital into the warm, true world of Alfalfa, and the stabilizing effect of that escape, remain as vivid as the dress.

Alfalfa had by then developed a core group of regulars, some of whom ate there daily. Regulars learned essential Alfalfa management skills: how to get seated in a section with a popular server, to call that server a "waitron," to arrive at 5:30 PM for dinner before a big event across the street at Memorial Hall, to order a "small house" salad instead of a "monkey" if you wanted a mid-size bowl instead of a relish-sized serving, to angle for a favorite table even when things were getting moved around to make room for musicians, and most important, to order dessert first so the last piece of baker Tom Martin's Italian Cream Cake could be yours. Really great servers, and there were many, would leave the table the minute they heard that order and go to the kitchen, speak for the requested dessert, and then come back to finish taking the rest of the order.

Both my favorite tables—one seating up to four, and the round one beside the piano welcoming a larger group—lived on the softly lit stage, once the kitchen moved into a narrow space outside the main dining room. Loved that stage.

Yet I liked sitting anywhere at all in Alfalfa. I had gone through my own Alfalfa announcements of life changes by then, divorcing, moving away, coming back, and finding the Best Man, both work and life partner, also an Alfal-fan. We traveled a good bit, heading straight to Alfalfa as soon as we returned to Lexington, eager to touch home base.

Sometimes we picked our night to go to Alfalfa based on the musicians. Three of many favorites: the sweet harmonies of Claire and Danny Hess, inimitable artist/videographer/musician Pat McNeese on piano, and lawyer/songwriter Henry Hipkens, playing the piano and singing his great songs, including my favorite one about New Orleans, "This Town Can't Get Over You."

....Magnolias weep like willows

The Mockingbird won’t call

It could be a hundred years since Mardi Gras.

Now roses drop their petals where

You kissed me once in Jackson Square....

How excellent that Pat McNeese and his new band will play at Alfalfa's birthday party. Pat sings and plays guitar now, more than piano: "Groove music that spins tales of life and times in the fabled city of Lexington, Kentucky."

During one happy session at the round table on the stage, near the piano, I realized some familiar scuffs on the wall had disappeared. Turned out Alfalfa got repainted fairly often, and occasionally got new carpet as well—with the express intention that no one would notice the change. The tables and chairs, though, seemed eternal. According to a best friend, the first Alfalfa owners secured the furniture in exchange for meals. Bring in a chair: eat for a week (or longer.)

Probably around the restaurant's 20th year, a great thing happened. Alfalfa asked the Best Man and me to study ways to boost its business. We sharpened our focus group chops and listened to tactically constructed batches of regulars, irregulars, and never-been-here-befores. In return, we got enough pale blue Alfalfa Bucks to eat at Alfalfa every Friday night for more than a year, often with guests. I could say "House salad with no sprouts, Caesar dressing on the side" in my sleep, and probably did.

Both dressing and salad were singular. The salad featured slivered purple and green cabbage and a few carrots, with slices of cucumber and green pepper on top, and small cherry tomatoes, yellow pear-shaped ones in summer, on the side. The dressing—I can't really describe it. It was thick and simultaneously wet/dry, as if egg and Parmesan had fused to a new texture. Think handmade Hollandaise, but more robust. It had very little garlic, and very likely no anchovies. It tasted like sunshine. It was its own thing, until, sadly, it wasn't. Caesar dressing left the menu and I joined the legion of those mesmerized by Alfalfa's miso dressing. Eventually, I devoted one of my regular columns on urban living for Nougat Magazine to this wondrous concoction

When Alfalfa moved downtown nine years ago, I tried to be a grown-up. So did hundreds of other Alfal-fans. Alfalfa lives—joy! Alfalfa had to leave its warm, softly lit spot for a new brown space downtown, larger and much colder, with bad lighting—tears. Dolly Parton's character in Steel Magnolias said laughter through tears was her favorite emotion. I prefer laughter through laughter, but Alfalfa survived the move, and, over time, it started to feel a little bit like...Alfalfa.

For me, what helped most was seeing Cathy Martin doing her usual good work on the new concrete floor, savoring baker Tom Martin's superb whole wheat bread slice, always served with butter, in the new, large space, tasting the familiar sauté work of Helen Alexander, and realizing that cabbage salad, miso dressing, chicken Talese, red beans and rice, Hoppin' John, and the Alfalfa Avocado Grill sandwich had not changed. Tom Martin's desserts became even more astonishing: hello, Raspberry Chocolate Mousse Cheesecake. Tomato Bisque turned into a standard on the menu, perhaps because a certain Coach C liked it and tweeted as much.

Top row, from left: house cabbage salad with miso dressing on the side; the superb house-made whole wheat bread that comes with most orders. Bottom row, from left: tuna melt sandwich; chicken Talese.

Alfalfa on Main continues expanding on the first owner/chefs' habit of buying good food from Kentucky farmers. While vegetables made up most of the local purchases for (I'm guessing) around 30 years, now Alfalfa buys local protein as well. All eggs at Alfalfa, including those used in cooking, come from Kentucky farms, along with most of the popular burger and other meats.

Our three sons didn't love Alfalfa at first, and then they did. I never knew what changed, exactly, but at some point, it began to be fun to go to Alfalfa as a family, sitting at the round table if we could. Alfalfa love spread when our future daughter-in-law lived with us for a year and found it necessary to eat Alfalfa's Tuna Melt sandwich as often as possible. We added a family tuna melt story to our stash of treasured Alfalfa memories.

A young, savvy, food-business veteran friend recently began suggesting the blackboards have had their day, and it's time for something new. Maybe, if they date Alfalfa hopelessly as far as crucial young customers are concerned. I could live with some thing new, something 2013 instead of early 70s. Screens? Video? Something digital? iPad ordering?

As I've thought about my fondness for the blackboards, I realize Alfalfa was the first place I ever ate that used this now hoary menu presentation. At the start, the blackboards made many statements all at once, in Alfalfa's voice:

  • Our food is fresh and our cooks are capable. So the menu changes according to the ingredients and the cooks' inventiveness, and it changes every day.
  • We are artists here, and we welcome and support creative people. (In early years the blackboards spoke in lovely colors, with art in every corner.)
  • We are not fast food, nor are we the hautest of cuisines. We are current, hip and we have attitude—and delicious food at reasonable prices.

Any new way of communicating pretty much those same principles, while holding on to Alfalfa's unique qualities of both warmth and cool—fine with me. I still live less than a mile from Alfalfa. It is still the hub of my world. I walk there on Mondays for lunch with the Local Food Percolator group (you're invited). Our gathering strains the restaurant's staff regularly by giving them no idea in advance how large our group will be, and then, at times, by needing 18 meals in a hurry. Alfalfa handles these vagaries with finesse and, of course, cool. The food comes. It nourishes yet another change-the-world effort. We leave warmed and cheered.

So what's special about Alfalfa? Food. Kentucky food sources. Special dishes and drinks (cinnamon coffee—I haven't forgotten you.) A language of its own. Reasonable prices. Art always present. Artists and expressive people always welcome. Haven if you're lonely or want to eat alone. Laid-back service. Support for community. Hub of downtown. Plus blackboards.

I know of no other place that blends these many flavors into a rich experience that retains its essential mystery across 40 years. It's no wonder Alfal-fans who move away pine for Alfalfa and can find nothing similar. Alfalfa is its own place, and thank goodness, it is our place, too.

Lexington needs Alfalfa. Long may this beloved place—and cabbage salad with miso dressing—thrive.

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