This article first appeared in the February, 2008 issue of Nougat Magazine.
On certain bleak days, when Lexington seems to be all mainstream and no tributaries, I go to Alfalfa Restaurant. Alfalfa's sturdy, welcoming presence across 35 years suggests our gem of a community has many facets.
I have eaten more restaurant meals in Alfalfa than in any other restaurant. The reason, at the very heart of it, is that I feel at home at Alfalfa. The wide mix of customers, the emphasis on excellent ingredients, and the unhurried, unworried service all fold me in and convince me I live in the best of all cities.
In honor of February 14, fourteen reasons come to mind:
1. Miso dressing on the traditional cabbage house salad; hold the sprouts.
2. Everyone is there. People I know, people I have never seen. People of African or Asian or European or all-mixed-up descent. People with grey hair and people with green hair. People with and without tongue rings and tattoos. Guys wearing khaki slacks, loafers and blue oxford cloth shirts and guys wearing tech-nerd shorts, flip-flops and sweat shirts in January. Women in Armani and women in Salvation Army.
3. Homemade everything: whole wheat bread and potato bread, soups, entrees, salad dressings, desserts.
4. Service that still feels like it did in the beginning ' as if the servers own the place.
5. Cinnamon coffee and cinnamon decaf.
6. Up-to-the-minute relationship news. On weekends, a friend said, she goes to brunch to see who broke up and who got together on Friday or Saturday evening.
7. Chicken Talese (elegant), Alfalfa vegetarian lasagna (rich), Hoppin' John (hearty).
8. Local veggies, decades of them, good for us and good for local farms. Local beers and wines, too ' also good for local farms and our local economy.
9. Raspberry Chocolate Mousse Cheesecake.
10. Support for local musicians (every Friday and Saturday night) and visual artists (all the walls, all the time).
11. Tofu scramble: "Crumbled spiced tofu sautéed with onions, green pepper, mushrooms and leaf spinach. Served with toast." Perfect for low carbing (if you skip the toast), but I liked it before I ever heard of Dr. Atkins. I used to brave the weekend brunch crunch occasionally just for this dish. Now that Alfalfa serves breakfast Monday through Friday, and brunch on Saturday and Sunday, Tofu Scramble is available in downtown Lexington seven days a week. That, in my view, is the very definition of downtown revitalization.
12. Ten percent off your lunch costs when you have jury duty! Just show your juror's badge.
13. The new Meat Loaf Alfalfa, with house-made sweet/spicy/smoky roasted red pepper chipotle ketchup. It's a new day at Alfalfa for omnivores, where beef rarely appeared on past menus. Even with the meat loaf, which pairs perfectly with a side of the completely real mashed potatoes, Alfalfa's menu concentrates on vegetarian fare that is based on beans, eggs, and dairy, with chicken and seafood always available.
14. Perfect location for dinner after Gallery Hop. Even more perfect ' because you are likely to be seated without a long wait ' before a movie at the Kentucky Theater or a play at Actors Guild.
Alfalfa has done a steady business for 35 years. A few years ago it moved successfully from its first location to a larger, more upscale (and more expensive) place in the Downtown Arts Center at 141 East Main. Meal prices have never been high. Typically prices lag $5 to $10 per entrée behind other local restaurants that feature fresh, real, "homemade" food.
These facts do not amount to a recipe for extravagant financial success. In fact, I now understand that I owe a debt of gratitude to several people who treat it as their mission to keep the Alfalfa Avocado Grill Sandwiches grilling and the red beans simmering on East Main.
I'm naming names here: longtime baker Tom Martin, longtime server/night manager/music scheduler Cathy Martin, longtime server/fresh flower provider Jane O'Tiernan, and owner Jim Happ.
This is my Valentine to Alfalfa, to each of these amazing, devoted people who labor for love, and to all the others who contribute now and contributed since 1973. Thank you for the food and for this great warm place that builds and improves our community. May the next 35 years be magnificent, and may the rice never stick.