Food and drink ' along with music, sports, and love ' bridge human differences. Good pita bread appeals to both Islamic and Israeli eaters, and I'm guessing even ardent anti-immigration advocates sit down to tacos or margaritas on occasion.
The new owners of the old Al's Bar expect excellent, affordable food and drink will span boundaries and bring new life and new customers to a notorious corner on North Limestone, Lexington's dynamic new Restaurant Row. 'A lot of people used to hope Al's Bar would disappear. Now people are hoping it might stay,' says Les Miller, speaking for the quartet of restaurateurs and activists who now own Al's Bar and Grill at 601 North Limestone.
I stand firmly in the group of people who used to wish Al's Bar would disappear from its spot about five blocks from my house. Several neighborhood meetings in the last ten years featured frustrated descriptions of difficulties that seemed to swirl around Al's corner — fights and noise and unneighborly activity that seemed to have no solution.
Not much has changed about the Al's building since the sale last May. It still has the lived-in look of a neighborhood hangout where the same people come in every day for their cup of coffee or couple of beers. The cheeseburger and fries remain customer favorites.
What has changed is the new owners' complex set of intentions. They mean for Al's Bar and Grill to continue providing affordable food and drink, keep its faithful customers, and attract new people who have never dreamed of venturing farther north than Atomic Café at the corner of Third and Lime.
Al's owners also intend for their business to contribute to its neighborhood and community. Les Miller says the owners are interested in 'pubs as in public houses,' places where people gather in freedom to talk, connect, and refresh themselves, knitting communities together in the process.
For decades, one Sixth and Lime business, Spalding's Bakery, made doughnuts so spectacular that people of every color and culture crossed Lexington's invisible but powerful north-south/black-white boundary, following their taste buds to the corner to wait in long, happy lines to eat sublime fried dough. While Spalding's has a new location on Winchester Road (and the same long, multi-color lines), the new owners at Al's Bar and Grill are building on the Spalding's tradition of serving delicious food to all of Lexington.
I know, because I have eaten the new Al's fried sweet potatoes. These are the best fried sweets I ever tasted. They deserve their own movie, or at least a YouTube post acknowledging the crunch and creaminess, the sweet and savoriness, the ways these flame-colored slivers descend from food traditions of at least three of the major cultures surrounding Al's corner.
Earthy, spicy, hearty ' see if you can match the culture with the characteristic.
These people know how to cook. Al's new owners bought Stella's Deli in 2006 and transformed it into the successful, local foods-oriented Stella's Kentucky Deli. The cooks and servers at Stella's and Al's — three Miller siblings and a Miller spouse, along with two investor-friends — have worked at many of central Kentucky's finest restaurants, including Holly Hill Inn, Harvest (sadly no longer with us), Jonathan's at Gratz Park, and a la lucie.
They also know how to be good neighbors, and have already established Al's as the venue for neighborhood meetings and parties for good causes like increased bike riding. Two email excerpts sent by the same neighborhood activist contrast the new Al's and the old.
- From November, 2006: 'Al's Bar has been a concern of neighbors and community for a long time - getting rid of the problems this property appears to draw would have far reaching positive impact on the community as a whole.'
- Eight months later, in July, 2007: 'Please support the new owners of Al's Bar / Restaurant - they can be a positive change / addition to our community and the transition can happen faster with our patronage / support. - see menu at end of this e mail.'
Good food and drink change the world all the time. What could be more pleasurable than helping the new Al's crew realize their vision? Les Miller says, 'There's plenty of room here for anyone to come.' When you go, I recommend the sweet potato fries.