Historic Downtown Lexington Businesses

By John Gregory | 4/03/17 3:00 PM

Historic preservation isn’t just the purview of academics and architects. It turns out restaurateurs and garden designers can also be important proponents of it.

KET’s The Local Traveler visited businesses in two Lexington neighborhoods to see how preserving the historic fabric of a community can also be good for the economy.

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Where Food Is Revitalizing the Neighborhood
Jefferson Street only runs a short distance in downtown Lexington, from the end of West High Street northeast to Sixth Street. But within those few blocks is a thriving corridor of establishments offering food, drink, and entertainment to appeal to a variety of tastes.

The pioneer in the Jefferson Street renaissance is Stella’s Deli. Paul Holbrook and Lester Miller now own the restaurant that’s tucked inside a yellow Victorian-era cottage with gingerbread trim. In addition to preserving the building, Holbrook and Miller have outfitted their business with vintage furniture and fixtures.

“The importance of historic preservation is not only preserving intact structures architecturally, but preserving, when some structure is torn down, the parts that can be reused and rehabilitated,” says Holbrook. “We’re trying to both here at Stella’s.”

Miller says everything at Stella’s from the lunchtime sandwiches to the dinner entrees is made in-house with fresh, local ingredients. The restaurant also features homemade flavored sodas and a specialty dessert that Holbrook makes from chocolate, cream cheese, whipped cream, and almonds called the Mary Porter Pie.

Miller and his wife, Aumaine Mott, have been honored by The Blue Grass Trust for their preservation along Jefferson Street, as have Don and Barb Wathen, the owners of Nick Ryan’s Saloon. This comfortable eatery just up the street from Stella’s features a number of signature dishes like their shrimp and grits, sesame-crusted ahi tuna, and a Kentucky Hot Brown that’s based on a recipe that Don’s father created.

A few doors north of Nick Ryan’s and on the other side of the street is The Gray Goose. Owner Keith Clark bought the building, which was a deli at one time, in 2004 and converted it into a restaurant. In addition to salads, sandwiches, fish and chips, and steaks, The Gray Goose features scratch-made, thin crust New York-style pizzas.

The husband-and-wife duo of Renée and Seth Brewer have set up shop on both sides of Jefferson at the Second Street stoplight. They have restored old buildings for their two businesses. The first, Wine + Market, features gourmet sandwiches, pastries, and specialty grocery items along with a selection of wines and craft beers. And Enoteca is an upscale tapas bar where you can pair their small-plate offerings with wines from around the world.

If your tastes run more towards cheap beer and a shot of whiskey while you listen to a live band blasting some heavy metal or punk rock, then The Green Lantern is your destination. This dive bar at the corner of Third and Jefferson is one of Lexington’s older music venues, says owner Robert Garrison. It too is located in a refurbished building that dates back to 1924. Garrison says he’s committed to restoring the structure, and he’s glad others along the corridor are doing the same.

“One of the great things about Jefferson Street is that all of the business owners are local, there’s no franchises, it’s not anything big and corporate, it’s all very grassroots ownership here,” says Garrison: “There’s a really good sense of community, we all try to help each other, and we help promote Jefferson Street as a whole.”

At the northern terminus of Jefferson, you’ll find craft beer maker West Sixth Brewing, the urban, indoor aquaponics farm known as FoodChain, and Smithtown Seafood restaurant. The three businesses are located in an old bread bakery building that dates back to 1890. They also have a unique symbiotic relationship: the brewery provides spent grain to the aquaponics operation to feed the fish they raise, and then the restaurant serves the fish and salad greens the farm produces.

A Garden Spot Where Business Is Always Blooming
Historic preservation doesn’t always depend on someone buying an old building to restore. Sometime it’s simply a matter of maintaining what’s been in the family for decades.

Michler’s Florist and Greenhouses has been a fixture of Lexington’s Aylesford neighborhood for more than 100 years. The fourth and fifth generations of Michlers now run the family business, and they’re expanding into new directions.

German immigrant Carl Michler settled in Lexington and opened his gardening business on Maxwell Street in 1902. As Kentucky’s oldest continuously operating florist and greenhouse, Michler’s specializes in native and heirloom plants, flowering shrubs, ornamental grasses, culinary herbs, and garden design services.

Carl’s great-grandson John Michler now owns the business, and he’s proud to have two of his children involved in the operation: his daughter Jessamine is a floral designer, and his son Robin operates the newest addition to the property, the Kentucky Native Café.

The outdoor eatery is modeled on German beer gardens that Robin visited during a recent two-year stay in that country. His version features long tables and benches nestled among the trees and shrubs behind Michler’s greenhouses. He calls the café an urban oasis that is a cross between a park and restaurant.

“It’s hard to find spaces that would be of this size with this much greenery that would be in a walkable downtown neighborhood,” Robin Michler says. “By Michler’s being here so long, it’s created with the passing of time a really unique spot.”

The menu at the café includes salads, brunch items, and desserts, many of which feature herbs grown at Michler. And since it’s a beer garden, they offer a selection of local craft beers as well as an appetizer of traditional hand-made Bavarian pretzels served with a German-style beer cheese.