Literary City Guide | Lexington, KY
Tour Guide: Lisa Munniksma
Lisa is a freelance writer, editor and farmer, originally from New Jersey, who has lived in Lexington, Ky., on and off since 2002. Her passions are sustainable living, agriculture and food systems, and she's traveled around the world, working on farms and at ecovillages, a bakery and a local-foods restaurant to learn about these topics everywhere. She's not done traveling (or writing about it), but always returns to Kentucky.
Relationship to Lexington: I discovered that I'm a Lexingtonian at heart by way of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Indiana and Nebraska.
Writer you'd like to invite to dinner: Wendell Berry
Chef you'd like to prepare the meal: Ouita Michel. I have so much respect for Ouita and all that she's done to champion local food in the Bluegrass Region.
Writing soundtrack: Silence or nature
Pen or Pencil: Pen
Coffee or Tea: Tea (and an item of freshly baked deliciousness).
Paperback or Hardback: Yes
Joseph-Beth Booksellers. Containing a bookstore, gift shop, cafe and travel agency, this two-story shop inside the Lexington Green shopping center overwhelms me each time I walk through the doors. Part of a four-store regional chain, Joseph-Beth was the first store of any kind I visited when I moved to Lexington, and it's a go-to standard for visitors who love the written word as much as I do.
The Morris Book Shop. The Morris Book Shop was a Lexington institution from 1937 to 1978 and reopened in 2008. Now in the Chevy Chase neighborhood, Morris hosts events, carries gifts and promotes local authors, in addition to having standard bookstore offerings.
The Wild Fig Bookstore. You never know what you're going to find with a visit to The Wild Fig, as about 20,000 new books in all genres and random, used books—many rare and out of print—come and go. The Meadowthorpe-neighborhood store is named from “Wild Figs And Secret Places,” a poem by Kentucky native Gayl Jones.
Lexington Public Library. With six locations that offer free classes and events in addition to book, music and ebook lending, it's difficult to say any one branch of the Lexington Public Library is better than the others. Something is to be said, though, for working at a window seat in downtown's Central Library, watching the bustle of downtown go by from several stories up.
University of Kentucky Libraries. There are nine libraries on campus, including those concentrating on agriculture, the arts, medicine and engineering. UK Libraries facilities, resources and events are open to the public as well as students.
Keeneland Library. Known as the Horse Capital of the World, Lexington boasts famous equine sights at every turn. The historic Keeneland racetrack is one of those, offering high-grade horse racing in a beautiful setting for just three weeks in the spring and three in the fall. Year-round, the Keeneland Library is open to the public, offering reference-only materials in all aspects of Thoroughbred racing and breeding, plus the history of Keeneland and the Bluegrass region. Just walking the beautiful grounds is reason enough to visit.
READINGS & CONFERENCES
Holler Poets Series. A celebration of literature and music, the Holler Poets Series can be found at local-music establishment Al's Bar on the last Wednesday of each month.
The Kentucky Great Writers Series. The Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning in downtown Lexington offers classes for children and adults, tutoring, writing mentoring, and events. The Kentucky Great Writers Series features authors of all genres for reading and discussion.
Kentucky Women Writers' Conference. The University of Kentucky adds much to the arts and culture of Lexington and the Bluegrass region, including, since 1979, the annual Kentucky Women Writers' Conference, which features education, readings and contests.
Poezia and The Prose Group. The weekly poetry and prose MeetUp groups, Poezia and The Prose Group, are facilitated by Bulgarian author and poet Katerina Stoykova-Klemer. Open to everyone, whether you write poetry, fiction or nonfiction (or you just appreciate the art of writing), the groups enjoy readings and discussion.
Thoroughbred Park. It's only appropriate that The Horse Capital of the World have a park dedicated to this animal located downtown. Thoroughbred Park is a 2.5-acre parcel featuring a cobblestone “track” with seven brass Thoroughbred horses and their jockeys racing toward Main Street and brass mares grazing with their foals playing on a grassy hill. Forty-four plaques honor people involved in the Thoroughbred industry, from writers to royalty.
Town Branch Distillery. Toast William Faulkner with his alcohol of choice. The Bourbon Trail runs through Lexington with the Town Branch Distillery—Lexington's first bourbon distillery to be built in 100 years—producing Kentucky's signature alcohol since only 2012. Tours and tastings of bourbon products and Kentucky Ale beer, produced by parent company Alltech, can be had at the distillery/brewery near downtown.
Cornbread Supper. The question of “What's for dinner?” can yield surprising responses in Lexington on a Monday night. A group gathers at the residence of community leaders Rona Roberts (also the Savoring Kentucky blogger and author of Sweet, Sweet Sorghum: Kentucky's Golden Wonder) and Steve Kay at 6 p.m. for Cornbread Supper. It's come as you are, and you're invited to bring a dish or a bottle of wine to share if you're able. Regardless, all ages are welcome for community, conversation and a meal of likely local and homemade foods and, always, cornbread.
A Cup of Common Wealth. This tiny space in downtown's east side has created a lot of buzz in town and internationally with its Pay It Forward wall. Visitors to A Cup of Common Wealth can buy a beverage for themselves or one for another patron. The shop's Pay It Forward wall offers drinks for people meeting random descriptions (a cold and tired vagabond or an expectant mother) and specific names (Meg Winfield or Scott Smith). You might find yours there, too.
Coffee Times Coffee House. Coffee Times is a busy place with a whole wall of teas, a selection of coffee that changes daily, light food items, and a bulk-coffee and gift shop that carries chocolate and handmade journals—everything a writer needs to survive.
Common Grounds Coffee Company & Roasters. Common Grounds on High Street (there are three other Lexington locations) looks like a coffee shop should look, inside and out. You'll often find live music and always find readers, writers and conversationalists at cafe tables and on cushy couches.
Third Street Stuff & Coffee. Lexington's most eclectic coffee establishment, Third Street Stuff has brightly painted walls, floor and furniture; a full menu of coffee, tea and hot chocolate drinks; and sandwiches all day long. There's a gift shop, too, with quirky finds from socks to artwork. Happy hour, 5 to 7 p.m. every day, offers up half-off coffee and tea drinks.
A PROPER MEAL
Stella's Kentucky Deli. When I leave town to travel for a few months at a time, Stella's is the first place I go upon my return. Locally sourced ingredients, vegetarian options, house-made sodas and the most amazing pie (Mary Porter, please!) you've ever had await in this cozy dining space.
Alfalfa. Directly across Main Street from the Lexington Public Library Central Branch, Alfalfa has an eclectic menu of from-scratch items for breakfast, lunch and dinner. You'll often find the chefs sourcing ingredients at the Lexington Farmer's Market, taking their haul back to the restaurant in their colorful wagon. They've been at it for 40 years.
Smithtown Seafood. A newcomer to the Lexington food scene, Smithtown Seafood steps up the “local” label to hyper-local. Everything is made from scratch and often sourced from within its same building, The Bread Box, a former bread factory at Jefferson and West 6th Streets. For example, indoor-aquaponics greens, herbs, and fish come from the education and urban-food-production nonprofit FoodChain, and beer for the beer slaw and beer cheese is West Sixth Brewing Company's own. (Chef and owner Ouita Michel is also on the FoodChain board of directors.)
Azur. For a Kentucky fine-dining experience, Azur's chef Jeremy Ashby serves seasonal, regional fare in creative Southern style. The patio is lovely in nice weather!
Ramsey's Diners. There are four Ramsey's locations in Lexington—it's a local chain—and my favorite is on the south side of town, off Harrodsburg Road. The menu features sandwiches, salads, burgers, all-you-can-eat breakfast, and traditional Southern meat-and-three-sides meals. The menu sometimes has specials highlighting Kentucky's seasonal best (like Corn Daze), and ingredients are often sourced locally. If you've never had a Hot Brown—Kentucky's open-faced sandwich featuring cheese, ham, tomato and more cheese—this is the place to try it. And leave room for Missy's Pie.
Sunrise Bakery. This bakery's limited hours is part of its allure. If you manage to get downtown on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday morning, get a loaf of Sunrise bread (a treat in itself!), some cookies and whatever pastries they're making that day.
Martine's Pastries. Martine Holzman is a baker from France, and her macaroons will make think you've been transported there, too. Martine's Pastries provides baked goods for events throughout the Bluegrass region, and the tiny storefront off Winchester Road offers deliciousness every day but Sunday.
Crank & Boom. Crank & Boom artisan ice cream is like frozen butter—creamy, frozen butter in a range of flavors from traditional to creative, like bourbon and honey, taro (yes, the root!), Kentucky blackberry and buttermilk, and coffee stout. You won't find a dedicated storefront but can get it at the Crank & Boom food truck, some local eateries and the creator's restaurant, Thai Orchid Cafe.
North Lime Coffee and Donuts. I've been known to say, “I don't really like donuts.” I've also been known to eat two North Lime donuts in a sitting. You'll probably do the same.
Good Foods Market & Cafe. Lexington's co-op grocery store and cafe is open to all, not just member-owners. The muffins, scones, cupcakes, tarts, quick breads and cookies are made in-house with organic flour and sugar (often with vegan selections, too).
Lisa's 5 Favorites
1. Favorite view: Driving into town on Old Frankfort Pike. Topping the hills as you approach, glimpses of downtown's skyline appear. It's a wonderfully juxtaposed view of the city beyond the rolling hills of the horse farms.
2. Favorite place to write: My best friend's dining room table, just after breakfast and before yoga—I used to live at her house.
3. Favorite museum: The University of Kentucky Arboretum (State Botanical Garden of Kentucky). OK, maybe this isn't a “museum” in the truest sense, but I'm not one for indoor spaces, and I can gaze at the art that is the plants and paths here for hours.
4. Favorite coffee shop: A Cup of Common Wealth is a newer coffee shop, and it's one that's garnered national attention for its Pay it Forward wall. (More about this later.) The community feel in this tiny space is warming!
5. Favorite thing about your town: The continually growing indie vibe. I lived here 2002 to 2004, and I actually didn't like it. I came back in 2008 and found just the place I was looking for—a vibrant local music scene, lots of independent businesses, and creative sustainable-farming and -eating ventures—all without sacrificing the natural and agricultural areas that surround the city.