Oct 25, 2016
Any season is a great time to get in the car and explore Kentucky eateries, and South Central Kentucky dining requires blending in some backroads.
Thank God for cartographers, the resourceful souls who’ve outlined the world for the directionally challenged. Because of them we can move about the Commonwealth easily using paper maps and GPS equipped smartphones—handy tools for silencing indignant spouses convinced they’re human compasses.
From the travel writer’s perch, maps are needed when trying to divide up Kentucky’s “food communities” into logical, drivable hunks designed to avoid more often-written-about cities like Lexington and Louisville. Navigational nuancing is required to bring organization to road trips designed to help you eat and drink your way through central/south central Kentucky via towns like Winchester, Versailles, Munfordville, Bowling Green and Corbin.
For no particular reason, we begin this jagged-line journey in Winchester and head west on Hwy. 60, then south on I-65, before turning east onto Hwy. 68/80, before turning south onto 1-75 toward Corbin, your final stop this voyage.
Even if you’ve never been to Winchester, you may know it’s the beer cheese capital of the world. For 80 years the town has served this tasty puree of cheddar cheese, cayenne, garlic, flat beer and other optional ingredients at home and in its restaurants. They even have an official Beer Cheese Trail to follow: eight stops around town where you can sample a seller’s product, get a check on your trail passport and, once completed, receive a T-shirt boasting of your casein-centered accomplishment.
If that pursuit’s not grand enough for you, then visit its annual Beer Cheese Festival, held in downtown Winchester every June, and join 11,000 others who attend this beer cheese bonanza.
From there, the drive to Versailles is only about an hour, and it’s well worth it to get to Woodford Reserve Distillery. This historic site bears little of the industrial edge found at larger Kentucky bourbon makers. Save for the pot still room, it’s a peaceful place set alongside Glenn’s Creek and in the middle of horse country. In addition to finding limited release whiskeys here, you can eat in Glenn’s Creek Café, run by famed Kentucky chef Ouita Michel.
You’ll need a belly full for the next leg of the journey, a 90-minute ride to Country Girl at Heart, an amazing bed and breakfast stop in Munfordville. A decade ago, Darlene Rose moved her four daughters from Connecticut to Kentucky with aspirations of living on a farm and running a B&B. What she’s created in this former Amish home is a spacious abode that becomes a history lesson at every turn. All five large guest rooms are decorated to tell a story of local lore and all furnishings are period correct and chosen by Rose. Each morning sees Rose and her daughter cover the massive dining room table with a farm-fresh breakfast drawn from her gardens, the henhouse and local cattle ranchers. The bucolic setting relaxes adults and energizes children who can experience farm life firsthand.
Less than an hour’s drive south is Bowling Green, where you’ll head to Fountain Square Park. Around the beautiful park’s edges are multiple restaurants, bars and even Corsair Distillery, a nationally renowned maker of a wide range of spirits.
Whether you reserve a table at the midscale 440 Maine or its casual sibling, Micki’s, the food for both comes from the same kitchen, so pick whichever menu you like. Squeeze in a tour and tasting at Corsair before walking a couple of blocks to the brand-new Steamer Seafood, whose dramatic architecture and metal art will keep your eyes busy while waiting for your food. Eat your oysters raw or steamed, your clams and mussels broiled in garlic butter and your shrimp steamed or grilled. Or just settle on the sharable shellfish platter that comes with snow and Dungeness crab meats.
A short drive away is White Squirrel Brewery, the city’s sole craft brewery. The extensive beer list includes four regularly rotating house taps, a half dozen slots reserved for other Kentucky brewers, and a long bottle list. Designed with sharing in mind, the menu features wings, pizza, sandwiches and tacos.
Pizza is beloved in Bowling Green, and two spots on the edge of town, Home Café and Lost River Pizza, make choosing your favorite kinds easy: they’re located next door to each other, yet their pizza styles are markedly different. Lost River features three crust types (thin, pan and deep dish) while Home Café keeps it simple with a brick-oven baked thin crust. Each has its devotees and, nicely, owners of each praise the other’s pies.
Before you leave the area, plan a casual drive for breakfast at Boyce General Store. Biscuit sandwiches are the stuff at this century-old market cum restaurant, and you’d be remiss not smothering yours with its delicious sausage gravy. Add steak, bacon, country ham, sausage and/or egg to yours and let the goodness flow over the whole for a substantial fork-and-knife feast. And before you go, grab a package of no-bake chocolate chip cookies for the long drive ahead to Corbin.
About midway on your trip is Russell Springs, a quaint town just a few miles from Lake Cumberland. There, locals go to Coe’s Steakhouse, which does serve big beef, but it’s better known for its fried fish platters. We can’t vouch for the owner’s claim that it’s “the most famous catfish in Kentucky,” but we can agree that it’s very good.
Hwy. 80 will take you all the way to I-75, which will leave you a half hour north of Corbin. The town is famous for being the place where Col. Harland Sanders perfected his Kentucky Fried Chicken. But you’re coming for dinner at The Wrigley Taproom & Eatery, where chef Kristin Smith cooks what she calls “modern Appalachian cuisine.” Salmon for her tacos are first bourbon brined and then smoked 45 minutes, Brussels sprouts are oven roasted and tossed with a chipotle-honey glaze, and smoked pork shoulder shows up in a Korean taco with spicy kimchee. The craft beer selection is made up of 22 well-chosen domestic and European selections, and the whiskey lineup boasts at least 50 choices including many hard-to-find bourbons.
When morning comes and you’re hungry for breakfast, set your GPS for The Dixie Café—or just go back to where you were the night before, since The Wrigley is right across the street. This is breakfast without pretense: straight-up eggs, pancakes, bacon, sausage, country ham, French toast and biscuits. Delicious and simple. You’ll be full, but you have a long drive ahead, so order a fried bologna biscuit to go. You won’t regret it. Heck, you probably won’t drive too far before you start nibbling on it.