You must slow down, then stop and eat in Elizabethtown

Jun 09, 2016

There are a lot of large cities—Chicago, Nashville, Birmingham, etc.—along the 917-mile asphalt ribbon of I-65. And according to Google Maps, you can run it from start to finish in about 13 hours. That would have you eating Chicago beef in the morning and raw oysters in Mobile, Ala., that night.

You’d also be stressed, tired, hungry and angry at yourself for not stopping along the way at the hundreds of good places to eat, especially those not even off the beaten path. You’ll find several of those in Elizabethtown, Ky., about halfway in the journey.

Start with 701 Fish House & Oyster Bar, just two blocks off the interstate. When I call this is a serious seafood restaurant—located next to a highway and not in a leafy, upscale neighborhood—you may think I’m crazy. But the owners of this year-old spot did their homework when recruiting executive chef David Scales to captain its kitchen. He knows his fish, sources the best and keeps it clean and simple.

“This isn’t about fine dining, it’s just about sourcing really good fish and working with those natural flavors,” says Scales, whose résumé includes high-end restaurant work in Washington, D.C. and Louisville. “Absolutely it’s a relaxed place, and that’s what we want. But that doesn’t mean we’re not serious about the fish.”

A quick scan of the menu reads like a Gulf Coast seafood stop with a raw bar, broiled oysters, peel ‘n’ eat shrimp, blackened fish, etc. Yet closer inspection finds goodies like bourbon cream broiled oysters, country ham and pimento cheese hushpuppies and Carolina-style shrimp and grits with andouille sausage. Scales’ skills are really on display when he hosts monthly wine-paired dinners, where dishes such as pan-seared sea trout are found beside charred asparagus salad.

On a recent visit there for a wine dinner, the restaurant’s general manager, Amy Milby, asked if I knew of the Bourbon Barrel Tavern, a new watering hole in Elizabethtown’s revitalized center. I hadn’t and she offered to take me there, so how could I not accept? Housed in a turn of the last century building, “the BBT” sells at least 90 bourbons at amazingly affordable prices. Milby says BBT is the first bar since Prohibition in this city of 28,000 that’s licensed to serve alcohol only. “Things don’t change quickly here, but a lot is changing,” she says. Looking around at the lively Thursday night crowd, Milby asks, “Can you tell people are glad this place opened?”

Just across the street is the Wicked Eyed Woman, a new English-style public house opened by Debora Koch, an artist by trade, but whose friends convinced her to become a restaurateur. She says the name of her establishment came from “my kids telling me I give them the wicked eye.”

The food is hearty and includes like shepherd’s pie, pork cassoulet, smoked ribs and bourbon pork shoulder. There are lighter sandwiches, such as the Reuben I had for lunch, but when Koch insists, “You’re not leaving without some dessert,” you sit until she returns from the kitchen with a square of hot bread pudding. “I think you’ll really like the bread pudding,” she says, and I do. It’s one of the best I’ve ever eaten. Mumbling “I shouldn’t, really” while forking their own bites into their mouths are three others at the table who agree it’s amazing.

One of those is Brent Goodin, owner of Boundary Oak Distillery, located up the road a few miles in Radcliff. He’s busy putting the finishing touches on a new distillery, and he talks about his creation called Kentucky Amber, a distilled cane-sugar spirit aged six months in used Kentucky bourbon barrels. Widely available in Kentucky and many military PXs, Goodin is excited to sell it at his visitors center, which should open this summer. 

“You get bourbon on the nose, but something completely unique in the mouth,” Goodin says as we share a sweet, soft nip. It’s a light-bodied spirit at 86 proof, but flavorful, packing loads of barrel notes, some smoke and a good dose of fruit. “We get so many compliments on it being a smooth drink. That’s what we’re after: easy and really approachable.”
Which, in a nutshell, is how I’d describe Elizabethtown.

Stephen Coomes, 2016