For the sake of full disclosure, I should let you know I just moved back to Lexington in April of this year after spending time working in the Midwest. But when I was here, I felt like I had very few reasons to make my way to Jefferson Street.

What a difference a few years can make.

Now, Jefferson Street is a burgeoning destination where restaurants, bars and casual eateries alike are sprouting up. And with that, a reinvention of one of the city's classic Prohibition-era watering holes has taken shape with Nick Ryan's Saloon.

While this restaurant and bar isn't located in Nick Ryan's Saloon's original home on North Mill where it opened in 1905, owners Don and Barb Wathen knew to keep a few elements of the old staple when they opened a restaurant on 157 W. Jefferson Street. Adding “saloon” in the name isn't so much indicative of the atmosphere as it is the attitude – a kick-backand-relax kind of feel. The name could also be referring to what's being concocted behind the bar. Signature drinks tend to be devoted to more classic cocktails on the stiff side, like the Kentucky Pain Killer with two types of bourbon, the French 75 or bourbon with homemade ginger syrup and soda. You can also choose from a thoughtful rotation of draft beers or get a good glass of wine for between $5 and $6, where the bartender will happily employ a heavy hand and give you a couple extra ounces of vino more than you're used to getting.

But the ambiance and menu is where the saloonish qualities start to dissipate. The dark hardwood floors, cream-colored walls adorned with local art and stylishly stocked bar lends an air of inviting and accessible sophistication with a few patio tables and a modest dining area with French doors they throw open when the weather is accommodating.

The menu, developed by Joseph Pugh, veers towards New American. It's straightforward in its approach with a bit of variety, putting the occasional stateside twist on the cuisine from other regions.

Appetizers like the refreshing Tuna Tartare use Sushi grade tuna and are topped with homemade potato crisps and they have an extremely delectable Crab Cake, with a crispy fried crust and pillow-soft filling chocked with crab, that would be fine on its own without a great whole grain mustard cream sauce.

Nick Ryan's Saloon has roughly a handful of inventive entrée salads and pub food staples on the sandwich side (burgers, fish sandwich, etc.). But get to the entrees and that's where some big flavor is. Braised Beef Short Ribs are juicy and fall-off-the-bone tender, served atop cauliflower mousseline that will give you a new appreciation for an otherwise bland veggie. The Shrimp & Grits use Weisenberger Mill grits and give you some good-sized prawns and a delicious seafood veloute. But I was a huge fan of the 12 oz. Grilled Pork Chop, which was marinated, seasoned and grilled perfectly. The herbed butter on top and the pile of mashed potatoes it rests on were just extra goodness.

And Nick Ryan's Saloon has been mindful of the economy when it comes to pricing. With the exception of the Filet Mignon, no entrée on the menu exceeds 19 bucks.

Another thing I like about Nick Ryan's Saloon is its dessert menu. While small, it appeals to both my “classy” side and baser food instincts. The fact they serve various types of Crème Brulee AND Fried Oreos with Ice Cream just goes to show you if they like the way it tastes, it might end up on the menu.

With the restaurant's success, Nick Ryan's Saloon is expanding and connecting to the property next door, which will seat an extra 35 guests inside and be home to Nick's Patio Grill outside, with considerable patio seating and it's own separate grilled menu options.

As you drive by Nick Ryan's Saloon, you will notice the lettering is topped with and old-fashioned bowler hat, an obvious tribute to the namesake's original era. Something tells me if Nick was sitting at the bar enjoying a Kentucky Pain Killer and the restaurant's take on American staples, that hat would probably be respectfully tipped.

Serving Brunch on Saturdays Reservations Accepted

157 West Jefferson Street, Lexington, KY 40508 (map)
Phone: 859.233.7900

Posted on 2011-09-11 by Blake Hannon