For many Lexingtonians, if they want to escape the land-locked city grind, getting away to a body of water usually does the trick. If they’re taking a week or two off, they may set their sights on an ocean. If they want to have a celebratory holiday weekend, they might scope out the lake.
But if they only have a night and they want to decompress with a solid meal and inviting atmosphere, they could always go to the river—more specifically, Hall’s on the River.
Longtime Central Kentucky diners are very familiar with the unique restaurant, tucked away by the Kentucky river. Many have known the spot as the place to get some of the best beer cheese you’ll ever taste – not to mention staples like fried banana peppers, frog legs, lamb fries and fresh-caught catfish – since it opened in the 1970s. With its rustic patio and comfortable atmosphere, it’s a nice place to relax and get a hearty bite.
However, I’m not writing this piece as a frequenter of the dining establishment. I’m writing it as someone who has had an almost 180-degree change of perception.
More than two years ago, I experienced Hall’s on the River for the first time. To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t all that impressed. The beer cheese was great, but my main course wasn’t exactly blowing my hair back. After chalking up the much-praised restaurant to the kitchen having a bad day, I paid a second visit with similar results.
If you haven’t been to the restaurant in a while, give it another chance. Pronto!
Things have changed at Hall’s on the River, mainly due to general manager Adam McCraith and classically-trained chef Steve Atkins. The atmosphere hasn’t changed, but it may have a bit more shine to it than you remember. Many of the menu staples are still there, just jazzed up a bit thanks to an emphasis on always using fresh ingredients. The beer list has been upgraded (including the newly-revitalized Falls City Pale Ale and Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale), also the cocktails (try the blueberry tea).
The biggest change you’ll see is Hall’s new menu items, which manage to both fit with the restaurant’s pension for Southern comfort food, while simultaneously standing out from other local menus.
The new attention to detail can be found in the simple, delicious appetizers. The fried green tomatoes are perfectly crisp and topped with baby arugula, bacon bits and Atkins’ “rivercue,” a mustard-based barbecue sauce inspired by the Carolinas. Even Hall’s new chicken wings have a new dimension. The whole wings are smoked and coated in a nine-spice rub before hitting the fryer with a touch of buffalo sauce. Tender with an exquisite balance of spice and smoke, it comes with ranch dipping sauce.
The entrée section is where you’ll really see Hall’s new change of pace. The sautéed chicken is exceptionally good, fork-tender and juicy. It’s marinated before being coated with a panko-parmesan crust and topped with vegetable fricassee of shiitake mushrooms, fresh corn kernel, garlic, onion, spinach, tomato, basil and country ham.
The rich crawfish cakes are the chef’s favorite, served with Hall’s signature sweet and tangy slaw that’s mixed with some Andouille sausage as culinary homage to the Louisiana bayou. Then, there’s the shrimp and grits, a Southern classic they do up right with three-cheese Weisenberger Mill grits, a red pepper coulis and house-braised kale.
I can’t tell you if Hall’s on the River was ever known for having great desserts, but that might change, too. The apple pie convinced me of that much. Its flaky pastry crust conceals a house-made pie filling with a bit of extra ginger to tone down the sugary sweetness; add in a scoop of ice cream and a bourbon caramel sauce, and you’ve got a classic finish before your scenic drive back to real life.
Hall’s on the River has already proven it can stand the test of time. Now, with what the kitchen is producing and the same atmosphere you know and love, it looks like it could be seeing a flood of new fans to carry it through many years ahead.