In a beautifully restored building on West Main Street, once home to Fayette National Bank, stands the long-awaited 21c Museum Hotel. With an extraordinary collection of contemporary art, thoughtfully designed spaces, a locally inspired restaurant, and 88-room boutique accommodations, 21c is one of the most celebrated additions to downtown Lexington.
From the moment they walk in the door, visitors are greeted with quirky, colorful art set against an elegant, minimalist backdrop. The Lockbox lobby and bar area houses “Tomorrow’s Weather”, a site-specific, permanent art installation by Stockholm-based duo Biegert & Bergström. The installation consists of several clusters of acrylic orbs suspended above the bar and communal dining area. Each of the orbs is connected to a weather service via the internet, and continually change color depending on the forecast for the following day.
As a representative from 21c explained, the company’s goal is to use art to drive commerce, engaging the hotel and restaurant as vehicles to bring great art to the public. When 21c was founded by Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson 10 years ago, their vision was to facilitate urban revitalization and to protect farmlands. They believe that innovative and thought-provoking art has the power to transform communities. Over time, popularity of that concept grew, and the company plans to have six museum hotels in operation by the end of 2016.
The art galleries are free and open to the public, twenty-four hours a day. The property also includes a video lounge and several separate gallery spaces that can be reserved for private gatherings. 21c’s permanent collection includes nearly 2,000 pieces, with featured exhibitions rotating about twice a year. And as one might expect, the iconic penguin sculptures by Italy’s Cracking Art Group (this time in Wildcat blue) can be spotted in various locations throughout the hotel.
21c’s inaugural exhibition, Dress Up/Speak Up: Costumes and Confrontation (on view through September 2016), is a multimedia display including works by twenty-two artists from more than a dozen countries, including a significant selection of works by Jamaican-born UK professor Ebony G. Patterson. According to a statement by Alice Gray Stites, Chief Curator of 21c hotels, “Bedecked and bejeweled, the figures populating Dress Up/Speak Up occupy fluid space and time, evoking past and present, fact and fiction, memory and desire, to illuminate the complexity of contemporary identity.”
But in addition to grand spaces and thought-provoking exhibitions, one of the most exciting features of 21c Lexington is Lockbox, a full-service restaurant featuring executive chef Jonathan Searle’s thoughtful menu showcasing time-honored cooking techniques and local, high-quality seasonal ingredients.
The 100-seat restaurant evokes the glamour of a bygone era, with clever touches that bring it up to the moment. The lobby is outfitted with comfortable benches for lounging and enjoying cocktails, as well as a communal table for which no reservations are required. The dining room features extra-high ceilings, teal velvet drapery, double-height windows, marble floors, and carefully restored ornamental plasterwork and wainscoting. Lockbox features a partial exhibition kitchen that can be viewed by both passers-by and restaurant patrons. According to a statement from 21c, the American-made Jade Cooking Suite allows for seamless collaboration between Chef Jonathan and his team. The former bank vault has been transformed into an intimate private dining area along with a separate full-service bar. Despite the upscale surroundings, 21c is intended to be a place where visitors can feel relaxed and comfortable. There is no dress code, and unlike most museums, it’s perfectly acceptable to grab a cocktail and explore the galleries.
When it comes to his culinary approach, Chef Jonathan doesn’t go in for a lot of gimmicks. “A lot of my cooking is fairly straightforward”, he explained. “Our menu is not large, but everything is made from scratch. I don’t want any of the dishes to be too big or overwhelming.” Bearded and decked out in thick-framed glasses, jeans, sneakers and a baseball cap, Jonathan’s style is as relaxed and approachable as his food.
When asked about his favorite dish on the menu, he mentioned the pasture raised local chicken without hesitation. “It’s a half bird from Marksbury Farm, simply roasted in a French Country style with a nice brine on it. I serve it alongside ‘dirty lentils’ which are prepared in a Creole gravy, garnished with withered greens and thinly sliced radishes. I’ve cooked and tasted so many different presentations in my life, and one of my favorite things in the world to eat is a simple roast chicken.”
This no-pretense approach is perhaps most evident in the thoughtful sharables section. Here, guests will find everything from local cheeses to warm olives with rosemary and citrus to roasted oysters with garlic chili butter. A crowd favorite has quickly emerged. Simply referred to as “In Jars”, Jonathan’s group-friendly creation is served on a butcher block and includes house-made saltine crackers, black pepper buttermilk biscuits, pickled vegetables, fresh Creole mustard and generous portions of house-made spreads served in miniature Mason jars: pimento cheese, sweet pepper jam with lemon cream cheese, and chicken liver mousse. Jonathan explains, “This is the no-pretense highlight of our sharables section. I created this dish for people like myself who like to taste a variety of things and who aren’t necessarily looking for an entire entree. It has vegetarian and non-vegetarian options and it gets people interacting.”
While this item will remain on the menu for the foreseeable future, the contents of the jars will likely vary over time. “We’ll always have the pimento cheese, because that’s basically a food group as far as I’m concerned, but the other two will probably rotate,” said Jonathan. “You might see a country ham salad or smoked catfish. We want to create something that everyone at the table can come together and share.”
Much of the meat and produce at Lockbox comes directly from Woodland Farm, which is owned by Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown. The Woodland Farm hog chop is served in a cast iron skillet, alongside charred broccoli, pecans and winter squash sweet potato mustard. “I’m kind of riffing off the classic ham, sorghum and mustard thing,” Jonathan said. “I love this area, I love everything about the Bluegrass. I’m proud to be an American cook and I’m not going to try to polish up the menu or make it more ‘city’ – I want to let the ingredients shine.”
All things considered, 21c Lexington is a wonderful asset to the city of Lexington, and the well-crafted dishes at Lockbox do a fantastic job of standing up to the wow factor that the property has become known for.
Dining room hours are Monday–Thursday from 5:30pm–10pm, Friday and Saturday from 5:30–11pm, and Sunday from 5:30–9pm. Breakfast is served Monday–Friday from 7–10am and from 7am–12pm on weekends. Lunch service will be coming soon. For reservations,
Q&A With Chef Jonathan Searle:
Where did you grow up? I grew up in small town in central Ohio, about a half hour out of Columbus.
How did your culinary career get started? Lexington is where I learned to cook professionally, and it’s great to be back. In the past I worked at Dudley’s, Bellini’s, and Bourbon n’ Toulouse; maintaining relationships with people in the local restaurant industry. In Louisville, I worked at Proof on Main, another 21c restaurant. From there, returning to Lexington for a position at Lockbox was a natural progression.
What are your all-time favorite ingredients to cook with? Honestly, it would be hard to pick just one, but I really enjoy cooking with late spring veggies like turnips, peas, asparagus, and first tomatoes. Baby vegetables are very versatile. I might not even have to cook them, but they can add a lot to a dish.
Your buttermilk biscuits are fantastic. Tell us about them. Thank you. We were shooting for something close to a Popeye’s biscuit because those are my personal favorites.
What food trends are you excited about right now? I really don’t have any strong opinions on food trends. I feel like [chefs] can get pulled into them pretty easily, but I’m trying not to do that. Although for the last few years, bourbon and Southern cooking has really taken off and there’s a lot of interest there. But that’s what I’ve always been interested in.
How do you see the food industry changing in the next few years? I feel like in the recent past, there was a lot of emphasis on “fancy” food, but it’s difficult to run a restaurant that way. I think thoughtful, well-placed ingredients, soul, and a sense of humor are starting to replace some of the smoke and mirrors we’ve seen in the past. There’s another side to simple food though—if anything’s wrong, then the whole dish can fall apart. Every element has to be spot-on.
What was the last meal you cooked for yourself at home? The last thing I made was a low country shrimp boil. I don’t like to wash dishes so I made a big one-pot meal with shrimp, sausage, sweet corn and potatoes.
Are you married? I have a lovely girlfriend who moved here with me. She is from Nashville originally. We have a little house in Chevy Chase.
What’s one thing people would be surprised to learn about you? I’ve heard that people who know me outside of work are surprised that I take such a serious approach to cooking. When I’m not working, I’m a pretty laid back person, but in the kitchen there is no room for BS.
What is your favorite cut of meat and preparation method? I really enjoy transforming budget cuts of meat into something beautiful. Cheeks, thighs, and cuts that need to have flavors and textures coaxed out of them. That’s fun stuff.
Is there a dish that will follow you everywhere you go? At Proof on Main, we’d have Sunday Suppers, which were basically shared plates with a variety of bites, smears, and things like that. I guess you can say that “In Jars” is my interpretation of that.
What Lockbox menu item is a customer favorite right now? The roasted oysters. We shuck them every day and make a really flavorful chili garlic butter and add a dash of chives. People love them.
What do you like to do when you’re not working? You can usually find me checking out vintage or antique stores and picking up things for the house, or shopping for old country records.