Early in my career, I worked as an auditor of local government officials all over the Commonwealth. I would spend a week in the courthouse going over the tax collection records of the county Sheriff or combing through bail bond monies at the Circuit Court Clerk's office.
I understand that most people would find this an incredibly boring and tedious job. Sometimes, it was just that. Other times, though, those weeks served as my opportunity to explore a new part of Kentucky. I worked from Pikeville to Paducah, Whitley City to Covington and lots of places in between. I didn’t quite make it to all 120 counties, but I saw more than my fair share!
This was the era just before counties started getting monstrous new buildings called Justice Centers – financed by the Administrative Office of the Courts and designed to bring the judicial system in Kentucky into the high-tech modern world. At the time, working in a broom closet or in a back office whose exposed brick walls had crumbling mortar enough to see the outside world, I would never have admitted to feeling lucky. I was, though, I got to work in the old-style courthouses. The buildings were lined with historical markers, and it was cool for a history buff like me to imagine the events that had transpired in each building.
One (of many) unfulfilled ideas I’ve had was to create a cookbook featuring pictures of the old Kentucky courthouses and recipes from the local, hometown restaurants found near the courthouse square. Ok, so I know the idea of crumble old buildings might not get you going, but the little restaurants should! Some of these places are amazing! My coworkers and I tried to always opt for local eateries over national chains.
There was Dooley’s Purple Cow Restaurant
in Beattyville, Kentucky. We patronized that establishment for two reasons: 1) it had been featured in Southern Living, and 2) it was pretty much the only game in town besides the IGA deli counter.
Shelby County had more than your average number of city-center restaurants, but McKinley's Bread Shop and Deli
was my very favorite. This little gem has decor that's pleasing to customers of all ages, but I think the kids really loved the model train that circles the room every so often. Adults are probably too busy noshing on the flavorful sandwiches, salads and soups. Hands down, my favorite was the bacon ranch potato salad. In fact, I made my mom and sister go try it so we could recreate it for my wedding reception.
While I haven't visited many of these places in recent years, I still find myself craving a trip to Oldham County and the quaint downtown of LaGrange. Complete with a railroad running through the central business district, fantastic antiques and curiosities shops, LaGrange also boasts one of my all-time favorite restaurants: The Red Pepper Deli
. I remember the food as fresh, flavorful and going beyond the typical cold-cut sandwiches fare. My colleagues and I kept meaning to try the other restaurants within walking distance of the courthouse, but we found ourselves at The Red Pepper every single day. It was not monotonous at all!
From the Hickman County Courthouse
, where the Clerk showed us filming locations for the Tommy Lee Jones film U.S. Marshals
, to the Bell County Courthouse
, nestled in Pineville among the mountains, there are some amazing small towns, old buildings, and awesome eateries in this state. I was afforded the opportunity to see and spend some time in these towns, and I encourage you to explore them, too. Not all the Kentucky gems are found in Louisville or Lexington. Some of the best hometown hospitality and charm just might be off the beaten path in the local courthouse square.
Do you have a favorite courthouse or cafe? Share it with us in the comments!