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I love the weekend. No alarm clock, no deadlines and no surly teenagers lamenting the ungodly hour their compulsory education forces them to get up. But most of all, I love my weekly trip into town to partake of nature’s bounty. A Saturday morning spent perusing the booths of the Lexington Farmers Market is a delight to the senses. The earthy scent of fruits and vegetables fresh from the ground. Tables loaded with breads wrapped in cellophane awaiting their inevitable pairing with homemade jams and flavored honeys. Spicy sausages and hand-cut steaks sold from the refrigerator trucks of local farmers. Area wineries offer tastings of their current vintage, and the beer cheese folks pull in passersby with samples of their creamy, savory concoctions. The weekly gathering at Cheapside is indeed a festival of the senses and a much-loved respite from a busy week. But it is another gathering at this spot that often wanders into my mind as I enjoy my Saturday ritual, and the sights and sounds of that gathering are far less of a delight.
History is my life. Okay, I did manage to squeeze in a husband, three kids and a career or two, but you get the gist. If it happened in the past, I want to know about it, and the history of Cheapside is no exception. Although it functions as a food and entertainment hub today, Cheapside is so much more. What happened there was an episode that challenges each of us to remember those who came before and honor the legacy—no matter how difficult—they left behind. The venue’s evolution from slave market to farmers market is nothing short of incredible, and taking a moment to consider this adds meaning to every visit.
Cheapside, named for the eponymous area of London known during the Middle Ages for grand festivals and markets, became a marketplace by the end of the 18th century and occupied a section of the public square near the courthouse. The buying and selling there became known as Court Day and continued until 1921. In the decades preceding the Civil War, the Lexington slave trade grew steadily and gave the area its unfortunate notoriety.
“Lexington was one of the biggest slave markets in the South,” said Eastern Kentucky University history professor Thomas Appleton, “with roughly 80,000 slaves sold out of Kentucky during the antebellum period.” This figure is astonishing when one considers both the city’s distance from a major river and the types of crops grown in the Commonwealth. “In the early days of settlement, slaves were put to use,” Appleton added. “But slavery was not suited to our agriculture. We had hemp, which was not as labor intensive, and there was a lot of slave ‘hiring,’ where slaves were rented out by the year.”
This unlikely blending of two ill-suited endeavors is reflective of what I refer to as the Kentucky paradox: a Southern culture with Northern sensibilities. While Ohio or Pennsylvania may have exhibited a no-nonsense abolitionist demeanor, and South Carolina and Georgia a socioeconomic slave-driven one, Kentucky did a little of both. “There was always anti-slavery feeling,” Appleton said, “especially in churches. But the longer it was around, the harder it was to get rid of.” It was the faith communities, in fact, that often stepped in to save someone facing the auction block.
In Slavery Times in Kentucky, J. Winston Coleman Jr. relates an incident in which a black minister, George DuPuy, from the Pleasant Green Baptist Church, was to be auctioned at Cheapside. His congregation pleaded with white Baptist minister William Pratt to purchase DuPuy and accept repayment from them in weekly installments. After some negotiating between the deacons of the black and white churches, a price was agreed upon. When it became apparent that DuPuy would likely fetch a higher figure, the white deacons argued at length with the auctioneer to hold at the original price. Despite a rogue bidder’s attempt to raise the stakes, DuPuy was purchased by Pratt for $30 more than the original sum. Each Monday, members of DuPuy’s congregation would arrive at Pratt’s home with the previous Sunday’s collection as payment on their debt.
Though slave trading continued in Lexington until 1864, the public’s growing distaste for the institution was evident much earlier. As one would expect, the concept of slavery stood in stark contrast to the reality of slavery, and often it took a strong dose of the latter to expose the disgust and shame—albeit coupled with inexcusable complacency—that many felt. In Slavery Times in Kentucky, Coleman writes of a young woman named Eliza who was sold at Cheapside in 1843. Because she was the daughter of her master, white in appearance, educated and “reared as a family servant in an atmosphere of refinement,” her sale generated quite a bit of interest among the high society crowd. He describes the scene: “Here, around the old rickety auction block, were gathered the wealth and culture of the Bluegrass, ladies and gentlemen in fashionable attire from Cincinnati, Louisville, Frankfort and even as far south as New Orleans,” all anxious to see the sale of this young lady. The price quickly reached $1,200, and the bidders soon were reduced to two: a Frenchman from New Orleans and a young Methodist minister named Calvin Fairbank. When the Frenchman asked Fairbank how high he was going, he replied, “Higher than you, monsieur.”
After a few slow and deliberate bids, the auctioneer became frustrated and began pulling at Eliza’s clothing, exposing her to the audience and extolling her virtues as a potential mistress. Coleman writes, “Through the crowd swept a suppressed cry of disgust and contempt, of anger and grief; women blushed and men hung their heads in shame.” The auctioneer continued his degradation as the crowd began to fade away. Finally, at $1,485 the gavel fell, and Fairbank was awarded Eliza. Coleman relates the surprising conclusion of this episode and highlights another example of Kentucky’s dueling sensibilities. “ ‘You’ve got her damned cheap, sir,’ said the auctioneer cheerfully to Fairbank. ‘What are you going to do with her?’ ‘Free her,’ exclaimed Fairbank, as a loud cheer rose from the crowd, led by Robert Wickliffe, the largest slaveholder of the Bluegrass. Eliza and her new owner were driven in Wickliffe’s carriage to the home of a friend where her ‘free papers’ were made out.”
As I walk through the Fifth Third Bank pavilion at Cheapside and consider which vegetables to buy or what wine should go with my dinner, I remember the people who walked this ground a mere 150 years ago and reflect on the incredible transformation that has taken place. Where an outdoor jail once stood so buyers could “view” their potential purchases now stands a row of tables filled with fresh food hawked by friendly vendors. Parents push strollers and swing giggling children up on their shoulders in a spot where families once were torn apart, and desperate free men bid for their own wives so that they, too, could be free. And where the sound of an auctioneer once bellowed, people now sip cocktails and sway to the tunes of a local band. Enjoying Cheapside is easy. But appreciating all it is and all it was is so much more.
Cheapside Bar & Grill
Occupying the ca. 1885 Loughridge Building at 131 Cheapside, Cheapside Bar & Grill has been a Lexington favorite for 30 years. With bi-level outdoor dining, sidewalk bar seating along Short Street and a Victorian-style first floor bar, Cheapside offers a variety of dishes. The style there is casual, the music is live, and sports fans can delight in watching the big game on any one of the many televisions strategically placed throughout.
The lunch menu brims with tasty items like Cowboy Chili, Cheapside chicken salad and pork carnitas, and is available Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner, served Monday-Saturday, 5-11 p.m., can begin with a crisp salad, a cup of black bean soup or an appetizer such as mini crab cakes, Seared Steak Skewers or Shrimp Diablo. Entrées include sandwiches such as the popular Cuban and Backyard Burger, and extra crispy thin-crust pizzas that run from traditional to smoked barbecue chicken to nacho to veggie. For those looking to spice things up, Cheapside offers, according to its website, “Mod-Mex recipes, perfected down to every last savory spice. Street tacos, salsas, smoked duck, citrus roasted pork, braised short ribs, shrimp and mole rojo.” If late morning/early afternoon is your favorite mealtime, head there for Saturday brunch, offered 11 a.m.-3 p.m., and enjoy fun fare like Cowboy Eggs or Un “Holey” Donuts.
Whether you come for great food, terrific entertainment, good company or wicked specials like Martini Mondays, Tequila Tuesdays or Half-Price Pint Wednesdays, Cheapside Bar & Grill remains a Lexington place to be.
Ask anyone in Lexington where you can get a New York-style slice and they will direct you to Goodfellas Pizzeria. With two downtown-area locations—one at Two Keys Tavern on South Limestone Street and one on Mill Street—this hometown operation brings the best of floppy, foldable NYC pizza to the heart of the Bluegrass. The 110 North Mill Street shop was part of the James Dunn house, ca. 1830, and is steps from Cheapside Park and a host of bars and nightclubs. The old-world feel of the property adds to the ambience and reflects the eclectic vibe of the area. “The Cheapside entertainment district consists of many small businesses whose synergy makes the area truly special,” said co-owner Alex Coates.
Of course, Goodfellas has outstanding pizza. The specialty pies include diverse options such as The Immigrant, a fresh pie made with tomatoes, spinach, onions and ricotta, and The Goodfella, a meaty combo of pepperoni, Italian sausage, ground beef and bacon. You can create your own with the pizzeria’s extensive list of toppings, homemade sauce, whole milk cheese and handmade dough baked on an authentic pizza stone. Order it by the slice, or feed the crowd with a 12-, 16- or whopping 22-inch pie. Prefer a sub or calzone? Goodfellas has this covered with gooey cheese, meat and veggie calzones, and crazy-good sub sandwiches like the Robert De Niro, with spicy sausage, or the Al Pacino, which is loaded with marinara sauce and mama-quality meatballs. Salads and desserts round out the menu, with an iconic cannoli serving as the perfect Italian end to a perfect Italian meal.
Whether feeding a family, enjoying a pie at one of the sidewalk tables, or satisfying your late-night munchies with a beer and a slice, Goodfellas is a good choice. “Hand tossing gigantic pizzas for our customers to see and serving large crowds of people into the late night hours is our specialty,” said Coates. “Goodfellas is a true New York-style pizza-by-the-slice pizzeria that prides itself on quality. We are a small business focused on community and family, and love being a part of a vibrant downtown.”
Directly across the street from the Fifth Third Bank pavilion at Cheapside is Parlay Social. The gorgeous architecture of this establishment reflects the rich history of the block and the retro aesthetic Parlay represents. Housed in the former Northern Bank Building, ca. 1889, this self-described “Prohibition Era throwback to the Speak Easies of old” operates as a restaurant, pub and live entertainment hotspot.
Voted one of the best bourbon bars in the nation by The Bourbon Review, Parlay Social exudes a relaxed but elegant atmosphere that allows guests to eat, drink and be merry in a comfortable setting. The vibe is cozy and sophisticated, with a part Sardi’s, part local joint feel. Art Deco touches can be seen throughout as patrons enjoy window tables, bar seating and up-close access to the evening’s musical talent. When the weather allows, umbrella-topped sidewalk tables are available.
The menu is upscale pub, with appetizers ranging from Bootleg Nachos and Beer Cheese to Shrimp Cocktail and Hummus. Creamy Lobster Bisque tops the soup category, while crisp salads round out the lighter fare. Parlay shines with its sandwich selection that includes the Gatsby (turkey, bacon, cheddar and red pepper mayonnaise on a grilled hoagie), the Lafayette French Dip and a dizzying assortment of gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches. The Hemingway, with its aged Swiss, bacon, sundried tomato pesto and baby spinach, is to die for.
In a pizza mood? The thin-crust options range from traditional meat and cheese to the Voodoo, with a zingy Cajun-spiced white sauce, and the Wild Turkey, slathered in bourbon barbecue sauce. For those craving a bit more sophistication, oysters on the half shell are offered by the dozen or half-dozen, and gourmet meat and cheese boards are available with two, three, four or five selections. If you have room for dessert, dive into one of Parlay’s creamy cheesecakes or Woodford Reserve Bourbon Mousse Bombs, followed by a long nap.
The Village Idiot
Hailed as Lexington’s first gastropub, The Village Idiot at 307 West Short Street offers patrons a fun and fresh atmosphere and a menu that never ceases to surprise and delight. Serving locally sourced food, wine, craft beers and delicious house recipe cocktails, this venue is a go-to spot for those who like a pub atmosphere with just the right amount of class mixed in. A hop, skip and jump from downtown attractions such as the Lexington Opera House and Rupp Arena, the restaurant occupies Lexington’s oldest surviving post office building, and the charm of this history is apparent throughout. Flower boxes decorate second-story windows, chalkboard menus abound, and warm wood, exposed brick and industrial metals create a modern yet classic ambience. For those who crave the charm of al fresco dining, sidewalk tables are available during the warm-weather months.
Folks intent on appetizers can choose from favorites such as lamb sliders, a perfectly velvety-crunchy Scotch Egg or the house fries—pomme frites—served with a choice of four savory dipping sauces. Feeling more adventurous or want to share? The Merguez Sausage Dip, made with house-made Merguez sausage, is a delight, and the Brussels sprouts prepared with pecans, Maytag blue cheese and an apple cider vinaigrette are outstanding. If salads and sandwiches are your thing, The Village Idiot does not disappoint. A traditional wedge or more complex Bacon and Curried Cashew Salad are options, and while the burgers are divine, the Asian-inspired Catfish Banh Mi or Korean Fried Chicken Sandwich make for more adventurous choices. Entrées run the gamut from Black Angus Strip Steak to Shrimp and Grits to Chickpea Curry, with a different special offered daily. A full brunch menu is available Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.