walkLEX: Lexington's Oldest Restaurant Still Serves Great Food, History

Columbia's Steakhouse - Lexington, Kentucky
Columbia Steak House (Downtown) on Urbanspoon
On a Friday evening, Lexington police raided a popular Lexington restaurant, arrested twenty-one people and charged the restaurant's owner with running a disorderly house. Things were no less "disorderly" two months later. Armed with reports of Sunday alcohol sales (in violation of state blue laws) and the sale of distilled spirits despite having only a beer license, the state alcoholic beverage control board yanked the beer license of Columbia's Steakhouse. It was the spring of 1952 and Frank and Ray Columbia's restaurant was in trouble. Opened in 1948, the steakhouse was already a Lexington institution.

The steakhouse was set up as a 'front' for the true operation: a gaming hall in the back room which was frequented by local officials and police. Today, that back room is referred to as "the Mafia Room." Yes, the lore behind Lexington's Columbia's Steakhouse is deep. Walking into its North Limestone location, one can easily imagine the many rooms being filled with smoke and deals being struck. Not a lot has changed since Columbia's first opened sixty-four years ago. There is no pretense. Just an old-school steakhouse.

Manager Flo Cowley
There are a few things that typify a traditional steakhouse and Columbia's meets all of them. Delicious food. Check. A familiar staff that has been there for years. Check. In fact, for twenty-six years Flo Cowley has managed the North Limestone location of Columbia's Steakhouse. @managerflo is an avid twitterer who offers a big smile to all who enter her restaurant. But in true old-school form, she knows her regulars by name. And she knows the legends and the lore of this Lexington institution like the back of her hand.

The same could be said for Columbia's former maitre d': James "Smitty" Smith. He was the subject of many news articles as his "smile that helped make the restaurant one of the most popular in town." Smitty was, like Columbia's itself, a "Lexington legend." In 1993, Smity received the Smiley Pete award which is given to someone who "makes people feel good about being downtown."

The Nighthawk Special
The ubiquitous menu item is the Nighthawk Special. The dish is named after a 1960s era radio personality on local station WVLK, Tom Kindall, who was a night owl (er, nighthawk). The Nighthawk DJ'd rock and roll from midnight until dawn. His namesake is always on the menu, but for a short period of time every year the price drops. The eight ounce beef tenderloin is marinated and served in garlic butter. My wife prefers their delicious steak fries and I their enormous baked potato as a side of choice with each of us making full use of the accompanying garlic butter. Each of us agree on the second side dish: the Diego salad - chopped lettuce with diced tomato and sliced radishes, all tossed with a nice shake of a special seasoning mix, ranch dressing on the side. My God it is good! I've loved the Nighthawk Special since I enjoyed my first some twenty years ago.

You have to go back many years to remember when Columbia's Steakhouse was not the occupant at 201 North Limestone. One customer, however, remembered growing up in the back room when it was an apartment and the front of the building was a grocery store. The building, built ca. 1870, typifies post-Civil War mixed-use (commercial-residential) design. And it remains mixed-use with apartments on the upper floor.

If you haven't been to Columbia's, go. If you haven't been in awhile, go back. For more pictures, check out flickr.

Sources: Columbia's Steakhouselocal.lexpublib.org@managerfloNRHP

This post previously suggested that James "Smitty Smith" was deceased. The error wasn't noticed for over 18 months, but it has been corrected. An obituary for Smitty's brother shows him alive and well as of June 2014.

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