This past Saturday, while putting gas in my much-abused, 6 year-old RAV4 at a local Thortons station, I was shocked to see a brand-new Bentley roll up to the pumps. (At 12 miles to the gallon HIGHWAY, I guess I shouldn’t have been all that shocked.) As the owner was getting out of his rolling estate, a member of the great unwashed masses (yup, one of us) had rolled down his window and shouted the query, “Hey Buddy, how much did that car cost?” The owner’s shouted reply was a very smug, “$360,000.” The response from myself and my fellow 4 or 5 patrons was a quite audible collective “@#$%!!!!!!!” I mean, just the annual license plate fees alone for that long, black road yacht would have to be more than the value of my little SUV. I really don’t care if the car is hand-made, or how luxuriously posh its interior is, it is still just a car and as such, it should not cost more than most of the houses in this country.
Why do I choose to start a restaurant review with the story of a fleeting encounter with a superficial fool with far more money than brains. I guess I am trying to make a point about placing realistic value to the products and services one chooses to pay for in these increasingly difficult economic times. I am sure that the owner of the Bentley felt entitled to his purchase, and might be able to justify his ravishing of the environment by his glorified gas hog, I know I am safe in my contention that he did not receive fair value for his money. As part of my review process for restaurants, I make a pass/fail judgement as to whether Lynda and I received a good value for the food and service we enjoy on our visit to an establishment. A Bentley would be a grievous “Fail” if judged by our standards, but our dining choice Saturday night was a quite hearty “Pass” when vetted through our tests.
On Saturday, I was tasked with driving Lynda to Lexington for a meeting, and I was going to drive on out to Paris with my camera and take pictures out amongst the horse farms along Paris Pike. Unfortunately, the drought is far worse there than around Louisville and the increasingly desiccated landscape was not very photogenic and the dust in the air was affecting the light detrimentally, so my little excursion was a bust. I went back to Lexington after a couple of hours driving around and waited for Lynda’s meeting to finish and listened to my audiobook on my iPhone. When they emerged from their meeting about 5:30, Lynda and two of her meeting-mates were hungry — as was I — and the lady who lived locally suggested a local tradition a few blocks away, not far from Rupp Arena.
Joe Bologna’s has been around since 1973 according to the sign on the door and since 1989, has been located at the corner of Maxwell and Lawrence Streets in a converted Presbyterian church/Jewish synagogue. It is an impressive Victorian Gothic structure, dominated on its Maxwell Street façade with a huge 18-foot high stained-glass window that the restaurant now uses as its logo. As a matter of fact, according to Bologna’s web site, they were the first restaurant in Lexington with 41 stained-glass windows; a fact which I am sure there is no need to dispute. A great many details from the days of its use as a church and synagogue remain; the Eastern Kentucky pine floors and the beaded board poplar on the ceiling and some of the walls being the most visible examples. It somehow seems a little strange to me to see a bar in the old pulpit area, but there it is. But more than the building that houses Bologna’s, their reputation and their loyal following through the years has been the high quality pizzas that they serve and to a lesser extent, their breadsticks.
The place has a woefully inadequate parking lot in the back and minimal street parking around the neighborhood, and of course, with the UK-Alabama football game going on, the place was packed and very loud. It never ceases to amaze me, at just how much louder UK fans are than IU or Louisville fans. Our quoted 20 minute wait for a table became a 45 minute wait before we were seated. The aisles between the rows of booths were very narrow, which makes maneuvering to your table a challenge and I was glad I had lost a few pounds before coming here. These little annoyances aside, our server, Crystal was the model of both patience and efficiency.
Lynda had been craving fried mushrooms ($4.95 for huge platter with horseradish and marinara dipping sauces), so she got an order of those. One of her friends ordered some Buffalo Wings ($5.50 with Bleu Cheese dressing) and I got a bread stick with marinara sauce ($1.75) just to try one out. Those bread sticks are huge and they all come with a bit of a tail on one end and it took me a bit to figure out why — I tend to be a little slow when I am hungry. They bring out the sticks FRESH from the oven, so they are incredibly hot and since they are so large, they retain that heat for some time, making a bit difficult to pick them up, until you realize that the tail is cooler, providing you with a convenient handle. The marinara sauce is not bad, but the bread stick is a rather dry affair served that way, the regular bread stick ($1.75) swims is a nice garlic butter sauce and is much nicer. Oh, a word about what things are served in; all dishes are served in no-frills, stamped metal boats, bowls, plates and pans as can be seen in the photo of my salad.
Lynda and I both ordered House Salads ($3.75, although our salads may have been cheaper since we ordered them with pizzas) and she ordered an 8-inch Broccoli & Garlic pizza ($8.50) on thin crust. It had broccoli and garlic that had been sautéed in olive oil and baked on a white sauce and covered in Mozzarella cheese. I just ordered an 8-inch pepperoni and green olive pizza ($6.50) on thin crust. Her friends ordered a Spinach Salad ($6.75) for her that was a heaping bowl of fresh Spinach, topped with mushrooms, egg slices, red onion, bacon crumbles and a hot bacon dressing and he got an 8-inch Mexican Pizza ($6.75) that had seasoned ground beef, Cheddar cheese, Jalapeño and green peppers, onions, black olives and tomatoes, served on a thin crust, with a cup of sour cream on the side.
Lynda and I thought our salads and pizzas were excellent; fresh, nicely flavored and very satisfying in the size of the portions. They were not stingy with either the pepperonis or the olives on mine and the crust was nice and chewy, with a slightly caramelized after-taste that I like in a thin crust pizza.
So, great food, excellent service and as our check only came to $35 after a 20% tip, it most definitely passed our value test. My dining advice is that if you can get by the noise — or better yet avoid eating there during UK games — would be to “eat at Joe’s!!”
9 out of 10 stars.120 West Maxwell Street