I recently had a meeting in Louisville with a prospective dealer. I ended up spending the night in Louisville and had a number of options for food, but didn't exactly know where I wanted to go. My sister and brother-in-law had lived in Louisville for a number of years and my bro-in-law suggested a place they loved to go to called the Chick Inn for what he described as the best fried chicken in the world (my sister, however, said it wasn't as good as it was before they'd had a fire there a few years ago). The decision became moot, however, when I found out the Chick Inn had closed over a year ago. Another place that I'd heard about and wanted to give it a try was Lynn's Paradise Cafe. My sister, who now lives in Phoenix, told me, "Oh, you'll like Lynn's. It has good food and its sort of kitschy."
I don't quite remember where I first heard about Lynn's Paradise Cafe. All I know is that I had it bookmarked on my computer as a "Restaurant to Visit" in my travels. It could be that I saw it on an episode of Throwdown with Bobby Flay on the Food Network, or it could have been a Man Vs. Food segment on Lynn's on The Travel Channel where Adam Richman tried to eat their Quadruple "B" French Toast that features black walnuts with a blackberry glaze and a bourbon meringue. Lynn's has also been featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show (I probably didn't see that segment) and also on the Today Show (I possibly may have seen that). The restaurant has also been featured in articles in USA Today, the New York Times, Bon Appetit, Travel and Leisure, and Southern Living - all of which I will read from time to time. In any event, I knew I wanted to get to Lynn's at some point. And even though it was a 30 minute drive from hotel, I decided to make the trek to The Highlands neighborhood of Louisville, home of many very good restaurants and shops in the area (see map).
Lynn's Paradise Cafe began in the early 90's when Lynn Winter opened the doors of the restaurant. Lynn's original vocation was as a woodworker who custom built cabinets, bookshelves and armoires in Northern California and in Kentucky. When business got slow for her, she began to wait on tables in a restaurant. She loved the interaction with the customers, the fast pace and the different types of food. In 1991, she got rid of her woodworking tools and opened Lynn's Paradise Cafe.
From the start, Lynn Winter set out to have a fun place for visit, not only for the great comfort food with a twist, but also for the visual aura her restaurant strives to achieve. Lynn's Paradise Cafe is known for their breakfasts, served anytime during the day, as well as their Sunday brunch's where lines stretch out the door waiting for a table. But one thing that I was looking for was Lynn's version of the Louisville staple - the Hot Brown.
The Hot Brown is sort of tough to describe without pictures and actually eating it. It's an open faced turkey sandwich served on sourdough bread, then topped with bacon, tomatoes and a mornay sauce and cheese, then broiled in an oven. The origins of the Hot Brown go all the way back to 1926 when one of the chefs at the then new Brown Hotel, Fred K. Schmidt, came up with the concoction of food as a late night alternative to ham and egg dinners. Styled after Welsh rarebit, the Hot Brown quickly became the No. 1 item on the menu at the hotel's cafe with over 90% of the orders for the open-faced sandwich. One of the reasons was at that time, turkey was considered only for special occassions - such as holidays or anniversaries - and people loved the fact that they could get a hot turkey sandwich at any time at the Brown Hotel.
The Brown Hotel had its ups and downs for a number of years, finally closing in 1971. (They reopened in 1986 as a Hilton property, but the Brown is now owned by the upscale 1859 Historic Hotels corporation and is a 4-star boutique hotel.) However, by that time, Hot Brown's had become the signature dish at a number of Louisville restaurants. Like Kansas City and barbecue, or Chicago and deep dish pizza, the Hot Brown is synonomous with Louisville in terms of culinary delights.
I got into Lynn's Paradise Cafe around 7:30 p.m. that particular evening. The building is back from the street a bit and there's a parking lot out front. Actually, it's rather tough to miss as along the sidewalk by the street is a large coffee pot that doubles as a water fall pouring water into a cup. That pretty much tells you what kind of place it is before you even go in.
There's an outdoor seating area just beside the main entrance to Lynn's Paradise Cafe (above right). It features a long row bench in an aquamarine color with brightly colored floral vinyl tablecloths and red metal chairs. It was a nice night, but no one was sitting outside.
As you enter, you find yourself in the "World of Swirl" gift shop, a throwback type of place that offers a lot of kitschy items and toys from the 50's. More on this place a little later on.
I was worried that the place would be somewhat small and popular enough that I may have trouble getting a seat right away. After entering the restaurant, I was surprised that it was even bigger than it looked in pictures I saw in the past. There was a host just outside the main dining room in the kitschy gift shop (more on that later), and he took me to a booth along the wall and dropped off a menu.
The dining room at Lynn's is, well, interesting. The room, itself, is a slight A-frame with a high wooden ceiling supported by steel beams. Kitschy lights are hanging from the ceiling, as well as light ropes wrapped around support poles in the center of the room. It looks like some sort of a 1950's designer's experiment gone terribly wrong. But it's also tastefully humorous.
Speaking of kitschy lights, each of the booths sport a hideous looking lamp on the table. It turns out that Lynn Winter has been sponsoring and judging an "Ugly Lamp" contest at the Kentucky State Fair each year since 1999. She had been asked previous to the beginning of the Ugly Lamp contest to judge Poultry Dressing (whatever that is) and she decided that wasn't an exciting thing to judge. She came up with the concept for the Ugly Lamp contest and put the judging into two categories - Born Ugly, for the lamps that were manufactured that way; and Made Ugly, by people who took a lamp and purposely made it ugly.
Many of the winners are on display on the table tops of the booths, including the one in the picture above right which was sitting on my booth table. Yes, that's really a lamp with the shade covered in tacky men's ties. And quite honestly, we may have a couple lamps sitting in our basement back home that we could enter in the contest .
My waiter for the evening came over and asked me if I wanted something to drink. I had read somewhere that Lynn's bloody mary was one of the finest you'd have anywhere - so good that they called it the "World Famous Bloody Mary". It had better be - they were charging $9.75 for it. I usually don't have a bloody mary after noon, but these sounded pretty good from it's description - a homemade mix made from scratch, vodka (Absolute Peppar for a more spicy bloody mary), then on a skewer they put cherry peppers, pepperocinis, green olives and black olives and dip it in the glass. I found out that they also had Bell's Pale Ale on hand at Lynn's. So for a starter, I ordered an Absolute Peppar bloody mary with a Bell's Pale Ale chaser. I don't know where I got on the kick of having a beer chaser with a bloody mary, but it's sort of a staple now when I get one.
The drinks were brought out and the Bell's Pale Ale came with a frosted boot glass. It was kind of a fun little touch to go along with the beer.
The bloody mary, I'm sorry to say, was over-hyped. It was actually pretty dull in taste and sort of watery, even with the Absolute Peppar. I just didn't think it was all that it was cracked up to be, considering what I'd read about it. I like my bloody mary's with a little more of a thick consistency and have some zip to the taste. I didn't find either in the bloody mary at Lynn's Paradise Cafe.
Figuring that I was going to order a Hot Brown at Lynn's, I was thrown a curve ball by all the other things on the menu they had to offer. The jambalaya pasta jumped off the menu when I saw it - it had grilled chicken, andouille sausage and sautéed shrimp mixed with fresh thyme, peppers, onions, tomatoes, celery, Cajun seasonings and a cream sauce. Yow! That sounded great. Almost on the other end of the scale in terms of description was Lynn's meat loaf - called Mom's Meatloaf - that was made from grass-fed Kentucky beef and topped with a spicy marinara sauce.
My wife would have liked the place as they featured fried green tomatoes as an appetizer. Green tomato slices, hand-breaded and fried, served with a spicy remoulade sauce. And another thing that I really wanted to try was the Kentucky Reuben Quesadilla. They take corned beef, Swiss cheese and fried cabbage and place it all between two tortillas. They serve the quesadilla with a side of a homemade bourbon, cayenne Thousand Island dressing. I just about came unglued when I saw that.
And, as I said earlier, you could get breakfast at any time at Lynn's Paradise Cafe. They had omelets, French toast, stone-ground cornmeal pancakes, biscuits and gravy - it was a Southerner's breakfast paradise.
But I decided to go with what I came for - the Hot Brown. I ordered that up from my waiter. When he brought it, I knew right off the bat that I wouldn't be able to eat the whole thing. First of all, the bowl it was in was huge. Two slices of hickory smoked bacon crossed the top and chunks of chopped tomatoes were sprinkled over the caramelized cheese topping. My arteries were hardening as I looked at this thing.
And the taste - oh man! First of all, the bacon was excellent - and who doesn't like bacon. Then digging into the Hot Brown, there was a pile of sliced turkey breast laying just underneath the cheese. I found the sourdough bread under that and the combination of the bread, turkey, cheese and the mornay sauce (it's actually more like an alfredo sauce, only using pecorino romano cheese instead of guyere and parmesan cheese) was like money in the bank for my taste buds. I kept telling myself that there was no way I could eat all this, but I found that I kept going and going and going until I very ashamedly stopped with nearly the whole bowl empty. I wanted to cry because A) I was so guilty that I nearly ate the whole damn thing, and B) it tasted SO great! I knew I couldn't eat for three days after this.
After paying for the meal (sort of expensive at $43+ with tip, but the bloody mary and 2 Bell's Pale Ales added up for most of the bill), I spent some time back out in the World of Swirl gift shop just looking around and the fun and weird items they had to offer. In addition to the wacky hats they on for sale, there was just about anything and everything imaginable as far as retro toys, games, and doo-dads. And I'm sure they do sell a lot of things out of the gift shop. It was actually sort of fun to go through and see what they had.
Lynn's Paradise Cafe is not only a place to go for the good food, but for the visual stimulation, as well. It's a fun place, the atmosphere is laid-back and the service I received was very good. I'm not certain I'd order another bloody mary if I went back. To me, it certainly wasn't worth the price. But for my first experience for a Hot Brown, I'm afraid to get one any place else in Louisville because I'm sure it won't be as good as the one at Lynn's Paradise Cafe.
(Update - I was saddened to hear that Lynn Winter shut down Lynn's Paradise Cafe in early 2013. It wasn't initially known why she closed down, but it was revealed a few months later that she was suffering from shingles and had to close down.)