By Matt Wickstrom and Saraya Brewer, Smiley Pete
LEXINGTON, Ky. — With many local businesses eager to reopen after months of pandemic-related shutdowns, some area bars have reconfigured their business models to meet Governor Andy Beshear’s “Healthy at Work” criteria for phased re-openings. Since businesses serving food were allowed to open to in-person service at a limited capacity in May, adding food offerings has been one common way for establishments that typically only serve drinks to open their doors weeks earlier than Beshear’s prescribed opening date for bars (June 29).
But when the Distillery District music venue and bar The Burl reopened its doors on June 10 with a new food concept in place, it wasn’t following a hastily thrown-together plan to skirt around red tape. Rather, the restaurant is a part of the business’s long-planned “third phase” evolution. Food service was originally slated to launch in April, but was postponed due to the pandemic.
Aptly named The Burl Food, the casual dining concept is housed in the building that also houses The Burl Arcade, a vintage arcade and bar that opened in June 2018, two years after the opening of The Burl’s music venue and original concept. For at least the next three years, The Burl Food space will be leased to Tonya Mays-Cronin and husband Philip Cronin, who operate a culinary pop-up business together called Kismet.
The Cronins have notable culinary experience. Tonya is the pastry chef at Great Bagel, and has also worked at Dudley’s on Short and Middle Fork Kitchen Bar. She also took part in The Women Chefs Initiative, a competitive and intensive six-month program that provides training under some of the most renowned female chefs in the country. Philip is currently the chef de cuisine at Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse, and has prior experience working alongside James Beard-nominated chef Edward Lee in his Louisville restaurant Milkwood and Washington, D.C.-based Succotash. The couple met at Sullivan University’s culinary program, and have hosted pop-up events under the Kismet umbrella over the past several years.
According to Philip, the Kismet / Burl Food menu will introduce patrons to a bevy of international flavors, from Korea to Indonesia, in a non-intimidating, approachable manner, with menu items ranging in price from $4 to $11. More adventurous menu items include the Dan Dan Noodles, featuring a serving of noodles covered in a spicy, chili-based sauce atop a mix of either Kentucky Proud ground pork or tofu, with toasted peanuts and greens; and steam buns with crispy chicken, served traditional or spicy with gochujang honey and a creamy kewpie mayonnaise. Other items include the Basic B, a traditional two-patty mess of a sandwich with locally sourced ground beef enhanced by a gochujang chili pastesauce. Dessert options include a sweet potato donut topped with vanilla bean ice cream, berries and caramel.
Originally planned as carryout only, the concept has since been altered to allow for in-person dining, The Burl co-owner Cannon Armstrong said, with a fenced-off outdoor dining area established in the parking lot between the arcade and music venue. With Astroturf and neon signage, the aesthetic of the new seating area holds true to the pre-established vibe of The Burl complex: kitschy but comfortable. Picnic tables around the venue’s fire pit, located across the parking lot, provide additional seating and, if needed, overflow indoor seating could eventually be set up inside The Burl’s music venue and arcade, which both feature multiple retractable doors to allow for open air flow.
The eatery is set up to allow patrons to place carryout orders from a new window or from the arcade bar; carryout or delivery orders can also be placed online, with deliveries to be managed by regular Burl bar staff and other employees who have largely been out of work throughout the pandemic.
Though the COVID-related shutdowns have been tough on the business, Armstrong says he is grateful that the concept is opening now, rather than just prior to the pandemic.
“While the shutdown has brought along its own set of concerns, the extra time provided has allowed us to refine our processes and to observe the developments with COVID-19,” he said, “to ensure that, when the time comes to open, we do so efficiently and safely.”
Armstrong said that the venue’s staple of live music would be returning later this summer, though it will look decidedly different than what patrons are used to for the foreseeable future. Armstrong and the venue’s other owners have been in communication with Gov. Beshear’s office about safely holding socially distanced, outdoor concerts this summer. Bands will be set up either on a rented stage or on the venue’s long outdoor patio, with attendees spaced at safe distances in the parking lot, he said, adding that the venue has many planned shows for the fall that have not yet been announced. Venue owners are also working to reschedule dates for shows that were previously slated for spring and postponed due to COVID-19. The Burl Arcade, painstakingly rearranged to allow for proper socially distancing, also reopened on June 10 in conjunction with the new culinary concept.
“After shuttering our doors for over two months, we’re thrilled to open back up, even if it is at a reduced capacity,” said Armstrong. “While it’ll be a bit longer until we’ve got music back again, we’re excited to welcome Philip and Tonya with Kismet as our headliners until we get back to full strength.”
“At first we were a little distraught about not being able to open when we had initially planned due to the pandemic, but we are very blessed to have dodged it,” Philip Cronin added. “We couldn’t have imagined opening and then being forced to close almost immediately. We probably wouldn’t have survived it.”
This story was originally published online by Smiley Pete and in the July print issue of the Chevy Chaser Magazine. View the original story online here.