At near capacity, Cajun-Creole restaurant and music bar on Kentucky River is rolling on despite COVID

By Matt Wickstrom, Kentucky.com
Photos by Silas Walker

Proud Mary BBQ, Bar Exam, Silas Walker
Customers enjoy food and drinks at the outdoor seating of Proud Mary BBQ in Lexington. The bar traditionally stays open as long as weather permits, then closes until spring. But it’s available for catering and as a venue year-round. Silas Walker | LEXINGTON HERALD-LEADER

Working in the restaurant business has been so much a part of Tommy Walters’ life that you could say it’s in his DNA.

After growing up in Louisiana and helping his father behind the counter of their family’s restaurant, Walters brought himself and the family recipes he’d learned to Kentucky, opening Furlong’s, a Cajun and Creole inspired joint that hopped from several different locations in Lexington between 1991 and 2015.

Now he’s passed the tradition down to his daughters Emilee Walters Sierp and Haylee Walters, who are his partners in Proud Mary BBQ, a restaurant, bar and live music venue combining the best tastes from Kentucky, Louisiana and beyond that is nestled along the Kentucky River at Clay’s Ferry.

Launched in April 2015, Proud Mary took over the spot formerly home to Riptide On The River, a restaurant that Walters actually helped launch with Justin Seay in 2007.

Following the launch Walters turned his focus back to Furlong’s but the two kept in touch. When Seay reached out in early 2015 about his intentions to sell, Walters bought the place.

Now Emilee owns the property and Haylee is the bar manager, but Tommy is still the curator of Proud Mary’s menu, which features a heavy dose of old Cajun-infused family recipes taken from his childhood like jambalaya and crawfish étouffée along with grilled and barbecue staples like ribs, brisket, pulled pork and burgers; seafood and barbecue combination platters, savory southern sides and more.

While many items on the Proud Mary menu come from Walters’ family recipes, other standouts are delicacies he’s crafted on his own drawing on influences from back home.

The Mother, a pulled pork po’ boy with lettuce, tomato, pickles, remoulade sauce and smothered in brisket gravy, and Mother Fries, cheese fries covered in the same brisket gravy, for example, were inspired by a roast beef po’ boy Walters recalls getting from the world famous Mother’s Restaurant in New Orleans.

“I’ve tried to take everything that I’ve learned about Kentucky cuisine and combine it with my Louisiana roots in order to bring out the best of both worlds,” said Tommy Walters.

Going along with Proud Mary’s surf ‘n turf menu are a tropical mix of cocktails led by the restaurant’s signature margaritas, which Sierp says the business sells thousands of every weekend, the most popular being “Mary’s Margarita,” which features El Jimador tequila, triple sec, sweet ‘n sour, soda water, jalapeno, lime and a secret Proud Mary seasoning from deep down in the bayou.

Other specialty drinks include a berry margarita with blueberry puree, a Kentucky peach tea with Woodford Reserve Bourbon, peach schnapps and unsweetened tea, and a bloody Mary that also features the aforementioned secret seasoning.

In addition to cocktails the restaurant also features Pabst Blue Ribbon, Bud Light, Budweiser and a rotating selection from West Sixth and Country Boy Brewing, currently West Sixth IPA and Shotgun Wedding, on tap accompanying canned beers that they try to keep the selection of “as local as possible” according to Sierp.

However, despite the menu full of exotic cocktails, Cajun creations and barbecue brilliance, what truly sets Proud Mary apart is its picturesque backdrop.

Nestled under the I-75 bridge overlooking the Kentucky River along the Fayette-Madison County border, the Proud Mary complex features a two-floor, 12,500-square-feet indoor building with a second-floor patio overlooking a vast, sand-covered outdoor space along the banks of the Kentucky River with enough seating capacity to safely host over 600 people in a socially distanced format.

The space out back also features dock access for boats, a riverfront bar with a seating capacity of 300, four TVs, and an elevated stage for live music.

Proud Mary host live music without a cover charge Wednesday through Sunday, all five nights that the restaurant is open per week.

The vast space at their disposal puts Proud Mary at a unique advantage over many other Central Kentucky restaurants and bars, particularly those closer to city limits who are struggling to operate at a reduced, socially distanced capacity while also keeping the checkbook balanced during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Sierp, the restaurant has been operating at near capacity the last several weekends.

However, due to the outdoor focus, Proud Mary’s operates as a seasonal business, opening a week or two prior to Mardi Gras every year and closing in the winter at Mother Nature’s choosing.

During their “off season” Proud Mary continues serving customers through private event hosting and catering, which includes an annual Thanksgiving turkey fry that last year saw the business convert its 70-pound boiler into a fryer and smoker for over 200 turkeys.

“We’ve been incredibly blessed,” said Sierp. “With the amount of people we’re able to seat outside and socially distanced it’s made it much easier for us to adapt and survive during the pandemic and restrictions from the governor that have been put in place as a result.”

View the original story with photography from Silas Walker at Kentucky.com.

Proud Mary BBQ

Where: 9079 Old Richmond Rd

Hours: Open 3 p.m. to midnight Wednesday through Friday, noon to midnight Saturday and Sunday; closed Monday-Tuesday

Online: ProudMaryBBQ.com

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