Lexington is a city with a deep-rooted dining culture. A common conversation around water coolers and over text messages usually begins with, “Have you tried that new place _______ yet? I just heard about it.” And when word does get out about an imminent restaurant opening, the collective metaphoric breath-holding is almost palpable. Such was the feeling with Lockbox, the restaurant located inside the just-as-anticipated 21C Hotel on Main St. downtown. It’s bold, it’s artsy, it’s cool; it’s a lot of things that many Lexington restaurants aren’t, and a lot of things that I feel the people of Lexington were wanting. Sure, we all need our place to go grab a beer and some wings and watch a UK game, but we are also a fairly urbane community, whose level of culinary sophistication is growing – albeit slowly. So my significant other (Mr. 5th Food Group) and I dropped by to give Lockbox a turn and see what it and chef Johnathan Searle were bringing to the ever-changing Lexington restaurant scene.
We had a table just after the busy hour on a Thursday recently, and the crowd was rolling right along. Whether you are in downtown Lexington for work or if you are a resident, each has their favorite after-work spot to relax and discuss the doings of the day. I could tell immediately that many were there for the same reason as we were; to discover if this could become a new favorite spot. In the interest of full disclosure, I will say that Mr. 5th Food Group and I are not typically dress-up-and-go-out kind of people; we’re a little more along the lines of what I described above. We have about three or four favorite spots that we frequent, and we cook at home a lot as well. So this was a nice opportunity to both try out a new place that had been getting a lot of buzz, and break out of our culinary mold a little. But enough about us; the atmosphere inside this place is exactly what I expected – that’s a compliment, by the way. It’s artistic, with lots of clean lines and beautifully-placed lighting, with plenty of white surfaces to show off all that artwork that 21C Hotels are known for. And the variety of art was pleasing; everything from traditional paintings to light installations were on display. They did an excellent job of reining in all the other design elements in order to feature the art.
For those who may be interested – because we all have our preferences – there is no full-booth seating in the dining room. There is banquette seating available along one wall, with the rest being standard tables. It is white-tablecloth only in the literal sense; I noticed guests there in all manner of dress, from “dressy with jeans” to cocktail-party-appropriate. Being a long-time member of the restaurant industry, I noted (and appreciated) that the wait staff did not have a standard-issue uniform, presumably a nod to personal creative expression. It certainly made them less obtrusive, resulting in a more relaxed dining experience for me personally. The music was audible but not too loud, and I didn’t notice until almost the end of the evening that it wasn’t too cold – a personal issue I have with far too many establishments in Lexington.
I had been looking forward to this since first seeing the menu on their website, and already had a pretty good idea of what I would be trying. But first, a note on the service: our server was polite, well-informed and patient, and in the vernacular, “on her game.” In fact, when we return we will likely be requesting her. She also had plenty of help, something else I was pleased to note; team work is crucial to a successfully functioning restaurant, and our needs were seen to by many throughout the meal. We started with the Roasted Oysters ($14), served on the classic bed or coarse sea salt with fresh lemon (and yes, you could tell it was fresh.) Each oyster was meaty and sweet, resting happily in a pool of garlic butter with a not-too-overwhelming amount of chili. They tasted exactly as a good oyster should; like the sea. Our entrees were paced nicely, and we neither had to wait too long nor were we bombarded by courses. My mister ordered the Cast Iron Hog Chop ($27), which he proclaimed perfectly cooked. It was served on a bed of white beans with pecans and broccoli that, although named “roasted” on the menu, was a little closer to charred. It certainly wasn’t a detriment; the broccoli itself was delicious, although the beans could have used a little extra “something”, yet I couldn’t quite put my finger on what exactly. I went for the Squid Ink Macaroni ($23) and received a gorgeous bed of black pasta in a spicy tomato broth – although I didn’t consider it so – Castelventano olives, and lovely hand-torn croutons similar to what you would find in a good panzanella salad and topped with shrimp. It was delicious, and perfectly portioned; I always appreciate not having that too-full feeling after eating. We also shared a side of the Louismill Smoked Grits ($6), topped with a Creole butter and a healthy helping of chives. For all you fans of smoked foods out there, this is your go-to; the grits were very tasty and had just the right texture, but they were smoky, a little too much for my taste.
Then there was dessert. The menu (much like the dinner one) is clean and succinct, not cluttered with a lot of superfluous lettering or decoration. There were four or five nice selections, plus a coffee and after-dinner drink list, and we settled on the Butterscotch Pudding with fresh whipped cream and a toffee crumble topping ($7). Now stay with me on this; it didn’t taste like butterscotch pudding. It really didn’t. Here’s what it tasted like: the dreamiest, most heavenly hazelnut latte you could ever imagine, accompanied by fresh, warm caramel popcorn. I’m serious. Mr. 5th Food Group agreed. It was unbelievable. If you go, get it. The portion is small, but it packs. A. Punch.
A few other points about the meal: everything was plated and presented beautifully. Not pretentious or overly austere, just clean and classic and what you would expect for the price. With our meal, dessert, drinks and tip, we had a very nice evening for about $130. There are still items that I am interested in trying on my next visit as well; the NY Steak ($29) is promising. The Cornmeal Gnocchi ($14 or $24) could also be a potential favorite, because, you know…it’s gnocchi. And I would also be interested in the Chickpea Panisse ($21), as I do sometimes have a yen for a vegetarian meal. As far as any negatives in our experience, the one that I will note is that unless you’re fine with paying for valet (which some people don’t mind), you’re pretty much on your own for parking. There is however, plentiful street parking around the hotel and garages within comfortable walking distance. “Townies” will write this off as the natural order of things in downtown Lexington; suburbanites – like myself – are a little spoiled with acres of free parking lots in our own neighborhoods.
Overall, I definitely recommend giving Lockbox a try, especially if you want something special for a birthday, anniversary or other celebration coming up. Private dining is available in a separate room known as “The Vault”, so named for its previous incarnation when the 21C Hotel was the First National Bank building. I hope you enjoyed this little review. Again, this is simply my opinion, and if you’ve been and had a different experience, please let me know in the comments below.