If only for Chicken Flakes Elsinore — creamed chicken in a crisp-fried potato nest — I would love the Boone Tavern dining room. It is not a dish for those who seek taste-buds titillation: just the opposite. It is tender comfort, hearkening back to a dining style that was all about gentility. Call it ladies lunch, tea room cuisine, hotel dining: a meal here provides gracious relaxation.
The waitstaff, who are students at Berea College, do their best to deliver meals with polish and old-fashioned charm. Because they’re students, enthusiasm tempers formality and makes the experience really fun.
But back to that creamed chicken. Did I mention that the potato nest is perched upon a pallet of fine mashed potatoes? Alongside come al dente green beans that are anything but dowdy and a spill of tart cranberry orange relish. It’s a plate that is at once old-fashioned and up to date.
All meals begin with a serving of a most traditional rural southern dish, spoonbread. Something like a cross between cornbread and a corn souffle, it is taken from its serving dish with a spoon but eaten with a fork. (The town of Berea hosts an annual Spoonbread Festival)
Non-traditional and totally modern is an appetizer of grilled peaches and heirloom tomatoes with ricotta cheese, a drizzle of honeyed balsamic reduction with fresh leaves of basil and mint.
A few up-to date twists on classic dishes: panko-breaded deep-fried deviled eggs; fried green tomatoes stacked with pimento cheese, shaved country ham, and alfalfa sprouts; pickle-brined buttermilk fried chicken; venison meat loaf with blackberry ketchup. The tavern’s take on a Kentucky mint julep looks archetypal in its silver cup and fresh mint on top, but behold, it also includes muddled blackberries.
Bourbon also is a significant player on the dessert menu, in bourbon bread pudding with bourbon sauce and in bourbon cheesecake. Spiced blackberry jam cake, which contains no gluten, could use some bourbon, or at least some kind of lubricant. It’s dry — a situation ameliorated by having it served a la mode.
Boone Tavern is a welcoming place, but not the least bit sloppy. The dress code is “tastefully casual”; and while it’s no longer a requirement, many gentlemen who come for dinner voluntarily wear jackets and ties. Napkins are cloth. Soft lighting is provided by sparkling chandeliers.