For those familiar with the cozy confines of downtown Somerset, the transformation is startling.
Walking into the Charred Oak Whiskey Grill on East Mt. Vernon Street — the modern decor, the outdoor dining patio, the expansive bar and tributes to the Bluegrass state’s trademark spirit — you’d barely remember you’re in what was a smallish grocery store just a couple of years earlier, and in a “dry” Kentucky town not long before that. It’s more the stuff of Lexington or Louisville’s downtown assortment of nightspots.
Yet it was born right here in Pulaski County, from people who have been tempting local taste buds for years at Burnside’s Guthrie’s Grill.
Billy and Angelique Guthrie — the brains behind one of the area’s highest-caliber restaurants for years — have now expanded north to downtown Somerset, bringing with them an even more ambitious menu and a concept for a full recreational experience on the town.
“Why not?” said Angelique Guthrie of the decision to open a new restaurant in town, a dream born last year. “It’s something that was needed, something that brings food to the northern end of town, to the downtown space.”
Certainly, it was a space that needed to be filled. After the old Food Fair closed in November of 2018, the threat of a big empty building blighting the cityscape for years was an unattractive proposition, especially as the Alan Keck administration was working to build up downtown with more festivals and foot traffic. Keck’s brother, Michael, and business partner Brandon Sweet bought the facility at the intersection of East Mt. Vernon and College Streets and set about the task of looking for new tenants last year, specifically hoping for something that would spruce up the downtown area a bit — like a new restaurant.
That goal came to fruition, first by landing the Be You Boutique to settle in next door to the Charred Oak Whiskey Grill. Angelique noted that she had conversations with the mayor about placing their new restaurant concept downtown, and she and Billy were excited to be part of the downtown revitalization efforts. She said they had been wanting to do something additional on the northern end of Pulaski or on the outskirts for the last couple of years, and when the downtown option came up, Angelique and Billy were able to visualize the potential of the space.
“It was the perfect location,” said Angelique. “... Through a lot of work and a lot of dedication ... we just kind of altered this, changed this, and created a beautiful space.”
The idea for the restaurant, however, was born in a glass. Or alternately, with a simple word.
“Bourbon,” said Angelique. “Love for bourbon. Cooking with bourbon. Accenting things with bourbon. ... Bourbon is a great ingredient to cook with. it adds a lot of flavor naturally.”
Indeed, even the deep, dark brown-ish tones of the restaurant’s interior suggest the luxury of the Kentucky beverage, and the bar is well-stocked with a variety of bourbon options. The theme fits right in with Somerset’s push to be a highlight on the state’s bourbon map, thanks to the arrival of Horse Soldier Bourbon and their soon-to-be-built distillery.
The restaurant is no carbon copy of Guthrie’s Grill, which remains in Burnside along U.S. 27. The menu is unique, as is the atmosphere — Guthrie’s is known for its stunning view of Lake Cumberland in the tourist-heavy part of Pulaski, and has “something for anybody,” noted Angelique. Guthrie’s is aimed at an adult crowd — there isn’t even a children’s menu available, she said.
“Guthrie’s is a completely different environment, a completely different feel,” said Angelique. “(Charred Oak Grill) is more a bourbon-themed restaurant. ... It’s a little bit more modern.”
Consider: Appetizers like Tennessee whiskey mussels, pork-stuffed avocados, and thinly-slice ahi tuna (along with a Guthrie’s favorite, the chicken nachos). A bounty of burgers and sandwiches — Steakhouse bourbon. Smoked gouda maple bacon. A Monte Cristo. Bourbon shrimp tacos. A sweet potato veggie option. And then gorgeously-plated entrees like filet mignon and ribeye steaks, red snapper, short ribs, and scallops. Surf, turf, and all able to be paired with your favorite glass of spirits.
Billy Guthrie brings the culinary spark, as a creative chef with 15 years’ experience working in major metropolitan areas before coming to this area from Denver in 2006. The Guthries had family in the area and started a restaurant in Russell County first before taking over the old Lakeview Restaurant and opening Guthrie’s River House (and later re-opening as Guthrie’s Grill).
“We got away from the corporate world,” said Angelique in a previous interview with the Commonwealth Journal back in 2018. “This is a great place to raise a family.”
The menu is “100 percent Billy,” as Angelique put it.
“That’s just his creativity coming through,” she said. “(He’s) utilizing a lot of different bourbons and different recipes. ... His love for food (drives the restaurant concept).
“His culinary expertise is pretty astounding,” she added of her husband. “He’s worked from downtown Manhattan to Alaska to Texas to North Carolina to Palm Springs, Calif. — a variety of different places. So he’s very, very skilled in everything culinary.”
Billy’s ability to pass on his knowledge to the cooks at Guthrie’s and Charred Oak Grill makes it a great employment opportunity as well. “It’s not just a job, it’s also learning a skill as well,” said Angelique.
The restaurant also offers a night of fun to go with the meal — a room with vintage video games, a pool table, and even a vintage-looking shuffleboard venue. Angelique is also proud of the numerous specially-crafted art pieces around the restaurant — industrial-style figured by Joe Piotrowski, an ode to Kentucky’s horse racing heritage on the wall, and more.
“You can come and enjoy dinner with your family and friends and enjoy video games, and make it more of an evening,” said Angelique.
The Charred Oak Whiskey Grill opened just last week. Even with restrictions on restaurants and indoor dining due to COVID-19 concerns, the outdoor patio — and large doors that open the whole of the restaurant to the outside — made it possible to serve customers during a challenging time for restaurants.
Guthrie’s has also served a lot of Lake Cumberland tourists and when the Somernites Cruise season starts again, downtown visitors will have another dining option when they come to see classic cars. Angelique loves what tourism brings to both the county and the business itself, but also knows that the restaurant’s bread is buttered by those right here at home.
“We have an extreme appreciation and a great gratitude for our locals,” said Angelique. “The locals are the ones (for whom) I’m excited to bring another option, because they’re two different restaurants, they’re two different menus.
“This is more in a residential area downtown. It’s a great downtown feel,” she added “Now you don’t have to go all down to Guthrie’s, which is down in Burnside, and drive to that location. You can have that feel here.”