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Behold the Lucky's version of buttermilk-fried chicken.
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Lucky's eclectic offerings have built a loyal following.
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Shana and Brandon
Shana Baily and Brandon Blevins enjoy the Lucky fare and flair.
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Brittany Jones prepares a cocktail at Lucky.
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Lucky on Kirk Ave.
Lucky is part of the liveliness of Kirk Avenue.
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Behold the Lucky's version of buttermilk-fried chicken.
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Lucky owners J.P. Powell and Hunter Johnson have built a menu based on "French/American Country Food."
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Lucky co-owner Hunter Johnson prepares a cocktail at Lucky's well stocked bar.
How did I not know about this place?
“Did you guys just open?” I asked the one of the bartenders.
“No,” she replied, looking at me the way a schoolteacher would look at a simple child. “We’ve been here for over two years, now.”
They’re smack in the middle of Downtown Roanoke, about a block from any number of restaurants I’ve been to before. They’re right next to one of the best music venues in town. They put tables out front and people sit at them and conspicuously eat food. They’ve won bartending awards from the magazine that I write for. And I write about restaurants in the town where it lives!
How did I not know about Lucky on Kirk Avenue? Once I started asking around, a lot of my friends in the restaurant biz had enthusiastic things to say, and so I resolved to do two things: Pay them a visit and pay more attention. Arriving on a late-summer night that had just enough chill in the air to hint that the seasons would soon change, I walked past a trio of people at an outside table enjoying the evening and a couple of after-dinner drinks.
It was after dark, but not quite late enough for me to be able to get a table without waiting around for awhile. So I sat at the bar.
I’m going to resist the temptation to write a bunch of puns about the name of the place. But I will say that my biggest stroke of good fortune on my first visit was winding up seated at the bar, because co-owner Hunter Johnson was stationed behind it, and I can only say that this is his native habitat. I felt like Jane Goodall watching a chimp muddle fruit and measure booze. Home-made maraschino cherries, at least three different kinds of bitters, flaming bursts of lemon zest…and a beautiful can of Billy Beer on the back-bar shelf. I had been hoping to enjoy a selection from Lucky’s eclectic list of beers from around the world, but I couldn’t resist asking for a fruity cocktail. I went with an Old Fashioned.
Now it’s not like he’s the kind of bartender who jumps up and dances on the bar while wearing a pair of Daisy Dukes and flipping bottles around. I’ve always felt that tricks like that are little more than a great way to find yourself cleaning broken glass and gin out of the ice bin on a busy Saturday night. But Johnson’s type of fancy bartending is much more satisfying. I normally consider an Old Fashioned to be a bit sweet and fruity for my tastes, but I can’t deny that this was a fantastic drink. Smoky, not too sweet, with a rich and full mouthfeel.
Please don’t think, though, that the drinks eclipsed the food. Lucky bills itself online as “French/American Comfort Food.” And their menu lives up to this ethic. From the Chicken Pot Pie to the Late Summer Ratatouille, there are a lot of satisfying foods on display, and there’s nothing there that won’t make you feel better after a rotten day.
I started off with a Blueberry & Bacon Salad. If you’re put off by the notion of pairing bacon with fruit, you’ve obviously forgotten the First Rule of Bacon: “Bacon is like a pair of green Chuck Taylors: it goes with everything.” And this salad proved the rule true. The sweet and tangy taste of the blueberry vinaigrette was a sharp and delightful counterpoint to the smoky heartiness of the bacon and crumbled blue cheese. And the fact that you could choose a small or large version was a nice touch, given the other hospitable offerings on the menu. Like the Duck Rillettes, a delicious combination of smoky, shredded duck, peach preserves, and crispy baguette rounds.
As we moved on to the main course, my wife opted for the Buttermilk Fried Chicken, a crispy and mild recipe that was delicious, but almost overpowered by the stronger flavors of the braised kale with bacon and rich mashed potatoes. I decided to have the Lamb Ragout, a hearty stew of lamb, mushrooms from Afton Mountain, juniper, and delicious duck-fat-fried herb spätzle. This dish was an amazing blend of flavors that was light and crisp, and at the same time really substantial and filling. After a few moments of gob-smacked chewing, I looked at my wife and said, “If I could make this, I’d never leave the house.”
She lifted one eyebrow and said, “Let’s hope you don’t find the recipe.”
When it was time to let my tasty ducky Virginian-German wonder go and think about dessert, I spent an alarmingly long time staring at the Foie Gras Crème Brulee on the menu. Though a delegation of staffers assured me that it was amazing, I just couldn’t pull the trigger. Bacon and blueberries I can handle, but somehow custard and fatty liver was a bridge too far for me. My wife enjoyed her Granny Smith Apple Tart with Apricot Glaze and I was more than satisfied with Bourbon Bread Pudding. Because nothing says comfort like bourbon and bread. Seriously.
Oh, and it turns out I’m not the only one who’s impressed with the bar at Lucky. Roanoke residents Wayne and Stephanie DeHart found Lucky long before I did, and it’s one of his favorite local spots. Wayne calls Johnson a “meticulous” bartender, echoing the very word that had entered my head about that Old Fashioned I’d had. I asked him what else drew him to Lucky, and he told me, “Well, the craft beer selection is topnotch.” Just when I was beginning to wonder if this guy was on a liquid diet, he paused and said, “Lucky is a step out of Roanoke. One of the few restaurants around that has a true city feel.”
And maybe that’s the best way to sum Lucky up. It’s comforting and homey, but still evokes the essence of a broader region of our country. It strikes a compelling balance between wearing your robe and slippers and getting dressed up for an Inner Harbor roof party.
And I’m glad I finally stumbled across it. So, Roanokers, what else am I missing?
Lucky, 18 Kirk Avenue in Downtown Roanoke