From the “Sound Horn for Service” sign on the oversized outdoor menu to the cleaver-wielding fiberglass pig beckoning from the doorway, Smiley’s on Winston Road is the quintessential Lexington barbecue restaurant.
Despite the clear instructions for curb service, my significant other and I chose to go inside and sit in the main dining room when we visited the well-known establishment for the very first time last week – we’re both native Lexingtonians but, as Cindia said in her post on Lexington Style Trimmings, everyone has their Q joint of choice and Lexington Barbecue is ours.
With two televisions tuned to Jeopardy in the main dining room and a larger secondary room in the back (presumably to accommodate the early-morning oldtimers’ and Sunday afternoon crowds), Smiley’s immediately seemed welcoming, laid-back and friendly. The peach-colored walls felt a little dated, but with the addition of a few folksy framed prints, the place managed a mild sophistication without straying too far from its down-home roots.
On a Thursday evening I wasn’t expecting the dining room to be crowded, but I was surprised to see only two other parties, who seemed to know each other, finishing their meals when we walked in. By the time we were getting up to pay, however, two other families had come in and, since the owner seemed to know everyone who walked in the door, the place had begun to feel comfortably occupied.
We were told to find our own seats and had to grab our own menus out of a holder on the wall. A quick glance at the restaurant’s offerings told us this was going to be a Lexington barbecue experience we could navigate easily. All the pit-cooked staples were there – chopped, sliced and coarse chopped sandwiches with tray, plate and basket options for those looking for a side or two (there were several to choose from, including hush puppies, rolls, baked beans, potato salad, fried okra and fried squash).
Justin ordered the weekly special – a chopped tray and drink for $5.99 – and I ordered a cheeseburger basket with hushpuppies substituted for fries (my go-to meal at Lexington Barbecue – for comparison purposes, of course).
The hushpuppies I got with my meal were served at the perfect temperature and I would venture to say they might have Lexington Barbecue’s beat, but certainly not the deliciously sweet, onion-filled ones you can get at Lexington Style Trimmings. My cheeseburger was passable – slightly overcooked but greasy and tasty enough to be fully satisfying.
Justin’s barbecue came out juicy and faintly sweet with two “rolls” (Lexington-speak for hamburger buns) and slaw. Usually a wonderful complement to pit-cooked meat, the slaw at Smiley’s left something to be desired. It was bland and needed a little something extra that my under-formed culinary vocabulary won’t allow me to put my finger on.
Though the meat was juicy enough, we ordered a side of dip – you can never have too much dip. It was thicker than most and spicy. It stood well on its own, but when added to the barbecue it felt overpowering.
I know our focus is the food, but I feel a review of a Lexington-style eatery would not be complete without mention of the tea. And I’m afraid Smiley’s just doesn’t have it. A “fake sweet” aftertaste make me think they’re using an instant mix, but it’s hard to be sure and I know there are folks out there who will vehemently disagree.
All in all, Smiley’s offers good food for a good deal but it’s not good enough to convert a diehard fan of Lexington’s finest.