Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, also known as Shakertown, may be my No. 1 favorite spot for a quick getaway road trip with a quiet, calm and peaceful rest at the destination. And, by no means least, good things to eat.
Shaker Village is a beautiful, peaceful place where you can stay overnight in the original 19th century buildings and dine very well indeed in the Trustees’ House building that has been offering rest and restoration to weary travelers since the early 1800s. I’ve been visiting Shakertown since I was a teen-ager and think of it as a very special place, but to be honest, I haven’t thought of it as a first-rate foodie destination in recent years, as it had dropped off to decent but uninspiring country fare with a Shaker touch.
Recently, though, Shaker Village has forged a new connection with the natural and locavore dining movement. It pledges to use “Seed to Table” vegetables from the village garden, vegetables from local farmers, and Kentucky Proud meats and produce.
I could eat that! And indeed, dinner and a buffet breakfast on a recent visit were delicious, flavorful and freshly made. I wandered out one dewy morning and found one of the chefs lugging a big box of just-picked heirloom tomatoes in from the garden. (I also observed a SYSCO truck unloading staples, including — I was later told — the admittedly delicious breakfast sausage. But let’s give them credit for trying.)
Atmosphere remains a strong point at Shaker Village. What’s the downside to dining in the perfect simplicity of Shaker style? Whether you choose the red-brick sun porch with its tall French doors overlooking the gardens and farm, or one of the more traditional Shaker dining rooms, you’re surrounded by the friendly ghosts of Shakers past as soon as you sit down.
The menu, familiar to generations of visitors, has changed little over the years, and features a half-dozen entrees, some reflecting old Shaker traditions, others Kentucky country style. They range in price from a Shaker country tart for $15.95 to roast beef prime rib or a fried-chicken-and-country-ham combo for $22.95. There’s a short list of soups, appetizers and salads, mostly around $5; hot breads and three veggies are passed by servers, who promise to come back with more upon request. (A lunch menu is similar, with sandwiches, an omelet and a dinner salad. Prices top out at $11.95.)
Perhaps the most significant change in the history of Shaker Village dining came a few years ago when Mercer County voters, in their wisdom, flocked to the polls and declared the county “wet.” Yes, Shakertown has a wine list now, and beer and liquor, too! I grabbed a glass of Castle Rock pinot noir ($7.50) and offered a toast to the county’s thirsty voters.
I couldn’t find much to complain about as far as food and service go. Yeast rolls and tiny cornbread fingers were warm and fresh, and a wooden bowl of crudites (including perfect tiny heirloom tomatoes from the garden) kept us healthy and happy while we waited for our orders. The iconic tomato-celery soup ($2.95) was garden fresh and buttery; a beef veggie soup of the day ($2.95) featured a first-rate beef stock that bespoke a skilled chef in the kitchen.
Shaker fried chicken ($18.95) was simple: lightly dredged in flour, salt and pepper and fried grease-free. The thigh was juicy, the breast a bit dry. The server said it came from a local farm. The veggie tart ($15.95) was quiche-like and rich, the custard studded with diced tomato, summer squash and sliced onions in a fine short crust. The veggie garnishes were simple, too: mandoline-sliced yellow squash, barely cooked, unadorned. A chunk of soft, long-cooked sweet potato with a dab of sweet marshmallow. A simple brown-rice pilaf. We were served dainty portions but were welcome to ask for more.
Another iconic dish, Shaker lemon pie ($4.95), was very lemony indeed, as potent as a lemon drop; kudos again to the pastry chef for one fine crust. Coconut cake ($4.95) was moist and dense, delicious.
Dinner came to a reasonable $66 for two, plus a $15 tip. A straightforward buffet breakfast ($9.95) featured all the usual suspects, all of them well executed — a filling repast for a Shaker facing a hard day on the farm. For a writer facing a hard day at the keyboard, it might have been a little much, but who’s complaining?
Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill
3501 Lexington Road (Ky. Hwy. 68)